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I think therefore I am. So said Descartes in his book Principles of Philosophy, published in 1647. His central ideas were that the mind is distinct from the body, the mind is the master of the body and rational thought is superior to emotion. It was his philosophy that laid the foundations of modern Western society. We are taught from a young age that a logical approach to life is sensible, virtuous, productive, masculine and that to be emotional is weak and feminine.
But here’s the thing: nowhere in his writing does Descartes associate logic exclusively with masculinity or emotion exclusively with femininity. That’s a link we’ve made all by ourselves, without his input. His philosophy was inspirational to many of the great female philosophers of the 17th and 18th centuries, but the same fate has befallen him as has come to all great philosophers: his ideas have been misconstrued by men for the benefit of men in our patriarchal society.
In my view, patriarchal society is wrong, and Descartes is wrong. Here’s why: Modern neuroscience has shown that the mind and body are intrinsically linked. Emotions arise in mind and body, emotions are regulated by mind and body. Thoughts are governed by our emotional state and vice-versa. One cannot happen without the other. It is often assumed that the left hemisphere of the brain is associated with logic and the right hemisphere with creativity. That is untrue. The entire brain and body is involved in logical thinking, the entire brain and body is involved in creativity. Creativity requires rational thought and emotion.
If you don’t believe me, remember the last time you were particularly sad. Could you simply sit and think yourself happy? Conversely, remember the last time you tried to think rationally (e.g. concentrating on a piece of work) when you were particularly worried. How easy was it? Most people cannot simply change their emotional state by the power of thought. It doesn’t work. In fact it makes things worse. Why? Because of something psychologists call the white bear problem. It goes like this: Don’t think of a white bear. Whatever you do, don’t think of a big, fluffy white polar bear. Definitely don’t think of a big, fluffy white polar bear sitting on an iceberg waiting for a seal supper.
The theory is simple: the more you try to ignore or change something about yourself (e.g. an undesired emotion), the louder it shouts. The more it jumps up and down and demands to be heard. It becomes overwhelming, blocking out all else. But still, you grit your teeth and ignore it. Why? Because your upbringing in modern patriarchal society tells you that you’re weak if you express your emotions. It’s just not British. We British just get on with things. Stiff upper lip and all that. And if you’re male, you get the double-whammy – not only does society tell you it is weak, but it is also feminine to show your emotions. Sissy. Big boys don’t cry. This is the message society has given you: Never show anyone your emotions. Most importantly, don’t even admit them to yourself.
So you’ve tried your hardest to control your emotions and it just hasn’t worked. They’re still there, they’re stronger than ever, and they’re making you more miserable than ever. The problem is that you only think you have been trying to control your emotions. You think that because that’s what you’ve been taught to think. In reality, you have only been denying your emotions. You haven’t been in control at all. That’s one of the the biggest gotchas we face:
Controlling your emotions is not the same as denying them
If you try to deny your emotions, they will only become stronger, more urgent, more out-of-control. So what to do? If control isn’t denial, what is it? There are three simple truths that can help everybody truly control their emotions:
1)Emotions are not all bad. Happiness is as much an emotion as sadness.
2)Emotions are natural to humans.
3)When you become fully aware of your emotional state, your emotional state will change.
Here we need to pause and examine the word “control”. To Descartes, control was a mechanistic process whereby material things could be manipulated by the will, or whereby immaterial things such as emotions could be subjugated by rational thought. Remember that Descartes was writing in the mid-seventeenth century, when modern science was only very young. Nowadays, scientists take the word “control” to have a meaning more akin to “regulate”. For example, a driver’s foot on the accelerator pedal regulates the speed of the car. Deep breathing exercises can help someone having a panic attack to regulate their air intake. Self-awareness can help you regulate your emotions.
How does it work? The first thing to realise is that your emotions are part of you. Of themselves, they are neither good nor bad, they just are what they are. They are inseparable from you. You are what you are: your entire body, thoughts, physical feelings and emotions. All parts of you are required for you to function as a healthy, well-regulated human being.
So how does self-awareness help you control your emotions? The answer lies in The Paradoxical Theory of Change, which was developed by the psychologist Arnold Beisser in the 1960s. I will use the white bear problem to illustrate it. Imagine that you are in a zoo and there really is a polar bear padding around the enclosure in front of you. What happens if you don’t look at it, if you try to ignore it, face the other way, stop up your ears, refuse to look at the description of it, etc? Simple – you discover nothing about it. You went all the way to the zoo, and you will go home having no knowledge at all of what a polar bear looks like close up and your understanding of polar bears will remain undeveloped. I am guessing you wouldn’t do that at the zoo, so why do you do it with your emotions? Because you’ve been taught it’s the right thing to do. You’ve been taught to ignore them, face the other way, stop up your ears, etc.
If you take the time to experience your emotions, to notice them as fully as you can, to sit with them and allow yourself to notice how your body feels in response to your emotions, to notice what thoughts are triggered by your emotions, then your emotional state will change. You will learn to recognise, accept and regulate not just your emotions, but your whole self. You will find yourself more cognisant and accepting of both the masculine and the feminine aspects of yourself, equally comfortable in the experience of thoughts, physical feelings and emotions. You will find that you no longer struggle to deny your emotions, instead you will feel more balanced and able to handle life on life’s terms.
It may seem as I have taken a simplistic view of the problem, but I have not. The one caveat that I will leave you with is that the process of becoming self-aware is one that can never be mastered. It is a life-long daily process. It is something that should be taught to every child in school. In my view, it is a pre-requisite for good mental health in any human being.
5th April 2016