Fearing to be Emotional: A Response

by Myko Philip (15A01B)

“Your emotional resilience must be higher. How are you going to survive if your resilience quotient is so low?” A memorable lesson from that night’s tortuous but meaningful reprimand. The scene of the crime: oppressive 31˚C heat at midnight; invasive and almost painfully suburban yellow lights; Chopin Op. 28 No. 4 (a lovely, plaintive prelude aptly titled “Suffocation”) on the piano; me, crying.

sad_piano_by_fmamb-d61t4ag

I am telling you this because a peer of mine, Yeo Jia Qi, recently published an article on our website extolling the virtues of being more open and candid with our emotions. He was prompted to write this article because in his view there was a patent dearth of emotion in our institution or society at large. This aberration, he claims, is due to our fears of being emotional, a fear which he implies is irrational and even deleterious. While I agree with him that we should not be afraid to feel, I think that most people are right in their attempts to be emotionally reserved and cool. This is different from being emotionally dead and completely apathetic, and I think is a good balance to strive for.

Before I proceed, there are certain ambiguities I would like to clarify. Does Mr Yeo, for instance, refer to Rafflesians or society in general when he says that “we fear being emotional”? And on that point, does he genuinely believe that Rafflesians or Singaporeans are cold phlegmatic grade-scoring machines who deliberately suppress their emotions? And why do they do so? Mr Yeo offers us his theory that people are afraid to feel because of a pervasive “uncertainty about what emotions can be expressed appropriately” which “perhaps creates an unconscious need to control our anger, fear, sadness or empathy”. In my personal experience, most conversation with friends and teachers — once the trimmings like witty banter and mordant commentary on current affairs or sensational gossip have been taken away — involves extensive emotional exchange. Friends are not afraid to show displeasure (is not our country’s chief industrial output complaints?) or voice out their misgivings and doubts. Constantly, the sense of being loveless and its accompanying deluge of solitude and feelings of inadequacy are brought up. Even the fear of growing old, which at our age seems a distant and irrelevant consideration, is a perennial conversational centerpiece. Add to that the immense trepidation of being thrown into the wide, unstructured world where what you do and learn is no longer dictated to you by the quantifiable and  easily compartmentalized sentences on a single-A4 page of paper. We feel all the time. And these friends are not just my batch of Humanities students, but include also sporty rugby players and floorballers and proudly self-titled science geeks on the other side of the campus. In fact, I believe that the opposite of what Mr Yeo says is true: that the uncertainties we uncomfortably swim in provoke emotions and emotional discourse. There is no choke point in the circulation of emotions in the school. Yes, there are many out there who are unable to confide their emotions in a close friend. But is this really a fear of sharing emotions? I argue that the issue is in the demand and not the supply. And to this extent we should try to be more inclusive and friendly towards these people who, more than anything, are so withdrawn because out of kindness they are afraid of being ‘burdens’ or ruining your day. Are they afraid of sharing emotions? Or have they just not found an appropriate human outlet? Hence the diaries, which are not a running away from showing emotion but an attempt to confront it within one’s self whilst waiting for someone to approach them and ask if they need help.

Moreover, our doubts over whether our emotions are appropriate or not are symptoms of having powerful and authentic emotions in the first place. We only doubt whether they are appropriate or not because we doubt if we are experiencing them in excess. When Mr Yeo talks about anger management, his argument is invalid insofar as anger management is not traditionally an attempt to stifle mild harmless annoyance but to control violent urges that are potentially dangerous to the people around us. He derides it as a “palatable way of saying not to show [anger]”. But that’s because that is exactly what it is. Someone only goes for anger management when his anger is so extreme that it becomes both unhealthy and even unsafe for him and for everyone around him. The same goes for depression. Ironically, the trivial sadnesses that we experience are more likely to flow out from us than more profound angst that we hesitantly harbor like a fugitive only because he has no other home. For every confession of terrible, seemingly insurmountable misery, you will have three others about the bus being crowded or the timetables being unfair or the death of some likeable character in a television show. When anguish is genuine, however, the fear of feeling it is entirely justified, and letting depression flow naturally isn’t something we should encourage. Depression can be debilitating. It seems clichéd to say that it saps all the energy out of you like a vacuum cleaner, but it does. It can be a cruel hindrance to any form of productivity and activity. It feels like a self-imposed glass ceiling stopping you from doing what you want to do. You fear emotion in these cases because it might consume you. Is that wrong? Mr Yeo rightly points out that people are afraid to express emotions when their severity is of such magnitude. And for those who are unable to find a willing, listening ear, the Raffles Guidance Centre (or the Underground, as it is affectionately called) is always there. But excessive anger is harmful and depression is an illness. To eradicate both is something all parties rightly desire. He correctly identifies the fact that a “respect for others’ lives” prompts a reluctance to “affect them with our own emotions” or that we feel “vulnerable” when we expose ourselves so completely to the world. But when feelings are trivial, there is nothing wrong with people keeping them in. And when feelings are in excess and powerful, they are right in trying to control them. While Mr Yeo is right that we should not attempt to deny our emotions, we should keep them in check when they start hampering us from functioning.

Which brings us back to where we started, with me in the middle of the night practicing a piano piece I didn’t even like for an inordinate number of times in order to satisfy my parents that I was ready for my piano exam. Cue my father’s spiel; cue my crying.

Mother: [sternly] Why are you crying?

Myko: I-… I don’t know.

Mother: [her voice rising in anger or incredulity] Why are you crying? Are you stressed? Are you stressed, Myko?

Myko: Yes.

Father: This thing is so small already and you feel stressed? You feel stressed? You think the world is easy? Wait until you get a job, then you will know what stress means. Wait until you live under Martial Law and are poor and don’t know if you have food on the table tomorrow, then you will know what stress means. Crying? Pah.

But is there not some truth to this? My parents, and many other parents for that matter, have shared for the first twenty years of their life an intimate relationship with suffering and tribulation. They have had prodigious knowledge of the world’s capacity for indifference from a very young age. My parents both lived near the poverty line under martial law in the Philippines when a dictator came to power. For many of us who bemoan the need to assemble at 7.40am in the morning half the days of the week, their suffering and pain and emotions are far beyond what we can imagine. And yet they soldiered on.

Of course depression can be debilitating and affect anyone, even if they seem to have every reason to be happy: relative financial security, popularity, family. We all remember Robin Williams from last year. But many who are not afflicted by depression are right to sometimes try and inject perspective in their life. Their emotions are inconsequential compared to what others are feeling, and if they begin to accumulate insidiously and affect our way of thinking, then that’s bad. So when I cried because I was “stressed” and thought that crying might earn me some sympathy, my parents were entirely correct in scolding me. Sometimes, we truly need a wakeup call from our insular, self-centered thought-processes and have to be reminded that we are not the only people in society. We need to be reminded that when a mental illness is as obstructive and painful as physical illness, mental training applies as much as physical training. That sometimes when emotions are really trivial, we shouldn’t at all play the sympathy card or claim that people just don’t understand us for what we are. Iago in Othello reminds us that “’Tis in ourselves that we are thus or thus” and if our bodies and minds are the gardens, he says, we are the gardeners.

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