On tough days we might say, “My work is overwhelming,” or “My boss is really frustrating.” If only we could understand that this is impossible. Someone can’t frustrate you, work can’t overwhelm you—these are external objects, and they have no access to your mind. Those emotions you feel, as real as they are, come from the inside, not the outside. The Stoics use the word hypolêpsis, which means “taking up”—of perceptions, thoughts, and judgments by our mind. What we assume, what we willingly generate in our mind, that’s on us. We can’t blame other people for making us feel stressed or frustrated any more than we can blame them for our jealousy. The cause is within us. They’re just the target.“The Daily Stoic” by Ryan Holiday
Yesterday, I was talking to my counsellor about some general stuff (I say general stuff because I can’t remember the exact flow of the conversation that led up to the next topics). He asked for an example of a time recently where something upset me, and I brought up an instance of volleyball at a local community centre. It’s recreational volleyball and there’s some older people playing on the court. This one guy dropped in and was spiking the ball hard at people and getting in arguments with some of the other players. This affected my mood and my experience of volleyball that night.
My counsellor drew my attention to a pattern between this experience and my past relationships regarding conflict resolution. I have a habit of avoiding conflict, so if something’s bothering me, I tend not to say anything about it.
In any case, that conversation ended shortly after that observation.
So this morning, I had woken up early and planned to go for a run. But upon looking outside, I realized that it was raining, and from my window it looked like it was raining pretty hard. I figured that I’d probably touching my face all the time to wipe away rain and my hair, which is a bad idea in times of COVID-19, so I decided to skip my run and try to go back to sleep.
But of course, sleep never comes at opportune times.
My mind started spiralling on an analysis of all my past relationships. (This morning I couldn’t figure out why that popped into my mind; it wasn’t until this afternoon that I clued in that I was probably primed to it by my conversation with my counsellor yesterday.)
(It’s entirely possible I’ve noticed this in the past too. In reviewing past journal entries and blog posts, I’ve found epiphanies that I’d re-experienced years later. But at the time of writing, I don’t recall seeing this before.)
Some history: in every relationship I’ve been, either I’ve ended it, or, in cases where it was mutual, I brought up the conversation in which we decided to end it.
So there’s a very common thread: me.
I’ve chatted with friends over the years about this, but we never saw a pattern. The reason for each break up was distinct and unique compared to the others. So maybe it wasn’t all me.
Could we really believe that?
(Random interlude: “So” is my filler word apparently.)
This morning I saw something under all of those unique reasons. I mean, all this time in the future looking back, at this point it’s all just hypothetical. And perhaps it may all just be apophenia. But here’s what I saw.
I have this thing where if I’m experiencing a negative emotional reaction to something, I try to avoid bringing it up.
Whether it is “I feel disappointed that you keep getting your roommate to do your share of the chores,” or “I feel unwanted because I get the sense that you’re always thinking about your friend,” or “Hearing your friends always talk like that makes me really not want to be here any more,” I would tend to keep those experiences to myself. And, hypothetically, things would just snowball.
Theory 1: I am afraid of conflict. (This would explain my habit of avoiding conflict.) Maybe in those moments where I could have chosen to share my experience, I was afraid that it would have led to a fight. Because I was misinterpreting something, or because I wasn’t being logical, or because I would be taking away their freedoms, etc.
Theory 2: My independence is a double edged sword. Maybe my ideal of being totally self-sufficient leads me to trying to take on everything (including dealing with my emotions) on my own. Maybe my independence prevents me from ever really trusting other people.
Maybe both theories play some sort of a role. Maybe both theories are completely off base. But I’m leaning towards Theory 2. I’ve already seen other areas in my life where my independence has led to undesired consequences.
I think part of my struggle with this comes from failure to integrate some of the ideas I regularly fall back upon. On the one hand, there’s Stoicism and Buddhism. On the other hand, there’s emotional expression and vulnerability.
So this morning, one thing I was trying to figure out was the lack of harmony I was seeing amongst these ideas.
On the one hand, there is this idea of sharing your thoughts, feelings, and needs with other people. The idea of being vulnerable and letting yourself be seen by the people around you.
On the other hand, there is this idea of taking responsibility of your thoughts and perceptions. The idea of overcoming suffering as something that one takes on themselves.
But perhaps they are different means to the same ends.
Looking at them now, maybe they’re both just ways of acknowledging an emotion. Something I’ve learned in the past year or so is the idea that unexpressed emotion gets stored in the body. One method acknowledges an emotion by sharing and engaging in it with other people. The other acknowledges an emotion internally: distinguishing the thoughts, judgements, and body sensations, and being present to them until they pass.
(The Tyler version fulfills neither of these. I don’t often share my experience with others, and when I’m alone with my emotions, I tend to distract myself rather than being present with those emotions.)
We resent the person who comes in and tries to boss us around. Don’t tell me how to dress, how to think, how to do my job, how to live. This is because we are independent, self-sufficient people. Or at least that’s what we tell ourselves. Yet if someone says something we disagree with, something inside us tells us we have to argue with them. If there’s a plate of cookies in front of us, we have to eat them. If someone does something we dislike, we have to get mad about it. When something bad happens, we have to be sad, depressed, or worried. But if something good happens a few minutes later, all of a sudden we’re happy, excited, and want more. We would never let another person jerk us around the way we let our impulses do. It’s time we start seeing it that way—that we’re not puppets that can be made to dance this way or that way just because we feel like it. We should be the ones in control, not our emotions, because we are independent, self-sufficient people.“The Daily Stoic” by Ryan Holiday
Something else independence-based I was thinking about was fairness related.
I don’t like other people telling me what to do. I recognize that’s different from people asking me to do things, but sometimes my mind conflates thoughts.
I think part of me is worried that if I share my experience, I’m going to be asking people to change something. Which wouldn’t be fair because I don’t like being told what to do.
But maybe this is just me being too black and white about things. Maybe not all emotional expression is either purely for sharing or purely for asking people to change.
Or maybe I just need to learn how to acknowledge my emotions. Either by actually staying present with them, or by trusting other people and sharing my experience with them.
In any case, there’s a lot to learn.