I grew up with an unemotional father while my mother and sister were on the other end of that spectrum. I was probably a bit of a drama queen in my own right when I was a kid, but I seem to have grown out of it. Now I’m known for my lack of emotion. In trying to understand the sequence of events that led from there to here, I’ve noticed some interesting dynamics.
The first was bullying. I grew up in the kind of neighborhood where fragile didn’t last. As far as your peers were concerned, it was their responsibility to toughen you up. For others who have been through this, they’ll know that this kind of behavior was more likely to come from my friends than from people I didn’t get along with. Even now, we tease each other relentlessly, but I’m happy to have gone through that. When the worst names you’ve been called come from the people who care about you most, you have to decide whether it comes from a place of hate or a place of love. When you realize it’s a place of love, you start to realize that the intentions behind the words are far more important than their definitions. That’s when I understood that words would only have the power that I gave them. Today, even if it’s at my expense, I’m just as likely to laugh at a good joke as the people around me. I can’t remember the last time I felt sad or hurt because someone said something mean to me.
From my perspective, being ‘triggered’ is an emotional state of over-sensitivity that comes from people reacting to a word’s definition without understanding the intent behind it. Even if someone called me the worst name imaginable, with the most malicious of intent, they still wouldn’t get an emotional reaction out of me. If anything, it would be a response of compassion. Regardless of who I am or what I’ve done, what that person is saying has everything to do with who they are and the way they experience their reality. If they’re overwhelmed by the need to lash out at me, they’re probably not in a very good place. If I can, I’d like to help them get beyond that. I can’t help but think that if we understood this dynamic collectively, we wouldn’t be so divided.
Back at University is when I first noticed myself becoming less emotional. I think it probably started with trying to be the guy that I thought women wanted me to be – the tough guy who doesn’t cry. I’m sure it was a lot of posturing at first, but eventually things started to shift. There were several moments where I felt like I was forced to choose between breakdown and cry, or dig deep and march forward. I never chose to breakdown and cry. I’d blast some Eminem, and tell myself that even if my collar bone is crush or crumble, I will never slip or stumble. I persevered – and was stronger for it. Eventually, I got knocked down so many times that getting up and pushing through became second nature. Eventually things that would’ve derailed me before barely phased me. It was like I had gained so much momentum that I started feeling like a freight train that could crash through just about anything. I think that’s when I started associating emotion with weakness, and a lack of emotion with strength.
Then my dad got sick. He meant the world to me. Everything I do now, is still, in some way for him. When he was first diagnosed, he was given weeks to live. I was the first one he told and he asked that I not share it with the rest of the family until he better understood what we should do next. It was a completely unemotional conversation for both of us. We had been presented with an impossible problem to solve, but we knew that being emotional about it wouldn’t improve our chances of getting through it. In my family, we tend to choose our time rather than let our time choose us. The tough old bastard lasted nearly 2 years.
As we were getting closer to the end, I remember reaching out to a friend and telling her that loosing my dad would be the hardest thing I would’ve gone through. I told her that every time I went through something like this, I became less emotional. I was concerned that after this, I wouldn’t have any emotions left. I didn’t know what it would mean or how it would affect me. My whole life, I was told about how important emotions were, but I had become so strong without them. It was confusing.
The last time I saw him when he was coherent was when he had decided to stop eating. He had picked his time. I teased him a bit about being difficult and the weight he had lost. He smiled. I think he appreciated someone who wasn’t feeling sorry for him. I knew that was going to be my last conversation with him so I wanted to avoid making the mistake that every macho man makes. I broke down. I told him that I loved him and respected more than anyone else I had ever known. I could barely get the words out but I didn’t care. Nothing was more important to me than him knowing how much he meant to me. He looked at me, said happy to hear it, and shook my hand. I laughed off the tears and thanked him again for everything. Some people might think that he probably could’ve done a better job of saying ‘I love you too’ or something to that effect. It wasn’t his style – nor was it needed. What he helped me understand was that love isn’t a moment of passion or words, it’s a lifetime of action. I had no doubt that the least emotional person I had ever known loved me more than anyone I had ever known.
My dad passed away about a week later – within hours of me taking him off the oxygen. He was surrounded by friends and family. We all cried. I tried to be strong but I wasn’t that strong. Within hours though, I was dialed in. The bankers, the accountants, the lawyers, the executor, the bills… all me. It was so rewarding knowing that I was able to shoulder these responsibilities, the kind of things my dad would’ve been doing to make sure the family was taken care of. His shoes weren’t mine to fill, but his family was my family and I would always make sure they were taken care of.
I spent the next week in the zone, making sure everything was looked after. Once I ran out of responsibilities, I went back to work. I hadn’t shown any signs of emotion since watching my dad pass and I was concerned. As important as it was for me to be strong for my family, it was more important that I be strong for my family for all the years to come and I didn’t want to risk having emotional baggage. So after work each night, I did my best to allow myself to be sad.. and bummed out.. and miss him.. and to let those emotions run their course. I did, and they did. A funny thing happened though. At the end of the week, I could almost hear my dad asking ‘how much longer are you gonna keep this up?’. I thought, you’re right, I’m good. Time to get back at it.
This wasn’t a Jedi mind trick that I was trying to play on myself. I understood that it’s tough for a kid to lose a parent, but that it’s nothing compared to a parent losing their kid. This was part of the natural order of things, and my father had lived a life worth living. Rather than mourn his death, I chose to celebrate his life, and let his legacy inspire me to become greater than I could’ve otherwise been – allowing me to create a more positive impact on the world than I was previously capable of realizing. Sadness, sorrow, love, and all these other emotions were a natural reaction to having gone through something, but it wasn’t until I had a chance to think and truly understand my situation that I gained this perspective. It was as if emotion was the physiological reaction and biochemical experience while thought was what let me understand what had happened and allowed me to rise above it.
My dad had left a modest sized portfolio to the kids and I was responsible for it. It was through my work on that portfolio that led me into my role as an investment advisor with a major bank later that year. For the first time in my life, being unemotional was like having a super power. In understanding the psychology of the markets and working with individual investors, you quickly learned that emotions were the enemy of investing. When the market had gone up for a while, people felt safer and more optimistic it would keep going up. That’s usually when it would start moving in the other direction. This was especially true when the market was in a deep correction. People would run for the hills, looking to stuff their money in their mattress when the market was in rough shape but this was always the best time to invest. If you invested emotionally, would you almost always buy high and sell low.
A big part that role was research. I put a great deal of time into studying great investors like Warrent Buffet as well as great CEOs like Steve Jobs. As I continued to learn what made them tick, I also payed close attention to the qualities they had in common. Musk, Zuckerberg, Gates, Cook, Buffet and others were all remarkably bright, inspired leaders, and unemotional. That was the tier of human being I was aiming for, so the virtue of being unemotional was reinforced yet again. It became something I was proud of. It let me make rational decisions while emotions drove others to make irrational decisions. I started to see emotions as something which clouded peoples judgement more than anything. But I was still human.
I don’t think it would be fair to say that I didn’t have emotions, but I became very good at not letting my emotions impact my thoughts. If I noticed that they were, it was a moment of weakness and I was quick to correct it. Even now, I look at emotions as something to be understood and that once they’re understood, they become thought. I can’t imagine how confusing this must’ve been for the girls that I dated. But that’s also where I had to face the reality of thought versus emotion.
I was convinced that thought was a higher form of cognition than emotion. You couldn’t think hate, you could only feel it. I would say the same about fear. Prejudice was often rooted in emotion or an incomplete thought. I looked throughout history at some of humanities greatest accomplishments and greatest failures. The accomplishments were heavily skewed towards great thinkers while the failures were often attributed to someone letting their emotions get the best of them. Another thing I noticed throughout history is that as a species we seemed to be getting less emotional – suggesting that there might be an evolutionary angle.
Most of us would agree that even today, we carry evolutionary traits that we’ve outgrown. Physical attraction is perhaps one of the best examples. Joe Rogan calls it leftover monkey brain and it’s often at odds with how we conduct ourselves has humans today. I’d argue further that our minds are evolving faster than our bodies and the idea of thought versus emotion is highlighting an internal battle we’re all facing. So thought is a more evolved form of cognition than emotion right? I don’t think it’s that simple.
Consider the example of burning your hand while cooking. Upon first contact with the hot surface – nothing – then comes the pain. You don’t think the pain, but you certainly feel it. You instinctively pull your hand away from the heat source, panic for a brief moment, and then probably go put your hand under cold water. Afterwards, your burn is highly sensitive if not painful. I often joke around, saying that people are much easier to understand when we think about them like robots. Extreme pain triggering an instant withdraw, followed by hypersensitivity until a repair is complete sure sounds like a subroutine to me… But that’s a physical reaction, not an emotional reaction right? Consider the example of being cheated on. You put yourself in a position where you expected to be safe, but weren’t. The shock and the pain created a sharp withdrawal, maybe even inspired a few new curse-words. You spent time feeling hurt. Even after you get past the initial pain, there’s some degree of hypersensitivity. While there are variations to each the point is simply that feeling like you’ve been burned is a lot like feeling like you’ve been burned.
The overlap between instinctual behavior and emotional behavior is too significant to ignore, but I think there’s at least one more layer to this: intuition. I’m not talking about girl who’s been cheated on and is now hypersensitive to anything that might look like suspicious behavior, I’m talking about the trusting girlfriend who’s never been cheated on whose intuition is telling her that something’s wrong, even if she doesn’t know what it is. She can’t explain it, but she can sure as hell feel it, and that’s real.
Whether we’re talking about nature or nurture, evolution or personal growth, I think it’s reasonable to assume that emotional responses can be trained. Back to my robot analogy, imagine the human body containing thousands of sensors. In a body like mine, those sensors feed directly into the CPU where the CPU cross-references that sensory input with other sensor data to ensure that it’s a valid reading, Then I scan my memory for all past events relating to this sensory input, looking for patterns that would help me identify an intelligent response. I then cross-reference that response with my internal guidelines and if all checks out, it produces an action. Very IFTTT. But that’s me.
So what if someone’s cognitive process excelled at sensing where I excelled at processing? Theoretically, they’d be working with more data, and more accurate data. When you have higher volumes of more accurate data, patterns tend to become more obvious. When patterns are more obvious, they’re easier to react to intelligently.
When trying to understand this dynamic, I often imagine someone being able to feel the vibrations of the universe similar to how a spider senses the vibrations in their web. When a spider feels that vibration, it knows exactly where to go and what to do, and I doubt that involves a great deal of active thought.
So thoughts versus emotions – equal but different?
I’m not sure. I’ve always been well-served by accepting what I don’t yet understand, and pursuing a greater understanding of it. That’s where I rest with this now. I think there’s a strong body of evidence which suggests that the absence of thought is primal but I’m also tempted to say that an absence of emotion is hollow. I would joke and say that the difference between thought and emotion is understanding that the world is round but feeling like it’s flat. Well, what exactly would it be like if we understood that the world was round but lacked that ability to feel grounded?
Perhaps thought helps you connect to the non-physical universe similar to how emotion lets you connect to the physical universe. If this is true, and we’re expanding the reach of our minds faster than we’re able to expand the reach of our bodies, thought becomes more valuable. As we move towards virtual and digital realities, I’ll be interested to see how emotions evolve. If I’m right, the understanding which we’ll eventually arrive at is reminiscent of Vulcan culture. Something to the effect of emotions are a natural part of the human condition and should be appreciated as such, but they make a better co-pilot than pilot.