On taking things too seriously, and refusing to feel things, like some idiot

In January, I decided to have more fun this year, and to be less of a grumpy bastard.

But even as I typed out that resolution, to make myself publicly accountable (even without a public, I find it helps to be able to point to where I made my resolution public so that I can’ pretend it never happened), I knew I’d have to figure out what was getting in my way. What stops a man like me from having fun?

Being too serious is an obvious one. Being too serious “about” something is one thing, but being “too serious” in general is something quite different. The former suggests a kind of obsessiveness; the latter is more of an existential attitude. You can be too serious about this particular thing that’s happening to you, or you can be too serious about things as a matter of principle.

My bet is that in the case of being too serious about things, it’s barely possible to articulate the logic at work there unless you can find a way to step out of it. I’d be hard pressed to explain why I’m so pissed off about something without unintentionally giving away just how much of my world is affected by the act of being pissed off about something. “You want me to give you a good reason for my unhappiness today? Here it is… in fact, have twenty million reasons why I’m unhappy today. And I swear that they do not apply to anything else. I’m not kidding myself. Fuck you! My problem is with the immediate circumstances. Forget it.”

I know people who can be perfectly clear about how pissed off they are about something without accidentally revealing their entire worldview. They seem able to find something upsetting without turning their upset into a general metaphor for what’s wrong with the world. Surprisingly, these people aren’t even annoying most of the time.

In the last few weeks, I’ve paid a lot of attention to the way I let a particular annoyance inform how I see the rest of the world. It’s impressive to see the mind try to meet its daily quota of things to fret about. “Nothing bad happened today, Phil? HAVE YOU FORGOTTEN THESE UPCOMING THINGS AND ALSO THE UNRESOLVED PROBLEMS FROM LAST WEEK?”

That definitely gets in the way of having fun. It gets in the way of daily functioning.

When there’s a drunk guy screaming in the street and I’m trying to fall asleep, he’s not just a drunk guy. He is:

1) A fucking problem to me right now.

2) A metaphor for what’s wrong with society.

3) A reminder that nobody, not me, not the neighbors, not the people on the street, NOBODY is going to walk over to him and tell him to shut the fuck up — a reminder of everyone’s cowardice. And for the record, a screaming drunk is a great way to sum the various problems with letting people drink alcohol and why can’t we just ban all forms of drinking forever, except maybe water. Damn this all to hell. And this bed is unbelievably uncomfortable.

But this kind of thing has an element of humor to it, even gallows humor, and consciously so. I enjoy playing the grumpy bastard.

What I don’t enjoy as much (except maybe in the Lacanian sense of deriving some kind of existential substance from it, however unpleasant it may be) is the other side of taking things too seriously: the fear of feelings.

There’s no denying, at this point, my tendency to reduce my emotions to a kind of problem that would be resolved if I could just think them away. I’m an over-thinker, and I think so I don’t have to feel. If I’m happy, I can very quickly think myself into sadness. If I’m sad, I can very quickly think myself into numbness.

With all the seriousness of a surgeon trying to save someone’s life, I have, historically, tackled my feelings as though a single wrong maneuver would ruin everything. There I am, presented with overwhelming emotions, and instead of feeling them, I treat them as an unnecessary byproduct of things happening to me. I treat my feelings as waste. If I could just manage that waste better, I tell myself (not often consciously), then my life would have less waste in it in general.

For a few reasons, the last few months, in particular, have forced me to accept how inappropriate this metaphor of the surgeon is here, the waste, the fear of feelings. And now that I’m trying to notice what gets in the way of having fun, I’m forced more than ever to admit I’ve had it backwards for a long time. If my entire emotional life revolves around the management of feelings, instead of the experience of feelings, how will I ever learn to enjoy myself?

A terrible day? Sleep it off, take sleeping pills if you have to. High anxiety before going out? Maybe a drink. Feeling threatened or vulnerable around someone you love? Attack them first, without even being aware of it! It works! Make a ten-step plan to PERMANENTLY remove the possibility of this negative feeling ever happening again, maybe even go to a different country to do it! That’s how feelings work. We’re such adults here.

But if feelings are not the problem, as overwhelming as they may be, then it becomes possible to be okay in yourself even as you feel utterly terrified two minutes before you do something that you know is right. Bravery becomes possible again. Love becomes easier.

Those ten years I was given endless supplies of medication for my moods were ten years of being told that emotions are there to be managed, primarily. Unmanageable moods require extra-rigorous management. Whatever happens, the message was, you must find a way to manage your emotions even at the cost of learning to fear ALL of your emotions, all of the time.

Even an overwhelmingly good feeling, like fun, becomes a problem, because that’s the whirlwind of life now. If you can feel it, you should probably do something about it. Right?

Fuck that.


  1. “If my entire emotional life revolves around the management of feelings, instead of the experience of feelings, how will I ever learn to enjoy myself?”

    THIS is exactly what my classmate and I have discussed over the past week or so. In particular, how incapable I am of being less afraid to live and to feel things. I’ve had progress with being less grumpy, too, though, and even had fun – social fun – a few times. I think we’re on the right track 🙂

  2. Really related to this — particularly the escalating thought patterns surrounding the drunk. I wish you well in finding a healthy, maintainable behavioural balance. The fact that you’re actively trying to better yourself is wonderful.

    1. It’s a quite bizarre thought pattern to discover in yourself over and over again. Some kind of resentment aimed at those who seem to be able to have fun and get drunk?
      Many thanks, it’s all falling into place…

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