An old friend tells me that I have changed a lot. That I am extremely calm now; whereas years ago, in discussions, I would easily get emotionally agitated. A neighbor asked me recently if I had always been so serene. This didn’t surprise me too much. I tell my friend that I have worked to control myself so that I wouldn’t react emotionally to things. In the past, I’ve allowed myself to act or react based upon strong negative feelings, which led to results that I regretted very much. Now, I don’t. Unfortunately, I admit, it seems that along with the negative low feelings, I’ve also lost the passionate highs. Now I’m just steady most of the time.
Having also explored personality types, my friend asks if my thinking is now dominant or my feeling still is. I answer that I believe it is neither. He looks confused. I explain that I’ve taught myself not to identify with my thoughts or emotions. I have them, I just try not to attach to them. Just as thoughts can be misleading or wrong, so can feelings. That’s why I don’t get emotional much anymore. But there is a downside, because along with my negative feelings, my positive ones are not as strong as in the past. I am not as passionate about things as I was before.
My friend replies that I have vulcanized myself. That I have killed my feelings. And that Vulcans show no passion because they aren’t driven by emotions. In a way, he is right (albeit, we are talking about fictional beings). My strategies to avoid identifying with my feelings are accomplished by thinking tools such as forgiveness, acceptance, reframing, and anti-expectations. To not attach to my feelings, I use my self-awareness to pause in the gap between emotional stimulus and response long enough to use the thinking tools above. In the past, I was dominated by my emotions; but now, I use thinking to prevent that domination. I have accidentally vulcanized myself.
Why I Divorced My Feelings
If you are an idealist (which includes INFPs like myself), there is a downside. For most idealists, as we get older, we come to realize that we have fallen far short of reaching our ideals and have failed miserably to meet our own high expectations. We tend to get depressed. Some can get cynical, but most get depressed.
In my early thirties, I started getting brief spells of sadness, which I called low energy states. In that state, I didn’t feel motivated to do anything and had zero excitement for the future; everything seemed grey and meaningless. At first, I thought they were burnt-out episodes due to work, but they were different. At work, I was so busy I didn’t have time to experience the low energy spells. But at home, I had all the time to do so. I came to realize that the low energy states were the result of the disconnect between what my subconscious thought I should be doing (saving the world, helping people) and what I was actually doing (helping a business increase profits). Not that working is bad; after all, it does provide a living for myself and my coworkers. It just wasn’t enough.
I guess one could call it an early mid-life crisis. But instead of buying a red sports car, I turned on myself, ruminating on my thoughts and feelings. No matter how much thinking or explorations of feelings I did, I couldn’t find the cause of the low energy state. And so I went around, in an endless cycle, full of sadness, regret, irritation, and finally, anger. At the end, raging against myself and my condition because I didn’t know where to direct the anger at. In such a state, I was emotionally volatile, behaved badly, and would suddenly lashed out at people. I apologized afterwards but the damage was done.
I Am Not My Thoughts And Feelings
A chance sentence in a book, “I Am Not That Thought”, gave me the answer. If I am not that thought, then I’m also not that feeling because one usually comes with the other. (Thinking couldn’t fix the feelings I had.) If I am not my feelings, then it meant that I didn’t have to act according to my feelings. I didn’t have to react according to, or believe in, the low energy states. I could decide how to act, regardless of my emotions or thoughts.
Of course, the epiphany didn’t immediately change my life and behavior. As with most worthwhile things, it took a lot of work and a lot of failures. It gave me a little wedge which I could begin to try to insert between my feelings and my actions. Most of the time, I failed; but once in a while, I succeeded. And over time (many years), the successes slowly widen the gap between feeling and acting. In that gap, I was the decision maker, not my emotions.
When those feelings of meaninglessness came, I could accept them (in a way, they are true) but stop myself from ruminating on them, which prevented the low energy state. Over time (many more years), not ruminating evolved into not identifying with the feeling. Emotions are like visitors to my house (my mind). I welcome them, give them the spare bedroom for the night, and by morning, they have already left. I don’t attach them to myself. I don’t become them. That would be a silly thing to do.
So now, I try not to identify with any of my thoughts or feelings. I don’t suppress them, but can understand that it may appear that way. I think of thoughts and emotions as kindling. Because I don’t attach to them, put more thought and feeling into them, they don’t grow. Instead they appear and then eventually disappear. In the past, if I have a depressive thought like I’m going to be alone, I would dwell on it, feel pity for myself, think I’ll be alone forever, that there is no one for me, feel sadness, suffer regret for not taking advantage of past opportunities with women, and think I’ll die a lonely death. By identifying with, focusing on, and giving energy to the initial negative feeling or thought, I create these self-reinforcing loops of thoughts and emotions. And the kindling becomes a roaring fire, capable of burning down my house.
If one supposes that the above self-reinforcing loop is the norm, then it would appear that I’m suppressing that loop. However, if one believes it is a choice, then I’m not suppressing, I’m just choosing not to engage the loop.
The problem is that high passions appear to depend on that same self-reinforcing loop. I have a thought about wind surfing, I think that it would be cool, I imagine sliding across the water, wind and ocean spray on my face, I’m feeling happy, excited. I decide to research a class that I can take. Maybe I consider taking a long vacation to a nice place like Hawaii or southeast Asia where I can take lessons. It would be great, the experience of a lifetime. I’m identifying with it, focusing on it, and growing the ember into a robust fire. If I continue, I can build it eventually into a raging forest fire.
My friend exclaims that he now understands… I am a pseudo-thinker. Being a dominant thinker, he also has the same problem with ruminating on feelings and thoughts, asking himself why he had a particular feeling, and going around in circles. Except, he primarily suffers from a thinking loop, not a feeling loop. He solves the problem by focusing mainly on his business (which is also his purpose) and not giving thought to anything unrelated; he has no energy to spare to ruminate on anything else. And if anything negative comes up, he would ignore it. He would only ruminate on the positive feelings and thoughts he has.
He suggests that I could do the same thing. That I could allow only positive feelings to grow. That I could flame my positive feelings into passions. I tell my friend that his suggestion is worth exploring; though inside, I am uncomfortable with the notion.
Not building upon my thoughts and emotions have become a habit. Along with not identifying with negative emotions and thoughts, I also do not identify with positive emotions and thoughts. It seemed simpler to not have to act differently for either. Though it is a habit, it is also a choice, which can be changed. I should be able choose which emotions to identify with. So perhaps, I can bring back my passionate highs by choosing to identify with only the positive thoughts and emotions. But something holds me back from making the change.
Choosing which feelings to identify with feels false to me. Who am I to decide which emotions are negative and which positive? If I stoke the one, why shouldn’t I stoke the other? And is being a pseudo-thinker so bad? I’m not sure. In the present, I enjoy the positive emotions as they occur, without trying to grow them. And I try to appreciate the negative feelings as they occur, without trying to fight them. Are passionate highs something I need? If something is a true passion of mine, do I need to artificially stoke it?
Perhaps, instead of growing passions, I can identify my passions by what I do. I read a lot because I like to read. It’s a quiet passion. I don’t get enflamed with positive feelings as I read or contemplate reading. Some periods of my life, I read a lot. But other periods, I don’t read much at all. I keep returning to it though. Isn’t that a passion without the passionate highs?
During times when I don’t feel like reading often, I imagine that if I try to stoke any urge to read into a bonfire, it may backfire on me. First, forcing myself to feel more intensely sounds like a lot of work, which is unappealing to a lazy person like myself. Second, trying to interfere with the natural lifecycle of my passion seems like a bad thing to do and I imagine, could kill the passion prematurely or permanently.
Serenity Now, Insanity Later
There is something to be said for trying to remain in a state of serenity. I’m finding that my mind is more quiet these days. Perhaps it is normal for humans to have extremes of high and low, and I’m just the odd Vulcan out. Perhaps I should be satisfied with who I am now and quietly enjoy my passions.
Disclaimer: This post makes me out to be a saint, or that I have grown from a self-absorbed child into a sage. I’m not. That is far from reality. I still have trouble controlling my strong negative emotions. More often that I would like, I still react without considering what the best response should be. But I keep trying. I keep reminding myself that it is a process, not an end state. That it must be continually practiced for the rest of my life. After all, I’m just an imperfect human, and will continue to be one until I die.