Stable, consistent, calm, unfazable these are almost always sited as being a positive attributes. They’re viewed as signs of great confidence, maturity, and at times even attributed somewhat monk-like wisdom. People feel safe to approach you, to talk to you about anything, to be vulnerable, to turn to you in times of strife. Being someone people feel they can trust in any situation is an admirable and respected position. But how do people get there? How do they do it?
We all have emotions. Some people by nature have much less intense or demonstrable emotional reactions and responses. Others work at it, developing skills of de-escalation and compartmentalization. Some attain these things simply because of their innate nature, others out of necessity born from their circumstances.
As respected or admired as it may be an unflappable existence is not without its potential costs. Both in terms of what it takes to achieve in the first place as well as what it can mentally and emotionally cost to maintain. And there can also be a distancing impact engendered by the somewhat monk-like image.
I am known for being the kind of person who doesn’t ignite or ‘fly off the handle’. I am often described as eternally calm, zen, unruffled, safe, stable, and have been likened to a monk on more than one occasion, the type of monk known to inhabit mountain top temples to be precise. Though to be fair the martial arts, Reiki, and life-long celibacy probably play strong part in that.
I am known as being someone who is safe to talk to about anything because I will remain calm, open, supporting and free of judgement or harsh reaction. It is something I like about myself and am very proud of, it is also something I was not necessarily born with. I developed it over time, in part by preference and in part out of necessity.
I have been an internalized creature pretty much my entire life.
Even as a young kid I lived inside my own head as much or more than I did outside of it. My emotions have always run strong but for the most part they have aimed inward rather than outward, leading me to feel overwhelmed and swamped by them at times. And on occasions they would overflow and explode outwards.
Sudden bursts of tears over things people didn’t realize I took so seriously, whether others took them that seriously or not, and even occasionally excessive bursts of anger. At age eight I had a couple of particularly explosive anger episodes, one of which really scared a dear friend. Having that impact on someone I cared about horrified me rather profoundly and I vowed never to let it happen again.
And it didn’t. Unconsciously I developed a panic response to the feeling of getting angry. If my aggression or anger ever rose too high I would have a minor panic attack, complete with tears and hyperventilating, shutting me down before any kind of outburst could occur. Effective but disruptive.
It wasn’t until I started training in martial arts during my high school years that I was able to overcome and disable the panic reflex. The dojo gave me a place to safely express and explore aggression, not only by giving me a space where it was safe to feel it but also the tools and discipline to redirect and focus those energies into something constructive of my conscious choosing.
Only a couple of years after tamping down any flaring tempers the nature of my sexuality crystalized at age eleven thanks to my grade six teacher laying out the concept of sexual orientation in simple,neutral, and supportive terms.
Realizing I was gay and that the environment around me would not be welcoming of that fact meant developing the skills necessary for an adolescence spent in the closet.
Being an internalized person was certainly a head start, it was simply going to be another set of thoughts and ideas I would keep inside my own mind. As I started to grow older, however, it quickly became clear there were going to be a lot of very powerful feelings, impulses, and energies I would need to be capable of controlling. A point driven home when the one brief bit of extremely tame sexual experimentation with my closest friend resulted in him never speaking to me again, acting henceforth as if he’d never met me.
The ensuing combination of my inherently internal nature with the redirection of energies training from martial arts certainly helped me navigate and find footing but those skills and tendencies were later expanded and more effectively targeted by the impact of, and my struggles to deal with, falling in love for the first time with a straight friend who was thus completely incapable of returning the feelings.
divide into sections or categories.
“he had the ability to compartmentalize his life”
As the hormones and burgeoning self-awareness of adolescence continued to develop simply redirecting different energies wasn’t enough. It worked well as an overall long-term approach but in the height of a moment, when emotions were running high, the ability to contain and separate the various aspects of my life and my reactions to it became essential.
I grew very adept at quarantining certain thoughts and feelings far enough back inside myself there was no sign of them in my outward appearance.
This is not to say I wasn’t expressive or engaged, I didn’t keep all of myself secreted away. Just the aspects I knew would not be welcome. It wasn’t a matter of judging those parts of myself to be evil or harmful, they were simply unwelcome and thus needed to be set aside for myself alone. The rest of me, the fun-loving and empathetic and creative parts of me were fair game.
I had open, energetic, and close friendships. I was involved in theatrical productions inside and outside of school, I participated in school council style projects at the local and county level, I was heavily involved in my Sesnei’s dojos, I had an active and busy life filled with enjoyable and fulfilling endeavours and friendships. There was just a specific part of me which I kept to myself because that was best for everyone, including me.
Being able to compartmentalize is a valuable skill, it has helped me keep calm and functional in times of extreme crisis. But it can also turn against you. If you get too habitual and practiced at containing and sublimating your feelings and reactions it can create an image of never struggling with anything, of never needing help, of never being beset or overwhelmed. An image of us other people can become locked or even dependent upon. An image of ourselves we can become too convinced of.
Reaching out for help is a difficult enough thing to do period, being vulnerable requires a great deal of strength and bravery. It can become all the more difficult if you have become locked into the role of the one everyone turns to for help. Self-sufficiency means you can handle most things yourself but it also leaves you woefully out of practice at reaching out when you find yourself needing it.
I Set External Boundaries
It might sound like an odd ingredient for the ability to be unflappable but I know a big part of my capacity for it, especially in those closeted years, was the setting of clear personal boundaries. People in my life knew where they stood with me, they knew they could safely talk to me about anything without fear of judgement or over-reaction, and they knew there were certain things I just didn’t talk about myself or engage in.
My choice of those boundaries might have been catalyzed by the desire to avoid potentially dangerous reprisal but by owning those choices, understanding them and accepting them, by knowing and embracing where I stood on what mattered to me enabled me to be clear about that with the people in my life.
My boundaries may not have been typical or fully understood but I understood them and was thus able to state and stand firm by them making it easy for people to understand how interact with me.
I was able to engage with people in confident and genuine ways, I was able to teach them how to treat me, and it gave me firm ground to stand upon which did not require others to share or understand it.
I Let My Self Feel
As I said, being unflappable doesn’t necessarily mean being blank and unexpressive. Just because my keel is firmly even does not mean I don’t feel.
We can’t make ourselves not feel something we do anymore than we can make ourselves feel something we don’t. It is a matter of not letting those feelings take control of the wheel.
Compartmentalizing things isn’t a case of cancelling them or suppressing them, it’s a process of separating them. They still exist and occur, you are just able to let them do so internally and independently. It was a crucial skill during my closeted years, is an integral part of what enables us unflappable types to keep our heads in the midst of full on crisis, but it is also where one of the more serious ‘cons’ rears its head.
We might still be expressive but we don’t tend to ever be expressive. We are great at making people feel safe, we encourage, we might even inspire, but we are rarely the types to electrify and incite. We make stable and trust worthy leaders but not typically electrifying ones. We may not fly off the handle in anger but we don’t tend to get super excited even in the face of incredibly positive news. It’s not that we don’t care, which I often worry seems the case when people share potentially exciting news with me, it’s just that our reactions tend to stay as level as our keels.
One Eye On The Bigger Picture
A key ingredient in the ability to compartmentalize and thus remain steady and unflappable is the ability to keep one eye on the bigger picture even in the midst of crisis and chaos. Awareness of the grander context offers a sense of perspective, not to negate or invalidate the current source of stress or anxiety but to offer a comparative reference point to make sure our natural and normal reactions do not exacerbate out of proportion.
So much of what sets us flying off our proverbial handles is us letting our emotions whip themselves into states of frenzy over things which don’t truly merit it.
Part of what knowing myself and what I stand for has given me is not only a clear and firm place to stand but also the ability to recognize which battles are worth getting fired up about and which are not.
There are definitely those whose inherent emotional reactions always run to extremes. They are either ecstatic or devastated. It isn’t wrong or dysfunctional, it is simply the base wiring of their emotional responses. Finding a more even center through training and practice is possible but much more difficult for those coming from such chaotic high energy foundations.
The perpetual awareness of the bigger picture is also where another type of ‘con’ often manifests. Those of us who always have one eye turned broadly outward can at times seem distant or disconnected. It can seem like the things happening right in front of us don’t matter as much as those grander and far away. And to be fair, big picture gazing can get a bit habit forming leading us to indeed wind up disconnected and apart spending more time with our thoughts on the grander scale than in the relevant here and now.
This can also lead to us being more permissive than we perhaps ought to be. Being slower and less intense to react can build a habit of shrugging things off and simply pushing on towards the larger targets and thereby allowing things to go unaddressed which either should be dealt with more swiftly or which can end up compounding into harmful habits and patterns. We are great for consoling, comforting, and reassuring. Not always so great at leaping to the response if we get a bit too settled and comfortable within our own personal boundaries.
I very rarely have to use the ‘count to ten’ approach but in the face of a strong reaction of any sort my first response is always a good deep breath. Not to negate or dissipate the feeling, just to make sure I am actually present in the company of it as opposed to being consumed or overwhelmed by it. Even those seeking a ‘Vulcan’ level stoicism still feel, feeling isn’t negotiable.
Whether our feelings belong to us or we to them is something we have control over, though there are times that is easier to achieve than others.
The ability to compartmentalize, redirect, to know and understand ourselves are all immensely powerful allies in the mission for self-control but it is also crucial to simply take a good deep breath and remind ourselves we exist and have the power of choice.
I may not be the most effusive or reactive of people. There are times I feel I am missing out on the full vibrance and adventure life has to offer but I wouldn’t trade my ability to maintain my calm in all situations for anything.
It is something I very much love about myself and I know those I care about value greatly in me. I sometimes get asked if I feel pressured or forced to always be the calm and stabilizing rock for other people. If stoic self-control were not my nature then yes I probably would feel pressured, locked, or ‘type-cast’ but the truth is it is who I am.
It is a part of me I treasure, I am proud of, and while it may limit me in some ways it sets me fully free in others. ‘Unflappable’ refers to my emotional reaction style, not my ability to spread my wings.