Administrative roadblocks, aggressive colleagues, and depressing news: things like these are rampant. The question is, how should we deal with them? Many of us often choose to take the “safe” route of staying cool-headed and rational. That’s what we’ve been taught to do for most of our academic lives. But who does that “cool-headedness” really benefit? Does it really have the positive effect we’ve been promised when we respond more like the level-headed Spock from Star Trek than the hot-headed Kirk? The answer you pick will have a major impact on your long-term success and happiness, and it’s not the most obvious.
I wrote this piece for the Research Success Alliance, a group of researchers my team works with on grant writing and career success. I decided to share it with my followers… In it, I examine the often unintended side effects that occur when we try to always “keep a lid on it.”
For anyone who’s gone through a Western education, you’ve likely been taught that one thing is important: Objectivity. Cold, hard, rationality, devoid of emotion.
We are taught that in order to be a “good” person, a “right” person, and a “smart” person, we must turn off all that messy emotional crap.
“Facts and data are where it’s at. Facts tell us the truth. Facts don’t lie. Facts produce logic that is infallible! Yay and hallelujah for facts!”
And, so, the other thing, poor emotion – is left behind to rot. Worthless. Useless. Meaningless. It can’t be quantified. It can’t readily be measured, teased apart, and analyzed. It does not adhere to the oh-so-grand logic of mathematics and computers. It can go in unpredictable directions and do things that don’t make sense.
So, we are taught, “Get that emotion out of there! Shut it down! Put a lid on it!It is useless, especially if you want to be a great scientist or researcher.”
The vilification of emotion is similar to what happened with alcohol in the 1920’s leading to its (temporary) prohibition.
Vilifying alcohol doesn’t make it go away, it makes it go underground
One of the failed experiments in US history was a constitutional amendment that banned the transport and sale of alcohol. At the time this 18th amendment was added to the US constitution, alcohol was roundly vilified in many segments of society.
The result of that attempt to “put a lid on alcohol” is written in history books for all to behold: Alcohol went underground. Alcohol turned violent. Alcohol started massive gang wars. Alcohol of suspect quality and safety was produced by thousands of illegal distilleries that dotted the landscape.
It got so bad that pretty quickly we managed to overturn that constitutional amendment and make alcohol legal again. It is the only constitutional amendment in 2.5 centuries of U.S. history to have the distinction of being repealed.
REPRESSION leads to unintended consequences
I’m not saying that alcohol is “good.” (In many situations, it isn’t). I’m not saying that alcohol is “bad” (a fine glass of red wine with dinner can be wonderful – and I’ll arm wrestle anyone who says otherwise!)
Alcohol just is. It is good and bad. It is both, yet it is neither. But trying to repress it’s use? The facts of history show that it doesn’t work, at least not in our Western culture. There are always unintended consequences.
The same goes for emotion
We can try to repress emotion. We can try to bottle it up. We can try to pretend that we are nothing but robots who can become devoid of that messy emotional stuff, only to operate from pure logic and rationality to be the “perfect” person.
But just like alcohol, the emotion doesn’t go away, it goes underground. It is still there, hiding, waiting, repressed. We have desires, fears, excitements, and sadnesses that well up within us, no matter how “logical” we pretend to be. The exceptions to this are psychopaths. They are people who experience no emotional connection to other beings (though they may learn to act as if they do). They do things like killing people out of “curiosity.”
If you’re not a psychopath, you likely have (lots of) emotion, no matter how well-buried. The question is then what to do with all that emotion. Since most of us have been trained to be rational, intelligent, and objective, we often don’t deal with this part very effectively.
The pot boileth over…then explodes
As an example of what happens with all the buried emotion, imagine a kettle with some water that’s heating on the stove. At some point, the water in that kettle will reach a boiling point, letting off copious amounts of steam.
If we keep the lid on the kettle, pressure will build and build until there will be an explosion.
On the other hand, if we take the lid off sometimes, to let some steam escape, it will just dissipate into harmless vapor.
So on the one hand, we have a deadly situation involving shrapnel when we try to close off the steam and keep it bottled up. On the other hand, if we let off the steam, then it is far less dangerous.
Emotion is like that steam kettle
Repressed desires. Repressed fears. Repressed expression. Pretended Stoicism.
In my family, which was very scientifically-inclined, emotion was something we were never encouraged to show. Emotion was something to be afraid of. Emotion made us “crazy.”
This led to cultivating the belief that only rationality could win the day, and lead us on the golden path to the promised land of “truth.”
Or so I believed.
Unfortunately, all of my schooling amplified these foolish notions. It got worse the higher in school I went. While as an undergraduate student in college, there were moments where emotion was still allowed and occasionally discussed, by the time I was in graduate school?
Emotion was only for the weak and the irrational. Emotion had no place in this “serious business” of decoding the human genome.
And because I adopted that common viewpoint that emotion is “bad,” I became a much more mediocre researcher.
By striving to shut away all that emotion within me, I also shut away the excitement of doing science. I shut away the curiosity and the intrigue.
Worse, just like that pressure boiler, I’d have occasional explosions. These happened not only in graduate school, but in my post-doctoral position, and worse, once I was in a faculty job. If someone were to do a forensic analysis of my past emails, they’d find a history of me sounding perfectly reasonable, compliant, and amenable, punctuated by episodes of YELLING.
On any topic where there was strong emotion(space for my lab, funding, or difficult collaborations, for example), I would start out by repressing it to try to seem perfectly logical and reasonable.
(And, in the process of being perfectly “reasonable” I’d often get walked all over by whomever I was interacting with on that subject). Eventually, the repressed emotions from me being walked all over would boil up. They would put increasing pressure on the lid I’d put on them, until the explosion would occur.
A flurry of emails would go out. Angry, finger-pointing emails. LOUD emails.
People would often be stunned by the switch from “perfectly reasonable Morgan, who can be walked all over” into “asshole Morgan, who fights back with vehemence.”
Being an “Occasional Asshole” didn’t get me what I wanted…
For example, in my almost 10 years at UNC Chapel Hill, I never had what I would consider a reasonable amount of quality lab space commensurate with the level of funding I brought in. I went through cycles of repressed anger about it, with occasional boil-over or explosions, time and time again.
But the space situation never changed.
It never changed because the “asshole” Morgan, who was willing to advocate for her and her team’s interests simply because she desired “BETTER” (one of those “irrational” emotions) – was so inconsistent. She would only show up in those occasional explosions, and those were so intermittent that, despite leaving her and others around her often shell-shocked, it wasn’t a formula for actually getting things changed.
The episodes got so bad that in one of them, I sent an email to the department chair that said, “I QUIT.”
Even though I had a cushy, tenured job with a great salary and a lab chock-full of hard working staff, I threw it all away. That was the mother of all explosions in my life.
Sadly, I still didn’t learn the lesson.
I carried this same tendency into my endeavors after leaving UNC, including my business and my interactions while at Boise State University. At Boise State, at one point I sent in a resignation (i.e. the “asshole” Morgan coming out to protect me related to frustrations I had there), and a short while later, I sent in an apology and attempted to un-resign (i.e. the “compliant, rational” Morgan who wanted to appease and please).
However, neither quitting nor un-quitting solved the underlying issues of my dissatisfaction with my career at the time.
A few months after the Quit/Un-Quit Scenario,I quit again. That was the next explosion, resulting from several months of pent-up frustration. I’m sure I left people baffled by that whole affair, and to this day, I feel much chagrin about it. (But unfortunately, un-doing is only possible on computers).
Meanwhile I built a fairly thriving business of helping researchers. I have helped many achieve astounding successes in both grants and life, like my client Stefanie who recently received her 4th grant in a row as a second year faculty member, yet who has great work-life balance. (A note: Stefanie’s success was due to her unusually hard work at changing herself. Most people do not get such astounding results because they don’t do the difficult, deep work required).
So what in the heck is the problem?
Why did I say “fairly thriving business” when it has positive effects like Stefanie’s transformation?
I know that I can reach more people to help them. I have facilitated other similar transformations for people, but there are SO many people out there still struggling with all the things Stefanie did, and more. And, because of my own repressed fear of being seen as a “pushy marketer” (aka an “asshole”), I don’t reach many of those struggling people who may want help.
The trouble is the same conflict between the “wanting to be nice and liked” Morgan versus the “let’s make a difference” Morgan. Causing change and making a difference always angers some people. It is inevitable. That means these two versions of me are at odds.
On the one hand, I have a deep fear of being seen as that “pushy asshole” – and so I minimize my presence by avoiding sending out emails, posting on the blog, etc.
On the other hand, that repressed fear eventually builds up pressure in my life and business. The pressures include:
- The pressure of feeling like I’m not moving forward or expanding.
- The financial pressure of keeping a team running and salaried
- The pressure of feeling stagnant, without expanding our reach.
- The pressure of knowing I can and want to be doing better
- The pressure of not being able to do the travel with my family that I want to, because we always seem to be “on a tight budget”
So, the pressures build up to explosions.
I still have the explosions to let off the bottled-up steam, but sometime about five years ago, their nature changed. I used to have a level of consciousness where I was in “victim-hood” and would blame whatever bad sh*t was happening on others. I would blame it on a bureaucrat, a committee, or a collaborator. I would point fingers at stupid politicians for the stuff going on in the world, or at reviewers for not “getting” my work. It was easy to point the blame and make it all “their” fault that I was experiencing whatever crappy situation.
However, in my path of personal development, I came to realize that blaming others for what I’m experiencing is dis-empowering. Our choices truly do create our reality for us. So if we want a different reality, we have to make different choices. Pointing fingers at others and playing the victim is incredibly dis-empowering. So I chose to stop doing that.
Instead, I started going inward
These days when things go bad, I go inward. I take responsibility for it. I realize that whatever I’m experiencing is ultimately a product of my choices.This reaction is different than angrily lashing out at others.
Instead, it has often amounted to angrily lashing inward.
In my “explosions” now, I am often profoundly angry at myself, at life, and at the universe for creating a situation where I have to still sometimes struggle with money, or with such a limited reach.
I’m honestly not sure that this has been more healthy than my previous tendency to lash outward at whomever was the “blame recipient du jour.” It is no more empowering to blame oneself than to blame someone else for the woes being experienced.
The problem is that there’s a need for blame in the first place.
The need for blame comes from the pent-up emotion that leads to an explosion of some kind
It’s become abundantly clear that “lashing out inward” in such explosions is no more a healthy alternative to lashing outward than e-cigarettes are to tobacco. Maybe a bit better, maybe not.
I have tried nearly every personal development strategy I could find. While they have positively transformed my life in so many ways, none of them solved this fundamental issue of these pent-up emotions leading to the seeming bi-polar cycle of being compliant, reasonable, and rational, alternating with moments of angst exploding outward and/or inward.
The fundamental issue has been this repressed emotion, and the results that repression produces. What the heck is that thing I’ve been repressing?
I have a desire to reach more people. I have a desire to live an even better life. I have a desire to see progress for my kids, and my team. I have a strong desire to do my small part in creating a better world. These desires are not “rational” goals. If you dig deeply, they can’t be clearly justified as any better than another choice. There is no objective rule of the universe that says one must help other people or make the world a better place. From an objective and rational standpoint, it seems pointless: if the universe will end in an ultimate “heat death,” then why worry about it?
Worse, the desire to create changealways ends up pissing some people off. No matter what it is, there will always be people who resist anything new, different, or unusual. And in my family, which was very much based on always acting calm, rational, and logical, these messy things like desiring something bigor dealing with the ramifications such as pissing people offweren’t dealt with. All that messy emotional stuff was to be kept well-hidden under a guise of being rational. Pissing people off was definitely frowned upon, as was creating any kind of big disturbance.
So here we have another emotion coming into play: the fear of pissing people off, and the resulting consequences of that. But here’s the thing – I didn’t want to admit that I had that fear. After all, I have done many things in my life that others consider pretty fearless, so I had this self image that I couldn’t possibly have such a simple fear. Therefore, I repressed it, until it would explode out in some kind of drama.
Changing only when forced to by an explosion: Not a recipe for consistent progress.
I would walk around with this fear, unintentionally playing small to not piss people off, until things got really bad in my own life and work. There would be some kind of event that would bring things to a head. Once things got to this point, I’d finallymake some changes, as the fear of things falling apart overwhelmed the fear of pissing people off, and so I’d finally do something.
For example, if there were bills to be paid, and no money to pay them, then “being an asshole” and holding myself or employees more accountable would make sense. In a “do or die” situation, the asshole-ness could be justified “rationally.”I’d make some changes with a kind of willpower and determination that I didn’t normally have access to.
Then as soon as the difficulty passed, I’d go back to “normal” which means repression: playing the “nice Morgan” and often getting walked over while I watched my dreams slowly die. During these times, I’d even feel deep guilt about the “asshole-ness” I’d acted upon in previous times when I moved things forward.
Of course, none of the self-incrimination fixed the problem. It made it worse.
All that negative self talk only served one purpose: to make me feel like there was something fundamentally wrong with me that kept creating these situations. And, feeling that there was something wrong with me led to a corresponding feeling that I don’t deserve more success than I’ve had. That led to further repression of my desires to expand my reach and impact, “because obviously I don’t deserve it, I’m too weird and flakey, and sometimes an asshole too!”
Maybe this cycle is familiar to you. Or maybe you just go for it, and play big without worrying about how others see you.Either way, let me tell you from personal experience, it sucks. It is worth dealing with.
Dealing with it comes at a cost.
What is that cost? The cost is allowing – and even embracing all that messy emotional stuff lying under the surface. In other words, we must embrace our humanity, rather than continuing to aspire to be androids. It includes embracing the “bad” with the good.
You can’t just embrace the happy, loving, joyous parts, while repressing all the scared, angry, and selfish parts.
It doesn’t work that way. As I’ve attempted to illustrate with these stories, anytime you’re repressing any emotional parts of yourself, you will eventually get a boil-over.
It may be a health problem.
It may be a career problem.
It may be a relationship blow-up.
But rest assured, if you’re not embracing all of it, an explosion of some kind is on its way. And unlike a controlled release, an explosion can create collateral damage.
How to create the controlled release: Embrace the Inner Asshole/Bitch, and then transcend it.
Your fears may be different than mine. But at least for many women, and some men, there is a big fear of being seen as an asshole or bitch. There is a fear of being seen as selfish, greedy, or pushy. There is a fear of being seen as not being “nice” and “amenable” at all times.
Believe me, as someone who has lived as both man and woman, the social pressures that amplify these fears are much greater for women than for men. However, that’s not to trivialize their effect on men: I have had many male clients that also become paralyzed by them.
In any case, I’m using this “fear of being seen as an asshole or bitch” as an example to illustrate a point that applies to any frequently repressed emotion, especially the fear.
How can you measure whether this is affecting you? By considering a simple question: is there a part of you that feels like you could be experiencing more out of life than you currently are? Does it seem like something keeps holding you back from doing greater things, but you’re not sure what?If so, it is likely you’ve got some of this repressed emotion that’s behind it.
So, how do we deal with that?
The first principle is what not to do: we often can’t just talk it down rationally. These emotions we feel like an “inner child.” If you’ve had kids or worked with kids, you know what I mean. If a kid has a fear of getting on a rollercoaster, it is difficult if not impossible to talk that kid into getting on with rationality. It doesn’t matter how many times you say “rollercoasters are safer than the car ride we took to get here.” I’ve had just such a conversation with one of my daughters, and it led me nowhere. Her fear won out and she didn’t go on that ride.
Trying to talk emotion down through reason alone often just gets it more entrenched than ever, whether dealing with a kid, your own emotional “inner child”, or with someone else’s. Trying to talk condescendingly to that part of yourself can often serve to amplify the very same emotional needs you’re trying to “talk down off the ledge.” It further builds up steam towards the next explosion. With my fear being seen as an asshole/bitch as an example, I haven’t been able to just reason it away. I’ve tried, and that has not worked, and the fear has slowly grown.
In other words, by trying to invalidate the emotions, we amplify them.
This is not to say that rational thinking should be abandoned; no. It is just saying that when dealing with deep inner emotions, it’s not a very useful tool.
What’s the alternative?
I’ve been experimenting with an idea that comes from the philosophy of Ken Wilbur, which is “Include and Transcend.” The idea is that as we further develop our own consciousness to higher levels, rather than trying to push away and marginalize past tendencies or problems, we embrace and include them so that we can ultimately transcend them.
An example from the popular culture that embodies this concept is Batman.
Batman Embraced and Transcended
As a kid, Bruce Wayne who would later become Batman, was terrified of bats. It was a deep and paralyzing fear for him. After letting that and many other fears paralyze him for years, he finally decided to embrace them. He went into a bat cave and exposed himself to thousands of bats. He had a brief mental breakdown while bats flew all around him, clearly causing tremendous fear and turmoil. But ultimately, he realized that he was still okay. He realized that while his fear of bats may never fully go away, he could live with it. He could include it and transcend it.
And so he became the Batman, to represent his transcendence of the fear bats represented. He transcended it only by embracing and including it, and became one of the most famous superheros of all time.
Perhaps what makes Batman so alluring is that he is a real human who has real fears and foibles like the rest of us, but has managed to transcend them enough to go out and do good in the (fictional) world.
Embracing the Asshole…
I recently took an inventory, and discovered that I still have lots of various fears and doubts at this emotional level to embrace and transcend if I want to move forward, but one of the biggest ones is this fear of being seen as an asshole. If I want to overcome it, I have to embrace it.
What that means is embracing the fears of:
- being pushy
- bothering people
- holding my staff accountable, or even holding myself accountable
- having great boundaries with family
- offending my rationally-oriented brother and mom
- turning off a potential future client
- turning off an existing client
and a lot more….
Relief from embracing Asshole-ness?
Honestly, now that I’m “embracing the asshole” it is quite a relief. See, if I weren’t embracing the asshole, I couldn’t have written this. I know there is someone out there who will be offended by this post.Maybe the use of the word “asshole” will trigger someone, if nothing else. That’s just how the world is. With over 7.6 billion people to offend, someone will always be happy to take the offended position.
I’ve tried many times to rationally talk myself into this very same point of view. I’ve told myself quotes about how “you can’t do anything important without offending someone” – or “if you’ve offended someone, it means you’re doing something worthwhile.”
Those kinds of seemingly rational statements have occasionally helped in the short term, but have no brought any kind of lasting change.
This “embracing the asshole” is different. It feels lasting. It feels like an acknowledgment of who I really am. It acknowledges that I am not perfect nor will ever be. It acknowledges that there will be people upset with some of what I do. It relieves me of all the worry and self judgment that goes with that.
If I can just let myself “be the asshole,” and embrace the surrounding fear about that, I can have more positive impact in the world. I can do better for myself, my staff, my clients, and the world at large.
So, ironically, by embracing the asshole, I’m also embracing making more of a difference. I’m embracing more positive impact.
That feels GOOD. After all those years of trying to fight off and run from being seen as an asshole, it is a profound relief.
Another example: Embracing Arrogance
I have a client who I worked with recently on a similar issue. But in her case, the big fear was of being seen as arrogant. The emotional baggage was around the concept of “who do you think you are to go out and do these crazy/big/ambitious things?!?” She grew up in a family and culture that told people to mostly play small, keep their heads down, work hard, and not make a ruckus. Yet this person has very big ambitions, and has already accomplished quite a bit. The more she accomplishes, it seems the more this repressed fear affects her. She’ll have moments of “going for it” interspersed with times of “who the hell do I think I am” where she’ll shrink back and withdraw. It reminds me of my own cycle, just expressed in a different way.
So in a recent interaction where this fear was clearly holding her back, I said: “What if you embrace your arrogance?” I used the example of Steve Jobs. I asked “do you think Steve Jobs could have accomplished what he did without arrogance?” (The answer is hell no). It absolutely requires at least some arrogance to go out and do something big in the world.
The opposite of arrogance is timidity. Nobody ever accomplished big things by being timid. While I’m not advocating that my client go out and be arrogant all the time, I am advocating that she embrace the part of her that is already arrogant, i.e. the part of her that has big ambitions, and is willing to act to turn those into reality. Even if some people will surely be offended by it.
It is about embracing that part of us that already exists, not becoming becoming a total asshole or arrogant jerk.
My goal is not to become a total asshole towards everyone, no. My goal is to embrace that ambitious, smart part of me that wants to change the world. It is embracing that part that sometimes gets impatient with foolish, stupid, and mediocre human behavior. It is embracing that part of me that myself or others may sometimes label as an asshole.
That’s an important distinction. There’s a big difference between “becoming a total asshole” versus “embracing the asshole part of me that’s already there.” One is trying to become intentionally obnoxious and asinine. The other is just embracing the part that is a side effect of who we already are and the desires we have to move forward in life. It is embracing the part that other people might not like because it’s not acting the way they want it to act(becausethey too are being selfishand wanting everyone else to act in a way they see as right, true, and correct).
This is the what I encouraged my client to do by embracing the arrogant part of her that already exists. I did not encourage her to just go out and be arrogant to everyone she meets to intentionally cause a stir.
What is the fear or emotion you have most repressed?
This is where it is often important to get help from someone outside of your head. While I eventually identified my own fear of being seen as an asshole, it has taken me over 10 years of serious self-development work – and also working with many others – to come to this conclusion.
None of us – no matter how smart nor how introspective we are – are very good at seeing such things inside of ourselves. Nearly all of us have blind spots. Worse, seeking help on such things from family members or friends is often the worst way to get honest introspection. These people we’re close to in our lives like to uphold a certain image of who we are, just like we do to ourselves. Therefore, they often have the blinders just as much as we do about what’s really going on underneath the hood.
This is something we work with researchers on in the Research Success Alliance*. We often observe that when someone is struggling with a problem like (lack of) grant funding, it is not only due to the inability to write killer proposals. It often goes deeper than that, and ties into issues like certain repressed fears that lead to various kinds of self-sabotoge. We love nothing more than helping to identify these patterns so that people can get un-blocked and move forward powerfully.
* To find out more about the Research Success Alliance (RSA), stay tuned!
Dr. Morgan Giddings is creator of programs and courses like Grant Dynamo, Grant Foundry, and Fearless Creators – all designed to help research doctors and scientists reduce overwhelm and frustration while increasing career satisfaction.
Her newest program, The Research Success Alliance combines grant training and help with tackling the underlying stresses of every day life in academia.