Melancholics and inhibited body language/facial expressions

Aquinas took from Aristotle a cool view of the emotions…

Basically the underlying emotion (or ‘passion’ because they can be viewed as external objects causing us to have a ‘passive’ response or undergo change…like the ‘patient’ who suffers…)

The underlying emotion is love which is our natural response to things that appear good (or are good).

Which is pretty cool, because it means love is the root of all our responses to our experience.

So it goes something like:

I perceive something good in the distance -> desire  (distance can be time or space.)

I perceive something evil/bad in the distance -> fear

I attain the good thing -> joy

The bad thing arrives -> sorrow

— I think about getting rid of the bad thing -> anger

How I feel about good things finally -> I love them

How I feel about bad things finally – > I hate them

I think good things are attainable/ bad things can be overcome -> hope

I think good things are unattainable/bad things can’t be overcome -> despair

Pretty cool, huh?

All of these passions/emotions have an effect on our minds and our bodies, because we are psychosomatic beings.

The old system was  a bit vitalist, so they would talk about heat and life in your body.

Eg. when you feel love the heat expands in your body. Love is expansive, and makes you actually feel warm. Fear makes your heat retract inward, which is why you may feel cold when afraid. In anger the heat rises up into the head. Sorrow is the worst because your heat shrinks right back inside and you feel lifeless and awful.

These passions have corresponding facial expressions. They effect your posture, your gait, your movements, and your face. That’s how people can learn to read “body language”.

So let’s say you feel happy. You’re experiencing joy, and your face shows it. You’re beaming joy naturally without any effort.

But then someone shouts at you “what the hell are you grinning at, you look like an idiot!”.

Being yelled at is scary, being told you look like an idiot is bad. These produce feelings of sorrow and fear, which change your expression immediately. But you might also be confused, not sure why they are saying these things, not sure why your joyful feeling would cause a bad reaction in them.

You might also feel anger, and your expression changes again.

That’s still fairly natural. Your face is responding automatically to the emotion you are feeling.

But what if someone yells at you enough times that you realise your automatic expressions are going to get you into trouble again and again? Then maybe you decide that you should hide your joy, or your anger, or fear, or whatever it is you think will get you into trouble. You become afraid to express your feelings naturally in your expression.

But the only way to stop your face from automatically expressing is to give it a different task to do. So you practice holding a facial expression, or you stay really mindful of what emotion you might be feeling, ready to dampen it down with “serious face” or “polite face” or “happy face”.

The problem is that these faces are not natural. they aren’t expressing your authentic emotion. Instead they are expressing a complicated internal conflict, based on a fear of how people will react to you.

Holding that kind of tension in your face, and monitoring your expression, is very taxing and stressful. It sucks. It’s inauthentic.

I think Melancholics are especially prone to this because we do have strong emotions that are often out of sync with the people around us.

People might think you’re sitting grinning at nothing, when you’re reliving a past experience in your mind. Get told off enough times…get told it’s disrespectful or that you look like there’s something wrong with you, and yes you probably will internalise that message and learn to inhibit your natural expressions.

The way out of it is not easy, because you need to actively resist the impulse to control your expression. It takes more effort to overcome this effort-laden habit, but the effort has to be careful and light.

You might need to relearn intentionally how to let your face express your feelings automatically without fear of other people’s negative reactions.

One place to start is noticing that there is actual muscle tension in your face at this very moment. The weird, constant feelings of tension or tightness aren’t imaginary, they’re caused by tight muscles reacting to your fear of having the “wrong” expression.

If you can be aware of that tension as something the muscles of your face and head are actively doing, then that may help you ease off the tension a little.

It’s not just facial muscles, but also the muscles that control the eyes and the eyelids. Looking at the individual muscles of the head and face might help you understand the strain you’re creating in trying to keep your face unresponsive to your natural internal impulses.

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Melancholics and trauma

A reader asked how melancholics express love and affection, physically and emotionally, etc.

I feel like l need to understand why he takes forever to be close to me, doesn’t seem to like physical touch (which l think is related to past trauma) despite me providing a safe zone.

I don’t know the person in question, so this is more of an educated guess based on my own experiences and my interactions with other melancholics.

Trauma

First I would say that it most likely is related to past trauma, or the internal adaptations he’s made to the past trauma.

In a melancholic, trauma could produce adaptations like detachment/dissociation, hypervigilance, agitation, and so on.

Physical touch could be difficult because he’s basically in fight-or-flight mode, feeling in danger and ready to run or lash out at the slightest hint of a threat. His nervous system could be amped up, and every sound or sensation is magnified and feels like a violent imposition that is putting him in danger.

That’s one option anyway.

Alternatively, he could be detaching/dissociating from unpleasant emotions, trying not to feel them. If this is the case, then physical touch would be unwelcome because he’s already doing his best not to feel anything. Physical contact from a loved-one would normally have a relaxing, grounding effect, but in his case it would also bring him closer to his unwanted painful emotions.

Temperament

Dissociation and hypervigilance are pretty common responses regardless of temperament, though I suspect melancholics are more prone to internalise and hold on to past trauma than the other temperaments.

But in addition to mechanisms like dissociation and hypervigilance, melancholics will also respond to trauma in uniquely melancholic ways.

Because melancholics are idealists, they will be drawn to idealising their response. That means they will look for ultimate, perfect, and meaningful responses to their suffering.

You can tell a sanguine or phlegmatic to “learn to let go” but a melancholic will baulk at “letting go” because it implies that the problem is not as significant as it feels to them.

Letting go sounds like “forgetting” and since when has a problem ever gone away just by forgetting about it?

So a melancholic will be drawn to radical, idealised solutions to their internal suffering. Solutions like…rejecting all intimate or dependent human relationships, wishing they could live alone like a hermit on a mountaintop, somehow gaining complete control over their emotions, or simply ceasing to rely on or experience emotions in the first place.

These are the kinds of ‘solutions’ that will really just mess you up a whole lot more, but they appeal to the melancholic because they are inspiring. They hold meaning and promise a lasting solution to the problem of suffering.

What I’m getting at here is that a melancholic might have developed ideals and (unrealistic) goals that further inhibit them from accepting or expressing affection.

I’ve said before that being a melancholic is like being lost in a fog where only the biggest and brightest landmarks can be (dimly) seen. So imagine you’ve grown up in the fog, unable to respond adequately to your own suffering by altering your environment, and this predicament has left a deep and long-lasting impression on you that you never ever forget…

If you can’t change your environment (due to lack of knowledge, power, or both) then all you can do is change yourself.

Maybe the best you can do is try to stop those painful or unpleasant emotions from having control over you.

Melancholics may then choose to identify with examples of human beings who are emotionally detached and invulnerable, in the belief that this is an attainable and desirable way to live.

If this is the case with your melancholic, then he might not know how to reconcile this idealised role or imagined invulnerability with the more simple and healthy enjoyment of expressing and receiving affection.

Summary

All of this is potentially complicated.

In the first instance I would consider either the detached/dissociated or hypervigilant/fight-or-flight responses as possible explanations for avoiding accepting/expressing affection.

Both of those can run quite deep, and people do not necessarily recognise that they are in these states.

The secondary thing is the idealised role that could mean he has past or current ideals that make it hard for him to accept emotional vulnerability and intimacy. He might not even realise that these ideals are incomplete or unrealistic or not good models for a healthy human existence.

If this sounds daunting, just bear in mind that all people of different temperaments have issues and problems and faults. Melancholics are just more likely to internalise it rather than blaming it all on other people or taking it out on others.

Obviously none of this is a substitute for professional counselling etc.

So bearing in mind my non-professional status, there are a couple of ‘themes’ that might help. If possible, you could talk to him about how simple physical affection makes you feel relaxed and happy, and ask him how he feels about it.

Melancholics seem to love talking/thinking about themselves, and a spirit of genuine inquiry (as opposed to a challenge or interrogation) is usually welcome.

After all, if you start breaking love down into more basic actions and feelings, isn’t it that we feel relaxed and happy when we’re with someone we love? And physical contact tells us that the person we care about finds us lovable and attractive. Verbal affection and “reaching out” tells us that we’re important to the person we care about, and vice versa.

If you can find a way to talk about it, and discuss how he feels, I think that might prove fruitful. If he’s melancholic, he may not have a very clear sense of how he feels or why he feels that way. If there are repeated patterns like it taking him a long time to get close, then he might be able to make observations and work out what’s going on.

If you mean that each time he sees you, it takes him a while to physically get close to you, then bear in mind that it might simply be taking time for his physiological and mental state to change. That is, if his “normal” phys. and mental state is fight-or-flight, then yes it will take quite a while to cool down in your presence, to a level where he is calm enough to accept and express affection.

By becoming aware of patterns like these (if that’s what is actually going on) we can learn to adjust.

Anyhow, I hope some of this is relevant and helpful. Since I don’t know the circumstances or the individuals involved it’s quite general and may not be appropriate for your situation.

Perfect love and complete joy

What’s your emotional baseline?

As a melancholic my inner life has been characterised by anxiety, hypervigilance, doubt, struggle, and frequent dismay or despair.

Being an introvert, my inner life is essentially my entire life.

But I’ve been looking to change my life or my experience of it, and taking a cue from some familiar religious sources, I’ve set upon some emotional goals or ideals: perfect love, and complete joy.

Perfect love comes from 1 John:

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

Anxiety is a form of fear. It is triggered (however unconsciously) by beliefs about the world, myself, and the intersection of the two. I’ve spent many years analysing my fears and their source, arriving finally at a point where there is nothing more to learn from them.

There is no fear in love, therefore, wherever possible, I’m replacing fear with love. Where it isn’t possible, I try to dig a little deeper and understand what’s going on, what lies behind the fear.

Complete joy comes from John’s Gospel:

Truly, truly, I tell you, whatever you ask the Father in My name, He will give you. Until now you have not asked for anything in My name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.

Joy is the opposite of sorrow. We feel joy in response to good things, sorrow in response to bad. Complete joy implies complete goodness in life – a life so full of good things that our joy is complete.

That’s a pretty high bar to set.

Joy and love are different. We can experience love because God Himself is love, and love is the fundamental nature of reality. As children we experience love naturally. Love is, as it were, our default setting, but for various reasons it is drowned out or obscured by fear and sorrow.

We can experience joy because God is love, and love entails a desire for the good of the one loved. Put simply, when you love someone you want them to be happy.

Hence the reference to prayer, to asking God to give us things, and the assurance that He will do so. The omnipotent deity, the divine being behind and within all existence will shape that existence to our complete joy.

But why has He not already done so? Why do we have to even ask? If the ‘default’ setting is love, why is there so much evil and misery and hatred in the world?

Honestly I don’t know about “the world”, I only know my world. And with deep introspection I’ve found that every misery and hurt and fear in my life has been chosen by me.

That might sound strange or implausible, but it is true. Going back, I can recall key moments where I was threatened or terrified by some external event, and at that moment I assented to fear or anger or hurt and did not assent to love or faith or hope.

Ever since, I’ve maintained those fears and sorrows in my own inner world.

The great commandment is to love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind, and Jesus implores us to remain in His love.

Anxiety means I am not remaining in that love, and while this shouldn’t be a cause for feeling guilty or blameworthy in an emotional sense, it does mean we are responsible. It is up to us to choose love instead of fear, though it may take a lot of time and effort to discover the moment where the wrong choice was made.

That is why life is not full of joy. We made choices in favour of sorrow and fear instead of love, and we have inwardly maintained those sorrows and fears ever since.

We actively reject love, though we may not be entirely conscious of it. I guess that’s why the commandment refers to all our heart, soul, and mind. All of it. Not just “a lot”.

Jesus said in terms of prayer that:

Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.

But we don’t believe, because we don’t have love. And while we might pray for things we feel we really want, I’ve found deep down that I’m divided. Praying for success when parts of you don’t really want to succeed, because they’re enmeshed in fears and sorrows. Praying for healing when parts of you are content with your disease.

The bottom line is that perfect love and complete joy are immanent, though they may not be imminent. But the more I examine myself and my own experience, the more it seems the resistance is all on my side.

Enlightenment and Depression

So…if your sense of self is really just a bunch of thoughts and impressions created by your mind – or more profoundly: the mind, Buddha-nature, God, consciousness, Brahman – then doesn’t that mean experiences of negative mental states like anxiety and depression are also products of this same mind?

All thoughts and impressions come from the same place. So although on the relative level your depression can be viewed as your reaction to negative life-events, on the absolute level there is no difference between “you” and “your reaction”. Both are products of mind.

Which is pretty weird, if you think about it.

It’s as if you’re a character in a story, and you think the things that befall you are due to your beliefs and choices and actions. But in fact both you and all the circumstances in and around you are created by the author. You have no control, because “you” are just another part of what is being written.

So when “you” start thinking about this, it’s not as though “you” are exercising your autonomy and control over your thoughts and circumstances. It means the author has gone from writing “you – who doesn’t think about this stuff” to writing “you – now thinking about this stuff and realising how weird it is”.

Likewise, these mental states like depression and anxiety; it’s not that “you” suddenly become afflicted by anxiety or depression. There’s no central, coherent, unified “you” who suffers those states. Instead the author has gone from writing “you without depression” to writing “you with depression”. If the depression stops, it will be because the author is now writing “you with depression stopping and feeling relieved about it”.

So what’s going on? Is the author an arsehole? Why is he or it inflicting so much suffering on everyone?

Well, the weird thing is that there is no “everyone” on whom suffering is inflicted.

There are temporary thoughts and impressions, some of which contain the belief that there is an “everyone” who is suffering.

But there are other temporary thoughts and impressions that recognise all thoughts and impressions as coming from the same place.

The thoughts that are full of suffering only think they are full of suffering. They aren’t actually full of suffering.

In other words, if you are depressed, but you then recognise that all thoughts and impressions come from the same place, then it’s not that you would stop being depressed, but that the “you” who feels assailed by depression would no longer be a separate, distinct, enduring entity who can be assailed by things like depression.

If the author writes a character experiencing depression, it’s not as though he first writes the character and then assails them with depression. No, the author writes the character-with-depression as one thing. Then later he writes the character-after-depression as another thing. There’s no actual, continuous character who exists from beginning to end and is assailed by depression, then recovers from it.

Moment by moment, our thoughts and impressions are coming from the same place. They don’t linger. Like the frames in a movie. Some objects in a movie scene might appear to stay still while others, like the actors, move around. But in reality we are seeing continuous individual frames. The sequence is composed of individual frames, and for an object just to remain static in place it must still be reproduced one frame at a time in every frame.

On the relative level we all have individual reasons for the negative mental states we experience. But on the absolute level, our negative mental states are all due to one thing: we mistake the “self” of our thoughts and impressions for an actual entity.

But who commits that mistake? Isn’t it too a product of the same author?

This is why there is such ambivalence about the nature of delusion in Buddhism, and the nature of evil in Christianity. If God is all powerful, is he also responsible for the existence of evil?

One thing is clear: despite the ambivalence over causation, delusion will be overcome and evil will be vanquished. There is no ambivalence about the end. Delusion and enlightenment, evil and good, they are not viewed as equal and opposite pairs.

Depression is a horrible experience, but when we recognise that both the experience and the apparent subject of that experience are products of thoughts and impressions that arise from the same place, then both the suffering and the one who suffers are transcended. The son of man has nowhere to lay his head.

At the same time, there comes the realisation that even this realisation itself has come from the same place as all the other thoughts and impressions. The quality has changed, but not the source.

And at that moment there comes the realisation that this realisation too is coming from the same place – that the author is now writing himself into the story as the author. And everything it took to arrive at this point – all the suffering and confusion and striving and grasping and gradual realisation – that too was the author, writing everything.

And when it stops, when realisation is replaced with forgetfulness and the door closes once more and it feels like “you” have returned to normal…who do you think is doing that?

Paypal gay picnic threat: a symbolic masterpiece in disguise

When I first saw this image on Paypal’s front page I just assumed it was a homophobic depiction of a small child fleeing in terror from a gay couple out for a picnic in the park.

gay picnic

Nice one Paypal, I thought, That’ll set the cause of sexual diversity back a couple of decades.

But then I took a closer look, and suddenly it struck me that the two men were uncannily similar in appearance. So similar, in fact, that they could be the same person.

ghost of parenting

That’s when I realised the true depth of meaning behind this otherwise totally innocuous image.

Imagine there’s only one man, the man in the beige shorts, and what do you have? Just a father happily taking his daughter out for a picnic lunch in the park. He’s nicely and colourfully dressed. He has a fond and amiable expression on his face. He’s hoisting a picnic basket, a mat and other picnic paraphenalia in somewhat jaunty fashion, with another bag slung over his left shoulder but hidden from view.

What about the daughter? In one sense she’s the perfect image of a happy child playing on her obviously new and expensive scooter with a kind of stock photo abandon. Yet her eyes are fixed, uncaring, straight ahead, belying her otherwise excited expression. There’s a callous tone to her excitement. She’s happy to be riding, but in truth she’s riding away from her father. She knows he can’t keep up, and this points to a deeper tension in the entire scene, a tension embodied in the man in the red shorts.

Red-shorts-man is clearly an older version of the father. Like the ghost of picnics-future his hair is grayed and his whole appearance is faded and wan. Even his shoes have been drained of their colour.

His face is weary, pale, and full of apprehension. He watches his daughter through heavily-lidded eyes, his mouth open on the verge of an exhausted cry, his head tipped back as if he can hardly find the strength to keep it upright.

What is he? Is he a ghost? A photographic negative? Or is he an image of the subconscious mind, the hidden depths of the father’s soul in which lie all manner of anxieties and stress, in which the burden of keeping up the appearance of a picture-perfect picnicking parent is just too much to bear? To fully understand we must look to the symbols that attend the man in red shorts.

On his left hand he wears a watch, symbolising awareness of time and heightening our sense of urgency. Yet the watch dial is hidden from view, pressed against his shoulder by the burden he carries. Yes, time is a burden and the burdens we bear warp our perception of time. How long have they travelled? How soon must they return? These thoughts are both brought into being and simultaneously crushed by the increasing distance between father and daughter and his secret apprehension of what lies in wait further down the path.

Red-shorts-man is on the father’s left side, representing the introspective, introverted aspect of our psyche. While the father’s right hand (extroverted, conscious mind) is preoccupied with the picnic-materials, his ghostly companion clings desperately to the left. He expands the father’s hidden burden – the bag on the left shoulder. At the same time the father shrugs his shoulder against the ghostly presence, as if to deny its existence.

Red-shorts-man is in the midst of a powerful stride. He marches ahead, pulling the father forward, urging haste.  And yet at the same time he is somehow insubstantial. Like a balloon about to take flight he threatens to hover, incorporeal, as fears and anxieties draw us away too from our enjoyment of the present moment.

Red-shorts-man’s shoulders are equally weighted with baggage, he is fully laden not only with life’s present burdens but with the accumulated cares and concerns of the past. Is he truly older? No, his age, like his faded appearance represent the toll these cares and worries take on us all.

Why then the red shorts?

Red is a primal colour, a colour of fear and of blood, the two elements that bind father and daughter. Blood is family, heredity, relation. The fear, the terror of separation and loss echo through the father’s subconscious mind. But why shorts? Shorts are metaphorically at “the bottom”. They tie into a deep history of biological allusions not only to reproduction (the father as father) but also to our rich vocabulary of intestinal profanities: Crap! S***! Bugger!

They also point to the upper legs, the thighs, the powerful quadriceps muscles and the fight-or-flight response that has him set to run, to take off in pursuit of the daughter at the first sign of danger.

And what is this danger?

In a word: nature. Mother nature, human nature, the world beneath and beyond the limits of human civilisation.

The father, the man in red shorts, are safely on the path. The bold clear lines of concrete cut a swathe through the terrifying darkness of the wild. But it is into this wild that the daughter now careers headlong.

To the left of the image nature dominates. It is the unknown territory Paypal would have us ‘unleash’ and ‘explore’.

And yet…just where the trees should be at their thickest we see the edge of another path and even a glimmer of a fence or railing, more vestiges of civilisation.

In the end Paypal leaves us with a puzzle. It tells us “New Money takes you on new adventures” and extols a “sense of wonder”. But the world it offers us to explore is already bounded and fenced-in. It is safe. The only danger is an appearance of danger, the only fear is failing to have enough New Money to be happy.

At this final point the entire project is cast into doubt. What is there to fear if everything is mapped out, paved, and fenced-in?

The tantalising answer suggests itself: this very incongruity, the call to adventure in the midst of a fully bounded and stagnant landscape, is itself the instigator of an existential dread.

Yes, this is the true nature of the father’s subconscious fear. It is not fear for his daughter’s safety, but fear of the future she represents. The bulk of the red-shorts-man’s burdens are not on his right (extroversion, the real world), but on his left (introversion, the inner world). His anxiety is not for real-world incidents but an anxiety of meaning and purpose.

Westerners read from left to right and our interpretation of compositions is coloured by this influence. Yet the people in this composition are traversing from right to left across the screen. They are moving back into the past, to a place where the father at least has already been, where there is no adventure, no uncertainty, no possibilities. The daughter represents the future, but even she is returning to the past, and the circularity of the path suggests an endless loop of generations and of experience.

There is nothing new under the sun, Paypal cries, echoing Ecclesiastes. The father’s fond amiability, the daughter’s naive excitement, they spin together in a fixed orbit while red-shorts-man goes along, the only clue to something awry in this happy spectacle of endless and repetitive consumption. “Trip of a lifetime!” the caption mocks, as if to shock us from our complacence, its irony a stinging rebuke to the public perception of online shopping as the sine qua non of a brighter tomorrow.

Just one look

I came across this website recently where a guy put forward what we might call a quasi-spiritual theory and practice.

His theory is that all our psychological unease and strife is caused by a subconscious “fear of life”. This fear of life is linked into a desire to know ourselves as we are. I don’t know which comes first, the fear or the desire. It doesn’t really matter at this point.

We go looking for this ‘self’ everywhere…here we insert the usual spiritual story of seeking peace and happiness in material possessions or power or self-image.

The usual spiritual story would encourage us to look within to find our true self, and find in that all the happiness and peace we wrongly sought outside ourselves.

The problem with this approach is that instead of just looking inside and going “oh, there I am”, we implicitly reason that given how desperately we pursue happiness and avoid suffering in life, this ‘self’ we need to find must be pretty spectacular. It must be magnificent and intoxicating and profound in direct proportion to our desire for happiness and our aversion to suffering.

That’s where this “Just One Look” idea comes in. The guy who runs the site claims firstly that this “find your self” theme is not meant to be a mystical spiritual quest. It would probably be better presented as a simple psychological method. In fact he refers to the “fear of life” problem as a “psychological auto-immune disease” for which the act of looking within is simply “medicine”.

His method is, first, to recognise that you can move your attention around at will. Second, that you have a feeling of what it is to be “me”, a feeling that you can either discover directly just by looking for it, or indirectly by going to a normal childhood memory and remembering what it felt like to be you at that time.

This feeling of “me” is not mysterious or esoteric. It’s pretty straightforward and we typically take it for granted, chasing after emotions and external or internal stimuli.

But according to the theory, this “me” feeling is what we actually desire. It’s something that never really changes, and once we look at it with our attention (intentionally, I presume), it sets in motion a gradual but more thorough psychological change.

As far as I can tell, what happens is that when we look at that feeling of “me” while understanding that this “me” is the antidote to the fear of life, all our fear-based psychological habits become superfluous. They don’t vanish overnight, but their motive force – the fear – no longer has such power because you now know that this “me” is your unchanging and consistent internal reference-point.

Anyway, that’s how I see it. It has a great deal in common with elements of spiritual practice in Vedanta and Buddhism. And to be fair to the ‘spiritual’ side of it, spirit and soul are proto-scientific terms. Psychology is, after all, the logic of the soul.

In Vedantan or Buddhist terms, I think this little method is picking up on the theme of misidentification: that we wrongly identify with impermanent or illusory things, whether they be ‘external’ like reputation, career, etc., or ‘internal’ like positive or negative emotions, thoughts, intellectual process, etc.

Some methods teach us to disidentify or ‘see through’ those objects, those false selves or idols. Others focus on finding the ‘true self’ within. But as the author notes, this has accrued a great deal of spiritual baggage along the way.

It is my experience that there is one desire that drives us all and that is the desire to know what I am. This desire, in most lives, for most of the time, is wrongly understood and projected upon objects of acquisition or aversion. It is projected upon objects of acquisition like relationships, power, money, position in the herd, education, and understanding. The seeking after understanding as a way of quenching the thirst of this desire to know what I am is a huge mistake. The nature of this desire is denied, is unrecognized. It is not recognized to be the desire to know what I am but it is easy to see it in operation, as we are continuously trying to understand our story, to put it in a good context, to fix it, to shape it, to get rid of the things that cannot be if I am to be what I must be, in order to accept myself.

The endless effort to run the memory tape of my life, so I have a consistent and coherent structure that I can call “me,” which, of course, always fails. Moment to moment, it fails. This story about what I am, the story that entails and incorporates all of my emotions and feelings, unconscious urges, the things that I do in the world, the things that I have done, even the thoughts that come to my mind, this is an endless backbreaking doomed-to-failure effort to provide a structure, a face, a shape that is stable and safe, and that I can say, “That is me.” There are always these things about me popping up, that I have to say “It’s not me.” But that is the desire that drives it all and the culture is porous to this reality. It shows up all the time. “Be all that you can be.” “That is not who I am.” “Let me be who I am.” It is porous to the understanding of what is really driving us.

Even so, it’s very easy for people to pick up this non-spiritual theory and turn it into another spiritualised practice. I can see traces of it already, where people grab hold of key phrases and imbue them with significance that says implicitly “If I can just follow this practice, then I will be happy”. It’s entirely possible to fall into the trap of thinking “If I can only realise that happiness is not contingent on anything, then I’ll be happy!”

It helps that the guy putting forward this theory does not have the usual trappings of a guru or cult-leader. It’s very easy to not be invested in something I’ve just read on a website written by some American guy I’ll never meet.

Maybe that’s why it worked: there’s no implication that this “me” you need to look at is esoteric or religious or whatever. It’s just a psychological base that, when identified, provides stability and a frame of reference to undercut our hyperactive and otherwise all-absorbing emotional and cognitive states.

It’s like discovering that you don’t drink enough water…and then a bunch of other issues and behaviours turn out to be caused by moderate dehydration.

I would say that “fear of life” is likely derived from the sense that life’s fluidity and unexpected changes can profoundly effect us. The sense of “me” is like a built-in safety-mechanism that prevents us from being totally overwhelmed or overrun or changed. But like any safety-mechanism, it can’t reassure you if you don’t know it’s there.

Are you really a cynic?

I thought I was cynical, until I read the following chart courtesy of etymonline.com:

humor

As the table indicates, for me to be a cynic I must be exposing moral nakedness to the respectable for the sake of my own self-justification.

This is not what I thought cynicism was. It’s not what I do.

What I do is much more like privately expressing pessimism in the face of adversity for the sake of my own relief: sardonicism.

A cynic is someone who justifies their own actions by exposing the moral “nakedness” or hypocrisy of others. Like a drug addict who argues that “we’re all addicted to something”, or a thief who argues that “the rich cheat on their taxes”.

Sardonicism is instead like bitter laughter during hard times. Pessimism – expecting the worst – becomes a defense against adverse events.

Are you truly cynical, or sardonic?  The two are not mutually exclusive – I can use sardonic pessimism to cynically justify my actions, and use cynicism to justify being pessimistic. None of this is very positive, grounded as it is in defensive and negative perspectives of life. Like any defense, it may well be our least-bad response to danger and adversity, but it’s not good to live for long in a defensive state.

A response to adversity ought, ideally, to free us from adversity. Once we are free we can abandon the response. If we never abandon the response, it is either because we are unable to free ourselves – suggesting the response was futile – or because we anticipate recurrences – suggesting the response is only barely sufficient.

Unpacking sardonicism further: I use my expectation of the worst to provide relief when bad things happen. Adversity is easier to deal with when it falls short of one’s worst expectations. “Is that how hard you can hit me? I’m kinda disappointed.”

But pessimism is a self-inflicted injury designed to dull your sensitivity to disappointment, hurt, grief, and longing. Expecting the worst might limit your disappointment, but it also leaves you mired in a kind of desolation where nothing really good can happen. “Good” is not simply the absence of evil.

Time and energy devoted to pessimism could be better spent cultivating that which our pessimism seeks to defend: the full integrity of our own selves. Yet as a defense, pessimism doesn’t even try to avoid life’s blows, merely to soften them. Like bracing for impact, it hopes merely to not be taken by surprise.  Such a strategy makes sense only if we already believe that the evils in life are unavoidable, that we will be surprised unless we exert the constant vigilance of a pessimistic mind.  Pessimism is an attempt to take control of a hostile and adverse environment by adjusting one’s expectations to it.  It treats fear – the anticipation of evils – as one of life’s indelible characteristics.

That the world is full of evils is hard to deny. That these evils sometimes take us by surprise is also evident. To adopt pessimism in an attempt to at least forestall surprise makes sense, but is ultimately a terrible way to live. I didn’t understand this when I was younger, but time has exhausted my patience with pessimism.  Avoiding sorrow is not the same as pursuing happiness, and rejecting the pursuit of happiness for fear of increasing the risk of sorrow shows an incomplete understanding of happiness and sorrow, good and evil, in the first place.

I have arrived at a position in life where the greatest obstacle to my own happiness lies in my efforts to avoid suffering and sorrow. More importantly, the need for positive direction, for creativity, and an inspiring purpose demands that I put aside pessimism and attend, for once, to the makings of a pleased and happy frame of mind.

 

 

 

Anxiety and the Melancholic: part three

In part one we looked at the anxiety of a melancholic in a sanguine world, and in part two we covered the anxieties that arise from a melancholic’s mistakenly taking phlegmatics as a social model. Part three will examine anxieties that stem from the influence of cholerics.

So how does the choleric contribute to melancholic anxiety?

We saw in part one that our society is heavily influenced by sanguine ideas of fun and excitement. In a similar way, society is heavily influenced by choleric sensitivities toward ambition, power, and achievement.

Most people enjoy socialising to some extent, but sanguine influences shape our experience and understanding of what it means to be social, of how to be social. Likewise, everyone desires some degree of success in their efforts and exploits, to improve their position in life, to accumulate some measure of wealth; yet how we go about it is shaped by a variety of choleric influences.

The melancholic tendency to form and pursue ideals means that we idealise the choleric approach to ambition just as we idealise the sanguine approach to social life. And in a sense this is accurate: sanguines are the ideal socialites, cholerics are the ideal achievers; melancholics just need to learn that recognising an ideal does not mean we can or should achieve the ideal.

Cholerics are as diverse as any of the temperaments, but what they have in common is achievement and ambition as their primary motives. Cholerics are excitable and reactive like sanguines, but like the melancholic they form long-lasting impressions. This combination can leave cholerics with the impression that they’re the smartest guys in the room, and there’s some truth to this conclusion.

The excitability and reactivity of the choleric makes them far more sensitive to opportunities than the melancholic or the phlegmatic can ever be. Their enduring impressions give cholerics a long-term vision and a capacity for focus that sanguines typically won’t sustain.

Every “self-made man” story is most driven by a choleric temperament. But that’s not to say that every choleric will resemble a business tycoon. Even amongst the usual list of ambitious and successful businessmen (and women) there’s a diversity that reflects the range within the choleric temperament: flamboyant, viscerally arrogant men like Trump; quiet achievers like Gates; intense iconoclasts like Jobs; their success stories can differ wildly, and even the quality of their success may be open to debate, but they share an ambitious quality that, once you recognise it, is distinctly choleric.

Cholerics are successful across a range of endeavours. You will find choleric musicians, actors, academics, managers, bureaucrats, and of course, politicians.  Their particular combination of excitability and enduring impressions leads them to find the most advantageous position in any domain.  Put yourself in a choleric’s shoes:

Imagine you’re hiking with three friends and together you stumble across traces of gold out in the bush. You realise there may well be more gold in this area, and naturally you start considering whether you could buy the land or carry out a quiet survey, what exactly the logistics and possible returns on such a venture might be.  You decide to discuss it with your friends* but to your surprise your sanguine friend seems put off by the hard work involved. Your melancholic friend seems to like the idea of a gold mine, but doesn’t seem to realise that this is potentially what you are all standing on. Your phlegmatic friend is agreeable, but doesn’t really have an opinion on the matter. Since no one seems to be truly on board, you pursue it for yourself and become the proud owner of a literal gold mine.

*Actual cholerics may be wondering why you would risk sharing the gold mine idea with your idiot friends in the first place.

As per the example, cholerics are more ‘tuned in’ to the opportunities and advantages in life. Sanguines are (apologies) too superficial, while melancholics and phlegmatics are too oblivious.  It’s not that these other temperaments don’t want to be successful or that they can’t be successful, they just have difficulty pursuing success in the choleric way.

For these three temperaments, it might be better to say that they achieve success through doing what they love or enjoy.  Actually this is true of the choleric as well, they just happen to love succeeding, overcoming challenges, pursuing what they believe is worthy.  Unfortunately, the biggest defect of the choleric is an overestimation of their own worth. Feeling like “the smartest guy in the room” encourages a sense of arrogance, and cholerics are known to struggle with or succumb to a powerful pride.

So while it is true that the other temperaments often fail to see the opportunities before them, it’s also true that they tend to recoil from the ruthless and self-serving actions that are sometimes implicit in seizing those opportunities. Australian politics is at present exemplary of the dark side of the choleric temperament. Idealists need not apply, and thankfully the poisonous nature of the process is evident enough to dissuade most non-cholerics (and probably many cholerics) from getting involved.

For the melancholic, it is vitally important to recognise cholerics and the choleric influences in society, and to understand that we are fundamentally unsuited to the kind of life that puts ambition and personal advantage ahead of ideals. While all temperaments can learn from one another, with knowledge it becomes clear that choleric attitudes and strategies are simply not appropriate for the melancholic idealist.

For me this translates into the recognition that I am deeply averse to commercially driven activities. My idealism does not incorporate what I regard as a mercenary motive. Yet at the same time I know that such things simply do not seem ‘mercenary’ to a choleric, within reason. When I think of all the cholerics I have met or worked with, I know that their ‘successes’ would seem to me either empty success or even failures.  Yet there are other cholerics with whom I have a great deal more in common, whose goals are perhaps more idealistic in their ambit.

Regardless, it is a great relief for a melancholic to realise that many of our socially reinforced ideas of ambition and success simply do not apply to us.  We are idealistic rather than ambitious, or if you like, we are ambitious about our ideals.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anxiety and the Melancholic: part one

I spent many years trying to rid myself of anxiety by different methods, both conventional and unconventional.

But I still suffer from anxiety, and honestly I don’t know if I will ever truly be free of it.  I will certainly never be “free” from anxiety in the sense of being able to live my life exactly as I live it now, but without any trace of fear or apprehension or stress.

That’s because my anxiety is, as best I can tell, the result of conflict between my temperament and my environment.  My temperament is melancholic, and my environment is ruled by principles, practices, and preoccupations that are, if not totally foreign to me, at least very low down my private list of priorities.

Melancholics are idealists. We seek the ideal in every situation, and we are prone to a kind of self-inflicted suffering when we cannot meet the ideal, or when the ideal seems impossible, or when we grab hold of an ideal that isn’t really authentic or reasonable.

Life is especially difficult if we do not recognise the nature of our own idealism, and how it differs (often profoundly) from the motives and perspectives of other temperaments.

Let’s look at one simple example of idealism that causes anxiety:

Imagine you have the ideal of the perfect host, someone who is always available to entertain and provide hospitality to everyone you meet, with a perfectly clean and beautiful home, and a ready supply of good food and drink.

Imagine that you somehow get stuck in the role of perfect host for your extended family on every major holiday and milestone.  Every year you inevitably end up hosting long lunches or dinners for a dozen or so people, who seem to take for granted that this is your role, business as usual.

Imagine playing this role for ten, fifteen, or twenty years; going through an annual cycle of stressful preparation, enduring the day itself, and collapsing in exhaustion after the last relative leaves.

In this scenario, the melancholic becomes a victim of their own ideals. They may not want to host the big family get-together. They may not even like such events regardless of who hosts them. But on some level they accede to ideals of family togetherness, being the perfect host, not disappointing people, and so on.

A melancholic caught in such a situation will feel increasingly burdened by their own ideals and their sense of others’ expectations. They will grow to resent each year’s calendar of events – however sparse they might be – but will continually suppress their resentment for the sake of their unanswerable ideals.

Anxiety in this instance may stand for a range of unpleasant feelings that leave the melancholic in the unenviable position of routinely forcing themselves to do things they do not want to do.

Clash of temperaments

We are all familiar with the cliche of artists or creators feeling compromised by commercial forces. We understand that artistic integrity is often at the mercy of finance, and this means that artists must learn to compromise in order to survive. But it can also mean that the best art, the best creations, even the best products are hidden from the mainstream.

The ‘artistic temperament’ has a great deal in common with the melancholic temperament, though not all artists are melancholic and not all melancholics are artists. But in terms of being idealistic, of having a vision of how things could be, the comparison is apt.

What makes melancholics unique is a combination of two basic factors: how excitable they are, and how long-lasting their impressions are. Melancholics are not easily excited by external stimuli, but they form very long-lasting impressions. Compare them with the other three temperaments:

Sanguine

The sanguine is highly excitable, but does not form lasting impressions. Sanguines are typical “party people” who love excitement, and can be quite emotional, but quickly and easily change their minds and their emotions. They typically like nice objects, and are motivated by having fun and engaging with others.

Phlegmatic

Phlegmatics are not very excitable, and also do not form lasting impressions. Phlegmatics are extremely easy-going, don’t like conflict, and are happy to either do their own thing or go along with the crowd.

Choleric

Cholerics are excitable and, like the melancholic, they form long-lasting impressions. They are typically ambitious and have a strong sense of self-worth. They like challenges, can be quite proud, and will gravitate toward leadership positions.

Anxiety as clash of temperaments

While the different temperaments can work well together, in the context of anxiety the melancholics is especially vulnerable to quiet conflict and struggle on account of the other temperaments.

If we do not recognise the significance of the different temperaments, we will make the mistake of holding ourselves to standards that do not apply, and create for ourselves ideals that are not truly our own.  Our society is more obviously shaped by the values and priorities of the other temperaments. A typical melancholic will look around at the rest of society and try to place themselves in it, without realising that what is most visible and obvious is, almost by definition, not appropriate for the melancholic.

Clashing with a sanguine

For example, a melancholic who grows up around sanguines will feel insufficiently sociable, unable to keep up with the high energy and excitement of the sanguine temperament. Our society is profoundly influenced by the “fun-loving” sanguine.  Media and advertising take advantage of their infectious enthusiasm, and reinforce the image of expressive, emotive, and exuberant personal style as a kind of ideal. Yet for most melancholics this ideal will simply be unobtainable. We do not have the kind of energy that a sanguine has. We are not immediately excited by large crowds, bright lights, and loud music. We are not energised by buying new clothes or a new car or going to see a new movie (unless these things accord with our personal ideals: the ideal clothing, car, or movie).

But there’s a flip-side to all this sanguine energy. Sanguines make quick, impulsive decisions, often without much forethought or consideration. They tend to change their mind easily, and necessarily back away from poorly-considered choices.  And while the sanguine can easily “get over” anger, sadness, and disappointment, sometimes we need to learn from these things before we let them go.

By contrast, a melancholic can’t help but dwell on anger, sorrow, and disappointment. We turn these troublesome and painful events over and over in our minds, often months and even years later. Like a dog with a bone, we can’t let go until every last bit of life has been drawn out of the painful or instructive memory; and even then we may return to it to rehash and recapitulate the lesson.

When a sanguine says “live life with no regrets”, they typically mean “try everything, don’t hold back, seize every opportunity, live life to the full.” When a melancholic hears “live life with no regrets” he slowly reminisces on all the stupid, embarrassing or foolish things he’s ever done. The melancholic life is full of regret – but it’s more the regret for the consequences of mistakes than for opportunities left unexplored.

Melancholics will experience anxiety if they fail to recognise the fundamental differences between themselves and the sanguines of this world. Trying to match sanguines, let alone beat them at their own game, is a recipe for melancholic exhaustion, fatigue, and anxiety.  I don’t think I will ever stop feeling anxiety in apprehension of some forthcoming social occasion. This is because most social occasions are slated toward the strengths of the sanguine temperament, where a love of crowds, genuine enthusiasm, and a short memory for embarrassment and mistakes makes the sanguine impervious to anxiety in many if not most social occasions.

So what is the solution?

Ultimately I think the solution is to be true to your own temperament. If you don’t enjoy sanguine social occasions, it’s okay not to go to them. A great deal of anxiety comes from forcing ourselves to do things we simply do not wish to do. Unfortunately, when we look at sanguines without understanding how they are different, we make the mistake of treating their unique features as ideals that we must simply strive to mirror. If I just try hard enough, I can be at ease in the purposeless social engagement I don’t really want to go to. If I just “let go” I too can find happiness in impulse-purchases of shiny consumer goods.  If I just get out there and have fun, I can forget about how someone’s behaviour is making me uncomfortable, or how I’m not entirely okay with the direction my work is headed, and so on.

These are false ideals for the melancholic. We have our own strengths and weaknesses, and while we can learn from the strengths and weaknesses of others, we must do so with awareness of our fundamental differences.  And when it comes to anxiety, remember that the other temperaments can suffer just as much as the melancholic does; it just happens that the other temperaments are quicker to realise what they do and do not like, and hence our society provides them with more obvious answers to their fears and desires.

Our society does not, for example, encourage sanguines to be less sociable, to live more simple, modest lives, and to sacrifice everything they enjoy for the sake of some deep and obscure ideal.  Imagine if society encouraged sanguines to take a vow of silence, to spend long periods of time alone, or to give up all their possessions, as strongly as it encourages melancholics to party, be heavily invested in social media, and accumulate pointless possessions.

Of course, melancholics do not want to become hermits either (at least not typically), and simply refusing to do anything that makes you anxious could end up making you more sensitive to anxiety and hence even more restricted in your routine. The solution here may be to recognise that the real cause of anxiety is not in going to some sanguine event, but in failing to conform to the sanguine attributes. The anxiety might come from the thought of being at such an event, and failing to be as sparkling, witty, extroverted, or fun-loving as the sanguine ideal tells us we ought to be.  Indeed, it is easier to not go to something than to go to it and be viewed as boring, tedious, too reserved or seemingly in a bad mood all night.

This happens, by the way. On the rare occasions when I have gone to an event and not tried to appear more expressive and excited than I was, I have typically been asked if I’m okay, if I’m sick, if something is wrong, or that I should smile more, have more fun, mingle more, and so on.  But if you are happy to go and just “be yourself”, then surely that is good enough? We can’t all be sanguines, and we shouldn’t have to pretend to be sanguine just to avoid offending or upsetting others. Yet after decades of being implicitly told that sanguines are the ideal for social engagements, it is hard to put down that mask.

For some of us, the mask is so firmly attached that we no longer recognise the difference between our true feelings and our learned responses, or between what we really want to do, and what we believe we ought to want to do.  In such cases, anxiety might feel inexplicable. We may not recognise the deeper conflict that is producing it, or the deeper nature onto which we are imposing more superficial demands.

I hope this description of conflict between temperaments is useful. In subsequent posts I will look at the conflicts that arise between melancholics and the remaining two temperaments: choleric and phlegmatic.

Feel free to ask any questions or seek further clarification; I’ll do my best to answer (because that’s what the ideal blogger should do!)

 

 

 

The melancholic posture

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Melancholics are said to be prone to ailments, and Conrad Hock notes that “the gait of the melan­cholic is slow and heavy“. We no longer believe in the Greek medical theory from which the four temperaments originate, yet there are some physiological elements that correspond to the otherwise psychological descriptors of each temperament.

For the melancholic, introversion, fatigue,  anxiety, depression and fear of humiliation all contribute to postural problems that in turn exacerbate the psychological aspects in a kind of psychosomatic feedback loop.

Common defensive or submissive postural cues include internal rotation of the shoulders and forward head posture. Forward head posture is a common complaint, regardless of temperament, for people who spend a lot of time at computers. It puts strain on the upper back muscles, which must work harder to hold the head stable at such a distance from the body.

Fatigue in these muscles feels terrible. Yet for many of us these muscles are chronically fatigued and overburdened. In addition, such a posture subconsciously projects a lack of confidence, disengaging and suppressing the chest and the powerful muscles of the lower back and abdomen – the ‘core muscles’ that provide postural support and strength in everyday life and which are increasingly viewed as indispensable in good athletic performance.

Exacerbating this bad posture are the gut-related symptoms of anxiety. Stomach pain, bloating, and nausea discourage the activation of core muscles which would put pressure on the abdomen. At the same time, anxiety can cause abdominal muscle tension, albeit not the kind of tension that would contribute to effective use of the core muscles.

So while the upper body slumps and collapses defensively, the lower torso is disengaged and unable to provide support. The upper and lower limbs my function fine in isolation, but lack the appropriate grounding in a unified torso.

Correcting postural weaknesses

It can be extremely difficult to correct these problems without good hands-on guidance. Part of the problem is that there are multiple variables and it can be difficult to correct elements in isolation.  For example, the instruction “put your shoulders back” is based on a difference in appearance between a good posture and a bad one. But the instruction is misleading in many cases because the appropriate correction to internally rotated shoulders is scapular retraction. Simply pushing your shoulders back will fix nothing and may even increase muscular tension. “Retract your scapulae” is better advice, but it still needs to be specified that the scapulae are to be retracted by tightening of the muscles between and below them, with the understanding that habit has left these muscles lengthened and weakened, so it will take time and practice to strengthen them.

“Suck your stomach in” is another good example. Sucking in your stomach is a part of the process that tightens core abdominal muscles, but the instruction is easily misinterpreted, with people sucking “up” the abdomen and lifting the rib cage, or failing to tighten the abdomen with the kind of “pushing out” that really activates the bracing effect of the core muscles.

Making corrections like these is an ongoing process, requiring careful research.  We’re fortunate that a number of exercise disciplines have come online with professionals and enthusiastic amateurs offering a range of insights.  I’ve found, for example, useful material on tightening the core from powerlifters. If it works for someone lifting hundreds of kilograms then it can’t be too far wrong for daily life.  Do your research across a range of resources, be thorough, and of course be careful.  There might be only one “right” way to do it, but there are numerous ways to get it wrong, and the precise solution or correction may vary from person to person.  There’s also some flat-out contradictory advice out there.

Postural correction can also be frustrating to a melancholic because we love singular, all-encompassing solutions, and there are plenty of people willing to push an isolated exercise or postural element as the key to the whole puzzle of posture.  We’re also a bit afraid of hard work, and the idea of gradual improvement or slow retraining can frustrate us, especially when we’re not entirely sure that the instructions are adequate.

But the logic of posture does meet a kind of ideal in its own right, and the pleasure of stretching muscles that have, perhaps for decades, been locked in inefficient and exhausting positions makes this enterprise well worthwhile.  After all, we might never be completely free of worries, anxieties, and all-consuming existential despair, but breaking the physical side of the vicious cycle can provide a real sense of relief from the psychological side.  The term ‘body language’ is misleading in this sense: you can tell lies about how confident you feel, but a good posture feels ‘confident’ because it is strong, and a bad posture feels weak because it really is weak.