Stiff Upper Lips

The virtue of stoicism


In recent decades, stoicism and emotional reserve, once considered virtues, have come to be viewed as hopelessly outdated and unhealthy. Many schools nowadays have programs and exercises to teach children how to express their feelings; in reading materials, students are often asked to ponder how the story they have just read made them feel. In professional psychotherapy and pop self-help literature alike, failure to express and explore one's feelings is the deadliest of all sins.

Men in particular have been both castigated and pitied for their inability to "open up" and for not being in touch with their feelings. A few years ago, the best-selling book Real Boys by psychologist William Pollack lamented that boys' training to "take it like a man" does terrible damage to their mental and even physical health.

But according to some fascinating new research reported by writer Lauren Slater in The New York Times Magazine, the prevailing wisdom may be wrong. The old-fashioned advice to suck it up and move on may have been far healthier than anyone suspected—and as far as the gender angle is concerned, Henry Higgins may have been on to something in My Fair Lady when he sang, "Why can't a woman be more like a man?"

The research summarized by Slater, conducted by several American and Israeli psychologists working independently of each other, suggests that people who tend not to talk much about their problems and to cope with pain or grief by distracting themselves generally recover better and lead happier lives. This includes people who have suffered such major trauma as sexual abuse, a heart attack, or the death of a spouse.

Of course, this research has limitations. For instance, it's possible that repression works for those people for whom it is the coping mechanism of choice—but wouldn't necessarily work for others. Even this, however, suggests that "repressors" should be left alone, not badgered into being more expressive or made to feel inadequate. But there are also some studies indicating that when trauma survivors are randomly assigned either to talk or not to talk about their experience, the ones who don't talk about it tend to do better.

My own observations tend to bear this out. I know a woman who suddenly and tragically lost her husband, and who actually cut off contact with several of her friends because they insisted on trying to get her to talk about how she felt. Instead, she has thrown herself into her work and her hobbies. While her grief remains a part of her life, and she sometimes matter-of-factly acknowledges it, she is leading a reasonably good, fulfilling life.

I also had a close male friend who believed that venting emotions and rehashing past problems was a healthy thing (and who often took me to task for my lack of emotional openness). As time went by, he became increasingly hypersensitive to every real or perceived slight and obsessed with how everyone from his parents to his friends had supposedly mistreated him in the past. Our friendship of more than 15 years finally ended when I said that if every other conversation we had was going to become a psychoanalytic session about old and new issues in our relationship, it was best not to see each other at all.

This doesn't mean that people shouldn't talk about their pain, or their feelings. There can be such a thing as too much stoicism, and it's probably true that different people have different levels of need for self-expression. Slater reports that a few counselors who incorporate heretical views on the benefits of repression into their work encourage their clients to discuss and acknowledge their problems and then move on, focusing on their strengths and the positive things in their lives instead of endlessly brooding on the negative. At a support center for abused women, for instance, the women are encouraged to build up skills instead of hugging teddy bears and talking about their feelings.

Who knows, stoicism may be coming back into vogue. Philosopher Christina Hoff Sommers and psychologist Sally Satel are currently working on a book entitled One Nation Under Therapy, scheduled to be published next year, which questions the benefits of letting it all hang out and challenges such sacred cows as the use of "grief counselors" to help people cope with the aftermath of tragedy.

Satel says that while the new research is not conclusive, "at least it tells you that relentless emotional expression and fixation are not a prerequisite for healthy adaptation." Sounds good to me.