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On Stoicism

Updated: Sep 30, 2021

For most of my life, I have identified as an extrovert. I preferred social time to me-time, planned frequent parties, and enjoyed making conversation with strangers. I shared my stories readily and eagerly, trusting that most people I met were kind and caring and interested in what I had to say. I had many friends, and continued to put in the effort to make more (though perhaps “effort” is the wrong word, as it never felt like work). I was of the belief that if some friends were good, more friends were better; the bigger my community, the happier I would be.

It wasn’t until graduate school, when I was 28, that I was first described as “quiet.” My mother and I both laughed heartily at this description, as we both knew better: outgoing and gregarious, yes; quiet, almost never. We dismissed this description as comparative. At the time, one of my dearest friends was outgoing and gregarious to the extreme; next to her, we agreed, anyone would appear quiet.

Then, when I was 30, one of my yoga students referred to me as “stoic.” I can’t wait to tell my mom about this! I thought. My mother - whom I had called every few weeks throughout college to throw a tantrum about how much I hated deadlines, how I could not possibly finish this paper by tomorrow, how I could not stand how much work I had to do or how busy I was - would surely find this as hilarious as I had. If there was one thing I had, it was a lot of feelings; if there was one thing I liked to do with those feelings, it was share them. (That was still true, right?)

Since that first time a student described me as stoic, several others have done the same. Some have even been surprised to learn that I used to throw a lot of tantrums and that I still, on occasion, feel extremely, debilitatingly stressed. And when I recently described myself to one student as “a bit of a hummingbird” in reference to my excitability and difficulty being “chill,” he said, “Yeah, you say that, but I don’t see it.” Really?! I thought. How can you not see this energy boiling beneath the surface?! Why do you think I do so much yoga?!? But stoicism is not a feeling; it’s a way of presenting. And as a teacher, I have made a conscious choice not to present many of my feelings to my students. I do not want to stand in the way of their experiences, and so, to some extent, I do put on a stoic front. It seems to me the professional thing to do.

When I allow myself to feel my emotions, however, they are of utmost intensity (who's aren't?!). Sometimes, I pull my car to the side of the road so that I can indulge in deep, wracking sobs, or so I can shout and scream with the fury of a thousand suns. Other times, I’ll sit alone in my room, journaling feverishly, underlining, all-capsing, and taking occasional weeping breaks before returning to scribbling.

According to society, these are generally considered “healthy” ways of dealing with emotions: I am expressing them in “appropriate” contexts, rather than directing my anger or sadness (i.e., my “negative” emotions) toward other human beings or in a public space. But in another sense, these expressions feel incomplete. As I have gotten further in the habit of being “professional” with my feelings, of appearing stoic, I have gotten less in the habit of expressing my feelings to others. Shouting and weeping in solitude offers some comfort, but if that is all one ever does, one is liable to feel isolated and lonely in addition to whatever upsetting emotions she felt in the first place.

According to Van de Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score, “having a good support network constitutes the single most powerful protection against becoming traumatized” by difficult experiences (212). I would propose that simply “having” is not enough; that one must actively engage with said network. I would also highlight the word "good," and remind the reader (as I now remind myself, often) that living healthily and happily requires being discerning, defining for ourselves what is good for us, who is good for us, and how we can be good to ourselves.

The interesting irony here is that, as I have become more introverted, I have started to put more effort into connecting with the people I truly resonate with - i.e., good people. I have even come to admit that I actually need others to survive, and to function well. Sometimes, this effort does feel like work, and sometimes it is frighteningly vulnerable. Connecting with others on a superficial level has always been easy for me; allowing others to feel safe to express their vulnerabilities has also come easily; but it has not been as easy for me to be the vulnerable one.

The more I contemplate my newfound introversion, the more I wonder if it is less introversion and more discernment. Probably it's both. I no longer wish to share my stories with just anyone; I want to know and trust the person first, and I want the relationship to be mutual. I do not want to share all my ups and downs with my yoga students; to me, the context of a studio class is not appropriate for that. And I have begun to accept that if someone wants to share their vulnerabilities with me but I do not feel comfortable sharing my vulnerabilities with them, it is okay for me to not to share; I need to feel safe too.

There is nothing wrong with presenting as stoic. Indeed, to know how to remain unflustered and non-reactive is essential for survival (thank you, yoga, for helping to cultivate these skills!). But when the context is appropriate for vulnerability, we do not need to remain stoic. We can cry, we can shout, we can express - this, too, is essential for survival! And perhaps most empowering to remember: we can determine who we fold into our “good support network,” so that we are not left to express alone.

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