I was listening to NPR in my car the yesterday (yes, I listen to NPR, and if you don’t, you should. It can be really fascinating sometimes. If you’re older than, say, 21, get over yourself and tune in). Anyway, I was listening to NPR in my car yesterday and Diane Rehm was interviewing David Brooks, the New York Times columnist and ubiquitous Sunday morning talk show guest, about his new book, “The Social Animal.” From what I gathered, it’s about human emotion, and emotional expression where that kind of thing is generally discouraged (despite people blogging their every thought and feeling, in macro and micro form, all over the place every minute of the day. Present blogger and Facebook user included).
As is its wont when callers and emailers are involved, the conversation was unfolding in a lot of directions. But Brooks addressed a subtopic about logic and logical thought processing, and how men use that processing to stop themselves from acting emotionally.
Well, that got me thinking. I’m a woman, see, so I’m always thinking, and more often than I’d like to admit or probably even realize, it’s about why men are the way they are.
There’s this one guy in particular that I was thinking about. Now, this isn’t a gross, sappy, gag-me kind of thing, I promise. And I will tell you right now that I am actually a pretty logical person, myself. I even exhibit a lot of the behaviors Brooks was talking about: having an emotional, natural reaction to something, but squashing it because it is not necessarily a “logical” reaction. Even if it’s the kind of thing most women would allow themselves to show, I often won’t. So I get where Brooks is coming from with his point.
But what the radio interview made me think about was the deconstruction of emotion into smaller, more digestible bits of logical explanations for our reactions. This guy (who I cannot continue to call “this guy,” so let’s just name him Jack) has always baffled me when it comes to emotional things. We are very good friends and I know him very well. We have shared emotional conversations and connections over the years about a whole range of topics. He is capable of great and deep emotion. But when it comes to the emotion of human relationships, he sort of drops out. He feels things, but he doesn’t follow up on them. It’s like he goes, “Oh, wow, that’s a strong feeling. Interesting.” And then goes to get a beer.
And that’s fine. But for a guy this deep, this smart, this interesting, this inherently able to communicate and share in an unintimidating, non-gross way, why is it so hard for him to let himself really connect? He’s a study for me at this point. He does this thing that I call “the Heisman.” He lets you get just so close, and then the arm shoots out. “Okay, that’s as close as you get.” It’s fascinating.
Commitment-phobia doesn’t quite explain it. I won’t go into a litany of things about him, but suffice it to say I’ve done quite a lot of thinking about this, and I’ve always been stumped in the end. Until David Brooks and Diane Rehm revealed the truth to me: Jack deconstructs his emotional reactions into manageable logical reactions instead.
Eureka. Eureka on Route 29. I’ve been trying to pin this down for years. Thank you, NPR. Here’s some money.
Jack breaks down the big, whoa, overwhelming, gut-turning, anxiety-inducing reactions we all have, and turns them into pieces of data. He knows that emotional reactions can usually be explained in scientific ways. There are concrete reasons that we have the feelings we do. So he just takes that feeling and analyzes it, making it nothing more than the binary code of human connection. “Oh, I know why I feel like this. It’s X factor added to Y factor, divided by A factor all over B. Obviously.”
And he’s not wrong.
(Which is sometimes really annoying.)
So that led me to debate something else. If he’s not wrong in his almost mathematical, probably involuntary deconstruction of his emotions… then what’s wrong with doing it? I do it, I realized. I do it, but not to the same extent. I don’t use it to avoid establishing real, emotionally deep connections in all cases. I use it to just… I don’t know, survive my own neurosis. That’s actually pretty healthy, right? So there’s nothing wrong with this deconstruction of a big feeling so that we can better understand where it’s coming from. Isn’t that what therapy is?
This begot a theory: if deconstruction is the product of self-awareness, are the more self-aware people around us, by definition, also less outwardly emotional?
In the brief amount of time I had to think about it right then, I thought the answer was actually… well, yeah. I thought of the more outwardly emotional people I know, and found that, on the whole, they are people who I might consider a little less self-aware. (Note: this does not mean I think they’re stupid or small-minded, or that they don’t do a lot of introspective thinking. In fact, they’re not, they’re not, and they do. I’m just making an observation based on perception.) And the people who I would consider more self-aware tend to be less outwardly emotional.
I’m not saying my hastily-comprised theory is a hard and fast psycho-emotional rule. We can all come up with exceptions. But huh.
Next question is naturally begged: since self-awareness is generally regarded as a positive attribute, is it good to be this way? Or is it bad? The answer seems to be “yes” to both. We need this kind of processing so we’re not emoting all over ourselves all the time. But we need to be honest about our feelings or we’ll shut down, close off, seem cold and distant.
The crux of the whole issue, then, becomes why? Why do some people do this? Is it fear? Fear of being exposed, of being found out, of being taken advantage of, thought a fool, hurt, shamed, embarrassed, vilified? Of being a disappointment? Doesn’t everyone have those fears? So why are certain people more likely to deconstruct their emotions than others? I don’t have the answer to that. I’m probably one of those people. It’s why I get Jack so well. It’s why I’m usually not bothered by the Heisman treatment. But this NPR interview makes me think… maybe I need to wear a little less padding.