In an earlier post I argued that emotional self-control is a critical part of professional maturity, and that emotional outbursts really have no place on a warship—especially in a watchstanding context. I’ve received a lot of feedback on this position, most of it supportive, but there are a couple of arguments that persistently arise in any discussion of emotional control. I think this subject is very important, so I want to address two of the more salient arguments here.
The most common rebuttal is that by denying our emotions we are effectively “bottling” them up, causing ruinous internal turmoil and placing ourselves at risk of “blowing up.” This nugget of conventional wisdom stems from something I like to call the Oprah Winfrey Model of Emotional Wellbeing, because when we face an emotional challenge, the Oprahs of the world are always there to suggest that we “cry it out.” More commonly, it is recognized as the “Hydraulic Model,” a patently Freudian concept whereby our emotions build up like fluid in a pressure vessel, which must be periodically “vented” through some kind of emotional expression (called catharsis) such as crying, yelling, or punching a wall, after which we will be relieved of the offending emotion.
Like many things patently Freudian, it’s patently horseshit. It rests on two assumptions, 1) that catharsis is more helpful than harmful and 2) that catharsis is necessary for emotional recovery. Both assumptions have been widely discredited by evidence. Think of two people you know, one who exhibits tight control of their emotional state in the face of stress or anxiety, and another with a reputation for blowing up, yelling, or dissolving into a puddle of tears under stress. According to the Hydraulic Model, the former must be unstable and untrustworthy, suffering from unknowable havoc wrought by all those repressed feelings– he’s a ticking time bomb. The latter, so skilled at cathartic emotional expression, must surely be the more stable and healthy of the two. Which one would you trust?
The second argument I want to address, related to the first, is that ignoring emotions or pretending they don’t exist does not make them go away. In this case nobody is disputing the point– the only thing that can make emotions go away is time. Rather than ignoring them, self-control is about refusing to indulge emotions and thereby make things worse (you wouldn’t run on a sprained ankle).
We can never eliminate our emotions, but we have to domesticate them. This requires a clear acknowledgment when one is upset, and a willful decision to handle it like a professional. Without first recognizing that you’re in an emotional state, you can’t summon the “iron will” necessary to carry on and allow time to do its thing. The good news is that emotional control, as a function of willpower, is something that becomes stronger with practice.
Outraged because Ops has steamrolled your training plan once again? Maybe you should try screaming into a pillow and punching it. Did the XO call you names because you said left when you meant right? Maybe you should lock yourself in a stateroom and give it a good cry; cry it out. Do what you have to do—punching a pillow is certainly preferable to punching the Ops, and crying in a stateroom is better than crying on the bridge. Unfortunately, we can’t always leave the situation to go vent in a safe place. Sometimes we actually have jobs to do, so maybe, just maybe, we should develop the capacity to stand tall and handle it.
NOTE: Please don’t anyone interpret this post as a defense of abusive leaders or toxic work environments. It most certainly is not. That said, a JO with emotional resilience will stand a better chance of thinking clearly and protecting their people in such an environment. Be that JO.