On intellectualizing emotions

When smart men don't know how to be there for each other

We were sitting under the stars, my friends and I, in an isolated patch of a small village in Himachal Pradesh. Nobody felt like saying anything. They were just gazing up. This was our moment of silence, when suddenly there is no audio and you know the volume is about to go up on deep, existential emotions.

Do you imagine being in that situation and feel uncomfortable? I did. I was supposed to feel things? I didn't know how to feel the things I was supposed to feel. So I looked at the stars and tried to identify patterns instead. I had to break the silence, so I said,

"Isn't it so arbitrary, the position of these dots up there? There's no pattern to them, particularly, but we connect them and make constellations. Maybe that's how it is in our lives as well. Random events that don't make sense until we start to see constellations."

"Hmm," one of my friends said. I was pretty proud of myself for being perfectly in character, making an observation that was equal quantities philosophical and beautiful. The group returned to silence for a few seconds, after which another friend said,

"Kabhi kabhi aisa lagta hai tum dil se kam, dimaag se zyada jeete ho."

I felt slighted by this then, as if someone had objected to my whole identity. It's been three years, and it's only now that I'm somewhat starting to understand the moral of this story.

A close friend of mine went through a difficult break-up recently. We were walking and talking, two men in their mid-20s, with no clue about how to address this kind of thing with each other.

"I don't know what's the right approach," he said, "Should I not date at all while I'm waiting for her to figure things out or put myself out there again?"

"What are the pros and cons, in your head?" I asked

He listed down the pros and cons, and we argued about the pros and cons. This is what happens when smart men don't know how to be emotional with each other. We like to think we're great at communicating, but when it comes down to emotions, a lot of talk is just that and not much more.

The funny thing, you see, is we can always go a level deeper intellectually. So he said, "You know, it feels like I need emotional support, but this conversation with you is very problem-solvy and intellectual."

"Yeah I think so too. I think that's usually been me, like I'm the kind of person who you come to for figuring stuff out, you know, not really to get emotional support. I don't know if that's a good thing," I said.

We argued for a while about whether my uni-dimensionality in this regard was a good thing or a bad thing. I hoped that would substitute for the tight hug and shoulder to cry on that he probably really needed. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

I am trying now to 'feel my feelings' more often, both for myself and the people around me. For years, my partner and I have started conversations by asking, "What have you been thinking about?" We're now trying to swap that question out for, "What have you been feeling?" You'd be surprised how both questions inquire about our internal lives, but lead to such different places.

With reason, I can be the captain of my own ship. Feelings, on the other hand, are wild cards: you never know what you're going to get, who's going to get hurt, and what turn your life will take if you really start listening. I'm very used to holding the steering wheel, and I have to admit it's scary to let go.

Something tells me, though, that it's going to be worth it. Perhaps I will finally learn to be in awe of nature, or jump with excitement when good things happen. I may even finally understand how to dance. What's more likely is that I'll realise that dancing has nothing to do with understanding. We'll see how it goes, and we'll feel what we can along the way. 🤞

This Week's Recommendation

As a culture, we tend to avoid using plain emotional language to describe how we feel. When asked how we’re doing, it somehow feels strange to say “I feel sad,” as though it’s too childlike and simplistic. Instead, we say much more adult things like: “I’m upset.” Or, “I’m just spread too thin.” Or, “I’m really worried.”

But these more adult words and phrases we use to describe how we feel aren’t really emotions at all. And our habit of using them allows us to think we’re communicating how we feel, when in reality we’re doing the exact opposite — hiding how we feel.
The Dangers of Intellectualized Emotions - Nick Wignall
Intellectualized emotions are a defense mechanism we use to avoid painful feelings by transforming them into ideas and concepts.

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