BY: T. Franklin Murphy | November 2018
We live in an age of diagnoses and corrections. Every oddity is labeled as an illness. Someone who is aloof may seem odd but it is just a trait, not an illness.
Quiet, even-keeled and living inside oneself, once the characteristics of stoic individualism, now diagnosed as pathologically lonely. Many states of being previously accepted as a personality type are falling casualties to our expanding introspective attitude towards improving well-being. Often wrongness isn’t felt as disagreeable until it is labeled wrong. Our expanding definition of psychosis is making us all ill.
I was raised by two emotionally different parents. My mother is very open and expressive with her emotions. My father, on the other hand, is very reserved, aloof, stoic. As a child, understanding parental personality differences isn’t typically a conscious exploration. Your parents are just your parents. Moving out and looing back, the differences become more salient. From a distance, I could identify the different personalities of my mom and dad, seeing benefits and drawbacks to each. I often stated to friends that my father sails on very smooth waters. When confused, I turned to my father; when lonely, I turned to my mother. Neither personality would I label as dysfunctional, although, depending on the circumstance, one or the other better suited the situation.
Life doesn’t obligingly bow to our personality preferences. Our relationships require measured approaches of openness and protection—emotional expression or stoic aloofness. Too much emotional expression may feel hostile to an emotionally protected partner, while too much emotionless communication may threaten the warmth of connection for the more expressive. Connection is dynamic, beyond a simple prognosis and remedy.
"Life doesn’t obligingly bow to our personality preferences. Our relationships require measured approaches of openness and protection—emotional expression or stoic aloofness."
I emerged into adulthood more like my father in many aspects. I married into a culture where emotional expression was forbidden and threatening. This environment further cemented emotional aloofness into my personality. The stoicism protected tender insecurities while allowing for stability. It also stunted growth necessary for deeper connections.
Change often creates hurtful tradeoffs. Introspective investigations into feelings brought a new richness to life. I escaped the simpleness of puritan action, widening the world with the expansiveness of felt experience. Unfortunately, my new world collided violently with the fearful world of a companion threatened by emotion. Changes often create incompatibility. Once acquainted with emotions, concealing the liveliness feels wrong—limiting. The constraints of incompatibility damage relationships leaving both sides reeling in fear.
Carl Rodgers wrote:
I have learned that in any significant or continuing relationship, persistent feelings had best be expressed. If they are expressed as feelings, owned by me, the result may be temporarily upsetting but ultimately far more rewarding than any attempt to deny or conceal them. For me, being transparently open is far more rewarding than being defensive. This is difficult to achieve, even partially, but enormously enriching to a relationship. (1980)
I largely agree with Rodgers, except sometimes the expressions may be enormously destructive, ending compatibilities that once co-existed with the limitations. Some may refer to these relationships as co-dependent where one or both partners limit growth to maintain a relationship that would otherwise fail. Depending on the goals, one must ask, if growth creates hardship, is it really growth or just change. If we are unhappy but don’t know it, are we really unhappy? The definitions and labels we attach to experience radically can change felt experience, creating new rules that we begin to judge our current state against.
I’m still emotionally aloof. I feel emotions and work towards more pen sharing of the budding feelings inside. My body still instinctively withdraws from emotionally explosive situations. I’m not ill, suffering from a psychosis in need of treatment. It’s who I am. The challenge isn’t discovering a cure but blending my own peculiarities with someone else and their peculiarities.
The collisions in life, on-going conflicts, create the illusion of illness. Some individuals invite more stress by continuously rubbing against personalities more common in their society. These persons may need help to become more inline with others, not because they are suffering a defined psychosis, but because they desire a more congenial existence. We can be stoically aloof or socially vibrant only adjusting if these attitudes fail to bring the manner of living we desire.
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Rodgers, C. (1980) A Way of Being. Houghton Mifflin. Kindle Edition