People often look at me like I’ve got some sort of mental problem when I tell them that I don’t usually tell my woman (or anyone else for that matter) how I feel.
It’s not that I never show emotion, because that’s certainly not the case. I’m not actively repressing myself. My girl would agree that I’m actually a big softy underneath a sullen and sometimes grim exterior.
But I try not to show any negative emotion around other people because I don’t want them to be affected by my bad mood.
Feelings are temporary, emotions change, and what you think is important right now won’t mean a damn thing in a few hours.
To always pay attention to your emotions and attribute importance or meaning to how you feel is to choose to be inconsistent.
But I want to be consistent.
I want to be a calming influence on the people around me, a source of reassurance, somebody who inspires confidence.
“If dad’s freaking out, everybody’s freaking out.”
I can’t remember where I heard that quote, but it’s true.
People are subconsciously affected by the energy and mood of the people around them. I want the energy I put out to be something that lifts people up rather than weighing them down.
So I try not to let emotion show through when I think it might negatively affect others.
I try to be the guy that keeps himself together at all times, especially in times of crisis.
I want to be the guy whose mere presence puts people at ease, who people look at and think:
“It’s ok. He’s here.”
Do I feel like I’m that guy?
Not a chance.
But I’m working on it, and that’s what really matters because it doesn’t matter how I feel.
What matters is what I do with my feelings.
The great thing about being a human is that we’re not governed by our emotions alone. We also have reason.
Reason and rational thought allow us to step back from our emotions and impulses to analyze our situation and determine what it means. Does the fact that I feel sad mean I’m unhappy with my life, or am I just being emotional?
I get to decide what my emotions mean or whether they mean anything at all. Usually, they don’t mean a damn thing because my emotions do not define me. My deeds define me.
So I get to decide what to do with feelings or whether to do anything at all with them.
And so do you.
You get to choose whether or not you’re an emotional person or a rational person. You get to set your own standards for behavior, and you get to decide what kind of person you want to be.
Personally, I set very high standards for myself, but do I always live up to them?
You might be surprised at how often I disappoint myself. But that’s ok because disappointment is temporary. Failure is temporary. Weakness and deficiency are temporary, just like emotions are temporary.
As long as I’m on track to move from a position of weakness and deficiency towards a position of strength, I’m good.
So when I’m feeling down, or nervous, or angry, or hungry (that’s an emotion too, right?), I try my best to keep it to myself.
Because it’s nobody else’s business what’s going on with my stupid fleeting emotions, it’s nobody else’s responsibility or burden, only mine.
And I can deal with that on my own.
Should the day arise when I can’t deal with it on my own, then I’ll speak up and reach out to someone I can trust.
But not until I’ve tried to deal with it alone first.
Now, that’s not the same as bottling up your problems and hoping they’ll go away. Problems have to be dealt with, and demons must be confronted. But that’s a private matter, not something I share with other people.
Luckily (or perhaps by design), I’ve never had what you might call a “mental health problem” in my life, never been depressed, never felt despair, never suffered from nihilism or lack of meaning.
That doesn’t mean I‘ve never been down, because I’ve been down a lot. I’m only human, and my sensitive little writer’s heart bleeds, perhaps, more than tougher men’s do. But I never stay down for long.
Because what kind of life would that be? To be always at the mercy of your emotions, to be a victim of fate, to suffer because you can’t accept the facts of reality. That all sounds like foolishness to me. And the tendency to indulge overmuch in one’s feelings is the mark of a self-centered, conceited fool.
We’ll all have problems in our lives, and some of those problems will be the result of mental disorders. If you’ve got one of those mental disorders, then you’d better get to work on fixing it or adapting to live with it because otherwise, your life will be hell. You’ve got my sympathy, but only a little.
Keep in mind, though, that many of what we call “mental health problems” are not caused by some cruel chemical imbalance in the brain for which there’s no remedy except drugs. Sure, biological deficiencies and genetic issues are a big problem, but a lot of people’s psychological problems, including depression, are caused by simple unhealthy lifestyle habits.
For example, the following are significant causes of depression and anxiety:
Not getting enough sleep,
Isolation and loneliness,
Lack of exercise,
No perceived purpose or meaning in life,
Health changes from aging,
For that matter, these common problems cause misery in almost everyone, not just people with mental health problems. People need to have meaningful roles, positive relationships, good health, self-esteem, and a job to do. Without these things, we fall apart from the inside out, and our emotions and negative feelings take control of us.
And that’s great news. Why? Because we can control everything on that list. We can choose to prioritize our health, eat well, work out, sleep right, build relationships, pursue meaningful goals, reach out and engage with other people. We can choose to prioritize positive action over negative emotion. We can control so many of the factors which affect our state of mind that a few minor lifestyle adjustments could completely change our psyche for the better. For most people, your destiny is in your own hands. All you’ve got to do to live well and “feel” well is everything you can do, everything that’s in your power to improve your lot in life.
If that’s not enough and you’re still suffering, then maybe you should consider the pills or the therapy. Then perhaps you’ve got a problem with your software. But if it were me, I’d rule out the things that are in your control before I start writing myself off as damaged or a victim.
Sounds easy when I lay it out like that, right?
“Just do the right thing all time, and you’ll feel great.”
But that’s not what I’m saying. I’m not an idiot. I know it’s not that easy for everyone. For me, it hasn’t been a problem, but for you, it might be. I get that.
But that doesn’t change a damn thing.
It might be a lot more difficult for you to get your mind straight than it is for me or someone else, but that’s just the way it is. You’ve got to play with the hand you’ve been dealt in life. You can check out if you don’t like it, but that always does more harm than good, and it’s the coward’s choice.
I know it ain’t easy. I know people out there have it a lot worse than me. I’m glad I got dealt a good hand. But that doesn’t change the fact that you can probably make a lot of your problems go away by changing the way you live.
You can protest that you’ve got this or that reason to suffer, but I’ll only listen to that for so long before I ask you,
“What are you doing about it?”
If you’re emotional and know that it’s a problem, what are you doing about it?
If you’re depressed, and it’s ruining your life, what are you doing about it?
If you have anger issues, and you keep losing your head, what are you doing about it?
If you want to die, and you’re thinking of going through with it, what are you going to do?
There’s never an easy choice when we’re talking about emotions because they’re so powerful and spontaneous that it can be hard to keep up, but the fact that it’s difficult to control your mind doesn’t excuse you from making an effort.
When I was a younger man, I was a lot more emotional than I am now, but even despite that fact, I still wasn’t what you’d call an emotional guy. For as long as I can remember, people have always told me that I’m a calm and collected sort of character.
Even though I didn’t always have a tight grip on my feelings, I’ve always practiced personal restraint. It’s a product of my childhood. I spent a lot of time alone with few friends and few mentors. Anytime I displayed emotion, it almost always made things worse. So I got a handle on my feelings and learned to control them. I don’t repress them. I just control them because it’s always better to
be in control of yourself than to be at the mercy of your subconscious mind.
I’ve never wanted to be the reactive or unpredictable one. I like being stoic, predictable, and reliable.
But there are times when you’ve got to cut loose and let the mind run its course. You can’t be grim and stolid every moment of your life, so you’ve got to build a mechanism for emotional release into your life.
What that should look like will vary from person to person. For me, I like to get physical. I lift weights, run, box, and do hard manual labor. I listen to heavy music and get into my body for a time. You might be surprised at how many demons you can exorcise with a punching bag or a barbell. I also write to consolidate my thoughts and understand my emotions.
But for you, it could be something different. Maybe you like to paint. Maybe you like to talk to people about your thoughts and feelings. Whatever. You do you, as long as it works. But those moments of release ought to be structured and carefully regulated so that you don’t get carried away with yourself and fall into bad habits.
Investigate whether your habits and routines improve or worsen your mental state. Every time you interact with someone, ask yourself if they improve or detract from your mood. Every time you watch the news or a TV show, ask yourself if you feel better or worse about yourself and the world after you’ve watched it. Every day you wake up, ask yourself if you might feel better by eating a better breakfast. Every night you lie down to sleep, ask yourself if you should have gone to bed earlier or later.
Wherever you find the negativity, change. Improve. When you find the pain, you find the problem. But don’t waste any time thinking about the right thing to do. If you find a problem in your life, go with your instinct. You’re a lot smarter than you might give yourself credit for. Try something new. If you feel no different, or feel worse, try something else. Keep trying until you find what works for you, and never give up.
If you still have problems with your emotions after all that self-critique and lifestyle change, then maybe you need the pills or the treatment. But even if you do, that doesn’t give you an excuse to let your emotions take control. You’re responsible for your life and your behavior. So if you have a problem, it’s your responsibility to fix it, and nobody else’s.
This is the process I go through on a regular basis. I’m a pretty typical man when it comes to solving problems: a stereotype, almost. When I identify a problem, I immediately make a plan to fix it. Sometimes too quickly, before I even fully understand the problem. That can make things worse, but it’s how I operate.
It’s in my nature to solve problems if I can. Sometimes my attempts to solve a problem create more problems. Then I’ve got to think of even more solutions. That sucks, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love when life (or my own mind) gives me problems because it gives me something worthwhile and meaningful to do.
I find meaning in fixing things and imposing order upon chaos.
I’ve been living like this for most of my life and I’ve never had a problem with it. The times when I did have problems, when I created problems for myself and others, were times when I let my emotions take control.
So I don’t let them take control, not if I can prevent it, and I’m a lot more functional than most people I know. That’s not my way of bragging. None of this is supposed to make me sound like a tough-guy or a man of wisdom, because I’m pretty soft and pretty foolish, and I know it. But this is how I think.
I recommend you try it. Next time you sense a feeling taking hold of you, whether it’s fear or sorrow or anger, recognize it for what it is and then just ignore it.
Remember that it’s not important unless you make it important.
But if you do make it important, you’re giving it control over you, and it will usually wreak havoc.
Conversely, when you feel something positive and affirming, seize hold of it and ride that wave for as long as you can. I never hold back a laugh or a smile, I let those emotions run free.
Don’t let your primitive monkey-mind sabotage your life because you were too lazy or too inept to put it in its place and assume command of your own life.
This is what’s worked for me. What works for you might be different, but I’d recommend you give it a try and see if it makes a difference.
I almost wrote, “see how it makes you feel,” but as I’ve already said, it doesn’t matter how it makes you feel.
All that matters is what you do with what you feel.
There’s a lot of things beyond your control, and emotions will come and go of their own accord no matter what you do. You can’t stop that, and you shouldn’t want to. But you’ve got the choice about what you do with those emotions. There’s a lot you can’t control, but you can completely control the most important thing: what you choose to do.
So I’d advise you to choose consistency, self-control, stoic determination, and the pursuit of ever-higher standards of personal behavior rather than being at the mercy of how you feel from moment to moment. You might never achieve the standard you set for yourself, but the pursuit of that ideal will be worthwhile in itself.
This doesn’t mean a life devoid of emotion, quite the opposite in fact. When you’ve got the confidence of someone who knows they can control themselves, your emotions become an ally rather than an antagonist. You can work with how you feel, rather than being the puppet of subconscious forces beyond your control. You can release your emotions when you need to, how you need to, or you can choose not to release them at all.
The choice is yours, because you’re in control. But only if you learn to control yourself no matter how you feel. That’s great news, if you ask me. It means we’re not destined to suffer unless we choose to suffer.
I’m sure I’ll draw a lot of heat with these thoughts, but that’s cool. If you don’t like my method, you keep on doing things your way. I’m not claiming to have the answers for anyone but myself. But what I’ve outlined in this essay is how I operate, and it’s worked pretty well for me. It might work for you too if you give it a chance.