Equanimity without Emotional Repression

Stoicism is more popular now than at any time since ancient Rome, it seems. I find many aspects of it tremendously valuable. I especially appreciate its emphasis on not getting caught up in things you have no control over, a la the serenity prayer:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

It is especially useful for reminding oneself not to stress yourself out worrying about grand world affairs.

However, one aspect of stoicism can be approached in an unhealthy way: that is its emphasis on equanimity (the same could be said for eastern Zen-like traditions). A casual interpretation of stoicism might envision a person eschewing all emotion and facing the vicissitudes of life completely dispassionately, like Star Trek’s Spock.

This can be unhealthy if it involves repressing one’s emotions. A great many books I’ve read in the past year have convinced me that it is important not to repress your emotions. Feelings have functions: even “negative” emotions like anger, fear, disgust, and sadness. (This was also one of the lessons of Disney/Pixar’s wonderful film Inside/Out.) If, whenever a “negative” emotion arises, we beat it down, we frustrate our brain’s attempt to process something that needs to be processed.

This is not to say we should wallow or follow our feelings into whatever behavior they tempt us into. It just means letting ourself feel the emerging feeling, and let it pass on its own.

I really like the analogy of a wave. There is no sense in trying to beat down the wave, like King Canute. Neither do you want to surrender to the wave, and let it submerge you. That is analogous to letting any single emotion dictate your behavior: attacking someone verbally or physically out of anger, withdrawing entirely from life and the world out of fear or sadness, etc. The trick is to ride the wave.

In practice, that means noticing the emotion when it arises. Recognize what it is. Identify what is likely causing it. And give yourself permission to feel it. There’s no need to indulge it by acting on it. And if it is rooted in some kind of negative self-talk, there’s no need to actually believe that self-talk. You don’t need to obey or believe your feeling. Just feel it. That is actually the fastest way to have the feeling pass and not return with a vengeance to deal with the still-unresolved issues in your brain.