Emotion Constipation and Freedom to Feel

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I am amazed again and again by how many things we have discovered and then lost in our culture. It is true not only about the inventions we have forgotten or postponed, like some of Da Vinci’s thoughts on how to fly or the fact that our suitcases could have been rolled instead of carried at least 40 years earlier.

Some of the truths about what makes us happy or unhappy have been discovered and lost in different cultures and eras, only for them to be rediscovered and repeated as new.

This time I want to talk about the smaller rediscovery of Alan Watt. It is not a discovery as dramatic as some — he is a Western man that wrote just a few decades ago, mostly about Eastern cultures and what can West learn from them. And yet it is amazing that his attempt to explain, rediscover, and make helpful some of the most useful, wonderful parts of East and West has not taken off in the way it should have.

In his book, Meaning on Happiness, the author spends half of one chapter about the acute issue with emotions in Western culture and understanding of ‘masculinity’, firmly pointing to Stoics as the source, of what he calls ‘emotional constipation’. While the author talks about men first, those rules are relevant for all society, since the expectation sets in the culture permeate not just our offices, but our politics, our relationships, and even how we feel about ourselves.

For the full record, I include his full quote here:

Men are particularly averse to displaying any of the more “feminine” emotions, which, according to their version, include emotional reactions to pain and sorrow such as crying, screaming, and suffering “turns of the stomach” at unpleasant sights. Personally, I should be the last to condemn the male dislike of being “sissy,” although, when carried to extremes, this dislike produces an acute “constipation” of the feeling nature which is a common complaint among men in America.

Although I will leave my own thoughts around Stoics for another day, it is worth noting that at the moment of writing this article, Stoics are one of the biggest self-help fads in the world. Audible bestsellers is full of stoic-related titles, and podcasts related to ‘stoics’ seem to multiply exponentially and don’t even get me started on YouTube videos.

It might be not such a big problem emotion-wise if the world would be paying attention to the full range of Stoic ideas. But it is quite worrying that the ‘emotional control’ (otherwise numbness or ‘constipation’) seems to grab the most of attention. People who ‘don’t lose their cool’ are praised as ‘stoic in nature’, and leaders who don’t let themselves feel are praised as ‘right for tough times’. For women, it is their ‘emotionality’ (often simply ‘humanity’) that is often used to justify their lack of promotions to leadership positions.

It is no wonder that a disproportionate number of leaders have sociopathic tendencies or that our politics is rife with people who can effectively switch off their emotions as they please. At this point, it seems that anyone with the normal range of emotions is considered ‘too emotional’.

But the impact of embracing ‘emotional coolness’ (which for a person with normal emotional range is almost the same as emotional numbness) is backfiring in our personal lives as well. Later in the paragraph Alan Watt notes, that:

Failure to realize this inner relationship [between conscious reason and unconsious nature] is always reflected outwardly in the divided home where man is a man and woman is a woman “and never the twain shall meet.” They have separate friends, separate interests, separate bedrooms, and separate souls; this is not marriage; it is a business partnership for manufacturing children.

Not incidentally, albeit way before I read Meaning of Happiness, I wrote my own thoughts on the misplaced belief in emotional suppression at any cost in my book, Un-hijack Yourself:

The problem with these strategies [of not allowing yourself to feel] is that they only work short-term without serious consequences on our well-being. Numb your anger, fear, or shame for too long, and you will numb your ability to feel joy, excitement, and love. Keep suppressing your emotions through willpower and you start breaking when the stress becomes too much. Avoid your emotions long enough, and you will lose depth and authenticity in your relationships or ability to problem-solve in real life.

Of course, part of the problem is that in our external life, our emotional behavior and intensity are severely punished so we chose numbness despite its consequences to our long-term well-being. But praising emotional control and denying our physical needs, often by glorifying reason and our mental capacities above other needs, means we are not looking into the whole picture of who we are and what we need.

The good news is, that the solution is not only simple but can be found in the same chapter. It is also common-sense advice that I also note in my book as well, even though I am nowhere as eloquent or known as Allan Watts:

Stoic philosophy does not recognize that control of emotions is in no sense being without emotions; controlling an automobile is not keeping it locked up in the garage. You cannot begin to control emotions unless you first let yourself be free to use them, and the difficulty of keeping them within reasonable bounds is increased by merely repressive control.

Even better, he ‘diagnoses’ the problem that often gives emotions and emotional expressions a bad name:

For this reason, there are thousands of supposedly well-educated people who behave worse than children when moved by powerful emotion, having no understanding and above all no love for the feminine in themselves.

Freedom to feel is key to the solution to control emotions and our emotional illiteracy is often at fault for our emotions being so disproportionately, so intensely displayed when — not if — we lose control over them.

Of course, it is up to all of us to see what level of emotions we might need, what sort of expressions we are comfortable with, and where we want to express them.

But we might as well start by admitting that by glorifying the numbness of emotions we put ourselves in a corner we can’t get out of.