I’m not sure if this is a “here’s this strange but relatable thing about the intersection of emotion and physicality” post or a straight-up “Andy has a weird brain” post. Let’s find out!
So I’ve dropped and cracked my phone twice, once in front of people and once on my own. When I dropped it in front of other people, I said “Shit!”, furrowed my brow, and did all these other little bodily gestures that you would instantly recognise as “this guy is upset about what just happened”. When I dropped it on my own, though, I didn’t react bodily at all. I registered what happened, registered my annoyance at myself and concern about where it would fit into my fairly-tight budget, and just immediately started thinking calmly about when I’d next be free to go get the screen repaired. There was no outward reaction of frustration.
Do other people experience such a sharp split in reactions? Do you sometimes wonder how much of your bodily responses to things are a social performance aimed at letting other people know what you’re feeling? Despite the difference being so stark for me, I don’t feel like I was being dishonest when I performed the expected gestures of “shit I just broke my phone” — it’s more like a method of using commonly-understood physical signals to situate myself in a social space and communicate how I’m feeling about what just happened. It’s kinda like another language we’re all using.
But when I’m on my own, my internal emotional life stands on its own. It doesn’t need to prove itself to anyone, including me. So I don’t need to perform being upset, or focus on having the ‘appropriate’ emotion. When I’m on my own, I can really sit with the shitty thing that just happened, and think about what it actually means for me. It’s not that I have no emotional reaction, or that I repress the one I do; it’s just that when I’m alone, I can do all the processing I need to do quickly and silently. When I’m with people, the need to make myself socially explicable makes the process take longer, and probably shapes its arc more than a little.
In normal social circumstances, my physicality appears just as involved in my emotions as anybody else’s: I pump my fists in triumph, grimace in defeat, etc. But when I’m on my own (and so don’t have to worry about other people taking me as an unemotional robot weirdo), I can relax and process things — even things way worse than breaking my phone — with a quiet mind. My physicality isn’t involved. The phone example is kinda trivial, I know, but I’ve also read emails that, if there were a hidden camera in the room, it would have been impossible to tell from my face that they contained totally devastating news. It’s not that I’m not experiencing emotional reactions; I am, and sometimes very strong and contradictory ones. It’s just that everything that needs to happen for me to deal with those emotions happens internally; the external stuff is just signposts for anyone else present about what’s going on.
Is it like that for other people? It definitely doesn’t seem like it is for everybody. I’ve seen people kicking walls caught on CCTV; I’ve heard people talk about screaming into their pillow when no-one’s around. I can only assume that lots of people experience disappointment and anger in a more physical way than I do. It would make sense if that were more the norm, because those standardised codes of physical reaction seem to be at least partially based on that sort of experience (the expectation of that sort of involuntary bodily reaction to emotive stimuli). But I wonder what the proportion is of people like me, who just perform those same reactions to make themselves understood? I wonder how much what we emotionally perform feeds into our actual emotional life? I wonder to what degree we are conditioned to actually experience emotions bodily in those ways, because of their social usefulness as covalent signals?
I’m … not doing a great job of making myself seem like not a robot, am I?