How to Ignore Your Emotions (while also thinking you're awesome at emotions)
(this was originally published on Lesswrong, there's a decent discussion in the comments)
Since middle school I've generally thought that I'm pretty good at dealing with my emotions, and a handful of close friends and family have made similar comments. Now I can see that though I was particularly good at never flipping out, I was decidedly not good "healthy emotional processing". I'll explain later what I think "healthy emotional processing" is, right now I'm using quotes to indicate "the thing that's good to do with emotions". Here it goes...
When I was a kid I adopted a strong, "Fix it or stop complaining about it" mentality. This applied to stress and worry as well. "Either address the problem you're worried about or quit worrying about it!" Also being a kid, I had a limited capacity to actually fix anything, and as such I was often exercising the "stop worrying about it" option.
Another thing about me, I was a massive book worm and loved to collect "obvious mistakes" that heroes and villains would make. My theory was, "Know all the traps, and then just don't fall for them". That plus the sort of books I read meant that I "knew" it was a big no-no to ignore or repress your emotions. Luckily, since I knew you shouldn't repress your emotions, I "just didn't" and have lived happily ever after
It can be really hard to teach someone to move in a way that is completely new to them. I teach parkour, and sometimes I want to say,
Me: "Do the shock absorbing thing with your legs!" Student: "What's the shock absorbing thing?" Me: "... uh, you know... the thing were your legs... absorb shock?"
It's hard to know how to give cues that will lead to someone making the right mental/muscle connection. Learning new motor movements is somewhat of a process of flailing around in the dark, until some feedback mechanism tells you you did it right (a coach, it's visually obvious, the jump doesn't hurt anymore, etc). Wiggling your ears is a nice concrete version of a) movement most people's bodies are capable of and b) one that most people feel like is impossible.
Claim: learning mental and emotional skills has a similar "flailing around in the dark" aspect. There are the mental and emotional controls you've practiced, and those just feel like moving your arm. Natural, effortless, atomic. But there are other moves, which you are totally capable of which seem impossible because you don't know how your "control panel" connects to that output. This feels like trying to wiggle your ears.
Why "ignore" and "deal with" looked the same
So young me is upset that the grub master for our camping trip forgot half the food on the menu, and all we have for breakfast is milk. I couldn't "fix it" given that we were in the woods, so my next option was "stop feeling upset about it." So I reached around in the dark of my mind, and Oops, the "healthily process feelings" lever is right next to the "stop listening to my emotions" lever.
The end result? "Wow, I decided to stop feeling upset, and then I stopped feeling upset. I'm so fucking good at emotional regulation!!!!!"
My model now is that I substituted "is there a monologue of upsetness in my conscious mental loop?" for "am I feeling upset?". So from my perspective, it just felt like I was very in control of my feelings. Whenever I wanted to stop feeling something, I could. When I thought of ignoring/repressing emotions, I imagined trying to cover up something that was there, maybe with a story. Or I thought if you poked around ignored emotions there would be a response of anger or annoyance. I at least expected that if I was ignoring my emotions, that if I got very calm and then asked myself, "Is there anything that you're feeling?" I would get an answer.
Again, the assumption was, "If it's in my mind, I should be able to notice if I look." This ignored what was actually happening, which was that I was cutting the phone lines so my emotions couldn't talk to me in the first place. Actually, the phone lines metaphor is a bit off, here's a better one.
My self-concept and conscious mind are the parent. Emotions are young children that run up to the parent to tell them something. Sometimes the child runs up to complain, "Heeeeeeeeeey I'm huuuuuuungry!" My emotional management was akin to the parenting style of slapping the child and saying, "Being hungry would suck, so you aren't hungry."
I know full well that you can't slap someone into having a full stomach, but you can slap someone into not bringing their complaints to you.
I've experienced this directly extend to my internal world. My emotions / sub-agents aren't stupid. They learned that telling me, "Hey, you're concerned about your relationship with your friend!", "Hey, we really don't like getting laughed at", "Hey, we're concerned that this bad thing is going to happen indefinitely" would result in getting slapped. So they learned to stay quiet.
This got to the point where I'd feel awesome and great during my busy week, and then "mysteriously" and "for no reason" feel an amorphous blob of gray badness on the weekends. I had various social and emotional needs that weren't being met, but I didn't realize that. I quite intensely tried to introspect to see if this gray blob was "about anything", but only heard quiet static. This was me being the angry parent with their kids having a dinner of half a slice of bread each, shouting, "Is anyone hungry?! Huh??! No? GREAT."
... and now?
When I was a kid, my desire to "not worry if it was useless" was mostly one of "people who worry seem to be in pain, I'd prefer to not be in pain." Overtime, it turned into a judgmental world view. How wasteful and useless to be embarrassed/worried/scared/etc. This was the transition from a naive parent telling their kid, "Hmmmm, have you tried not being hungry?" to the angry parent shouting, "You won't be hungry in my house!!" (one might wonder how exactly that transition from naive to judgmental happened. That's a whole other story for a different post)
Over the past year I've haphazardly free styled towards opening up emotional communication with myself, and I've made progress. I'm still not sure what "healthy emotional processing" looks like, but I've gotten HUGE gains from just being able to sit with the fact that I'm feeling something, and hug the child that brought that emotion instead of slapping them.
I guess the biggest thing I wanted to impart with this piece was 1. the parent child model, but also 2. that ignoring your emotions can start as a simple innocent mistake.
Related. A sentiment in a LW thread I heard in the past few months was that the biggest barrier to rational discourse is creating environments where everyone feels safe thinking (not the same thing as a safe space). Extend that to the mind. The biggest barrier to rational thinking is organizing your mind such that it's safe to think. I still promote and admire "look towards the truth, even if it hurts", but I know see that if you don't spend enough resources on addressing that hurt, the hurt parts of yourself can and will take measures to protect themselves. Treat yourself well.