Thursday, June 21, 2020

Should you learn not to care — or just not to care so much?

Is being emotional the same as being passionate? Should you allow the jerks and weasels out there to keep on stressing you out?

I’ve been moved to write this piece after being soundly abused—with ample use of obscenities and expletives—by one or two people because I wrote in an article elsewhere: “Stop paying so much attention to how you feel. No one can control their emotions, good or bad. If you spend your attention on how you feel, you’ll be in a constant state of anxiety. If you feel good, you’ll start worrying about how to keep that feeling. If you feel bad, you’ll fret over how to feel better. You feel whatever you feel. Get over it. Just go on doing what you need to do, regardless of your emotions.” The abusers started me wondering why such simple words made them so angry. This article is the result.
I have two principal aims with this blog: to help people to overcome the problems of stress and anxiety caused by modern working practices, and to try to look as objectively and honestly as possible at some of the situations that lead to most upset and frustration.

Should you try to check your emotions?

In various postings, here and as a guest blogger elsewhere (like this recent post at, I have tried to consider calmly the emotions raised by the difficulties and annoyances most people face in a typical working week. In essence, what I have seen is that allowing your emotions to run unchecked can add to your upset.

I don’t criticize anyone for what they feel. That would be silly, since none of us can stop our emotions from being aroused any more that we can stop ourselves from thinking by an effort of willpower. Nor do I suggest that there is anything “bad” about emotions. They are a natural part of being human, as is the capacity for rational thought. It's just that allowing negative emotions to take complete charge is likely to hurt you more than it does anyone else—which seems a poor strategy.

My suggestion has always been the same: that you can lessen your stress and frustration by simply getting on with things and letting time pass, so that you can stand back and look at the situation more objectively; and that to do so stops you from adding further fuel to already inflamed and stressful feelings.

It’s not a new idea either. The Buddha suggested it more than 2000 years ago. Whether you call it objectivity, detachment, or keeping things in perspective, it comes to much the same thing. It means accepting your emotions as natural, but refraining if you can from whipping them up into greater turmoil. Once you have allowed them to subside a little, you may see things differently. That is why it can be worth trying to put off saying or doing anything too drastic at a time when you’re likely not thinking as clearly as you could.

I find it incomprehensible, therefore, that whenever I have suggested this it results in abusive, often foul-mouthed, expletive-filled comments from people clearly in the grip of turbulent emotions.

Detachment, not disdain

I may be wrong in what I say (I don’t think so, but anyone has a right to differ with me on that), but I cannot understand why articles containing this set of ideas should provoke such a violent reaction. That’s why I was cheered to read a piece by Bob Sutton for called: “The Virtues of Emotional Detachment.” In it, he goes a little further than I do, saying:
I have argued for years that learning when not [to] care, what not [to] care about, and how to not care is just as important to career success and personal well-being as being passionate. I especially think that it is an essential skill for people who are trapped in asshole-infested workplaces and can’t get out — at least for now.
It’s interesting that Tom Peters takes quite violent exception to what Bob has written on this topic, quoting George Bernard Shaw to support his case:
“The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends upon the unreasonable man.”—George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman: The Revolutionists’ Handbook.
I’m far from sure that Tom Peters and Bob Sutton are talking about the same thing. What I hear Tom Peters supporting is being passionate about what you believe. What I hear Bob Sutton saying is that you shouldn’t let the weasels get you down. Not the same thing at all. (It’s also worth pointing out, gently, that George Bernard Shaw, like many of us born and raised in the British Isles, was certainly not a person who wore his heart on his sleeve. What he was protesting about in this quotation was pragmatism: the tendency to “go with the flow” and compromise your principles away for the purpose of fitting in. He was not trying to promote being emotional, or even passionate. It can be misleading to take quotations out of context.)

Bob points to an exceptionally interesting post on Kitetail called:”Effective Strategies For Surviving Culture Tax"—“culture tax” being a way of describing “dealing with organizational cultures where the process of getting things done is draining and demotivating.“ In that piece, the author seems to me to sum up pretty well the case for lessening stress by trying to maintain some emotional detachment from the bad things of working life:
Once you recognize and accept the negative styles of the people you are working with, you are no longer the victim. With that, you can focus and direct your energy on how to effectively achieve your goal. [ . . .] I recommend practicing the Zen discipline of emotional detachment. Unfortunately, this is often misinterpreted as not caring and being disengaged. However, emotional detachment merely directs you not to be attached to an outcome or to an expectation. This practice will help you objectively evaluate the situation and recognize new opportunities as they arrive. After all, when one door closes another will open, but only if you are listening.

Caring . . . yet not hurting yourself

I suppose you might be able to so anesthetize your emotions that you no longer cared about anything much. Stress and burnout does that to some unfortunate people, whether they want it to happen or not. But I wouldn’t recommend it as a way of handling the frustrations, the anxieties, and the jerks in your workplace. It’s pretty much what is meant by the old saying about cutting off your nose to spite your face: doing yourself more damage as a human being through the “cure” than the disease did in the first place.

Despite Bob Sutton’s misgivings on the topic, I think that you can detach from a situation (in the Buddhist sense) and still care about it. You do it by looking at the situation as objectively as you can and reaching the best decision open to you about what action to take in the light of your overall goals. If passionate and deeply-felt involvement seems to you to be the best option to meet your objectives and make yourself feel good, go for it! If, however, you decide to “keep your powder dry” this time and be ready to fight another day, that’s fine too. And if, on mature reflection, you reach the decision that whatever it is isn’t worth your concern after all, why should that be somehow “wrong?”

“Attachment,” in the sense these authors are using it, means to cling to something—hope or hurt or expectation—long after reality has shown that it is hopeless to do so. It’s demanding that the universe reverse course to suit your requirements. That may be understandable, but it does cause a great deal of misery. What the Buddhists, as I understand them, suggest is that it’s better to avoid this: to “detach” and accept that the world is the way it is; then decide what to do next on that basis, as free from stress and emotional turmoil as any of us can ever be.

It’s possible I will be abused again for writing this. If that is in your mind, please stop for a moment and consider whether doing so is likely to change anything for the better. Disagree with me by all means, but don’t add to your stress or mine by getting so angry about it.

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Terry said...

I agree it isn't that simple however. First of all it takes practise to remain neutral. It takes many hours of mindfulness or meditation. Secondly, people must realize that there is a split second before they react to decide on how to react. They need to learn to use that split second. Thirdly sometimes you have to slap a jerk back just as hard to get him or her to even begin to play nice. Remain too neutral and the creepy people in the office will violate you a hundred times behind your back.


9:27 AM  
Desertcat said...

Your article was excellent.

It is ironic that folks would use a hostile (if not violent) emotional response to the idea of attempting to remain calm.

The modern workplace continues to slide toward a barbaric state, and I find that you're articles are a refreshing pointer toward civilized business behavior.

9:33 AM  
Ann said...

A timely post! Thank you!

10:00 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Terry.

I agree that simply being passive doesn't seem like a very useful option. There are wrongs out there that call out for people to try to deal with them, and jerks who sorely need to be slapped down sometimes.

I think what I am groping towards is some way of making sure that you don't harm yourself more than the person or organization that's acting badly.

And yes, it isn't a walk in the park to keep your emotions from getting out of hand. It takes real effort sometimes.

Keep reading, my friend.

10:16 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

I'm grateful for your support, Desertcat.

There's so much barbaric and callous behavior out there that I sometimes feel helpless in the face of it.

It's good to know people are reading what I write and finding that it helps them.

Keep reading, my friend.

10:18 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, Ann. Glad you liked it.

10:19 AM  
Leroy said...

These concepts are tough for a lot of people. For instance, if maintaining self-discipline was easy, people like Jenny Craig would be out of a job. And everyone would be a millionaire. But maturing enough to not constantly be self-serving and to have the vision to see beyond the end of one's nose ...moving from a culture that says "Thank God Its Friday" and then "Oh God Its Monday" - well, maybe not everyone is ready for it. In fact I know not everyone is, thats why there are so many overweight, poor, hopeless people. Its not the governments fault or anyone else - its all about personal accountability.

12:23 PM  
Anonymous said...

Sadly, what I found in some workplaces was that anything other than the "tendency to go with the flow and compromise your principles away for the purpose of fitting in" was labeled emotional, even when new ideas were presented in a very neutral non-emotional way. I suppose I was working for emotional people who took any disagreement or new idea as a personal affront.

I just got tired of it one day and made a snap emotional decision. I quit my job - and I did not maintain any sort of grace while doing so... Now I'm in a new job where I can calmly and respectfully disagree with the status quo and bring up constructive alternative ideas without risking my livlihood.

Nothing is so simple as to always try to be detached or to always try to be emotionally involved. As I get older, I'm learning when to go with my emotions and when to squelch it. I've gotten really great opportunities with both emotion-based decisions and detachment.

1:25 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Leroy.

I totally agree that it isn't easy — for anyone, not just for some people. But that doesn't mean that it isn't worthwhile.

I'm not sure that it's all about self-discipline either. I think what I am suggesting is more about not jumping in headlong: standing back to let the dust settle and then taking the time (and effort) needed to attempt to consider the situation as objectively as possible.

Is that tough? Sure, it can be. Is it out of the reach of many people? I don't believe so. It doesn't really require anything beyond a change in outlook and some willingness to exercise restraint.

Keep reading, my friend.

1:53 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for a great comment, Anonymous.

I think that your reference to workplaces where: "anything other than the ' . . . tendency to go with the flow and compromise your principles away for the purpose of fitting in' was labeled emotional . . ." hits the nail squarely on the head.

For some reason, many people not only take any kind of disagreement very personally, they also take it as a personal affront when anyone else thinks or behaves differently than they do. I won't speculate on why this should be, but I too have observed it, many times.

Sometimes the only acceptable option is to walk away and go somewhere free of such nonsense. That takes courage (which, clearly, you have) and some degree of independence (ditto).

Well done. It seems that the "reward" for your action has been a level of personal maturity that is allowing you to live a better and more enjoyable life. I'm sure you don't regret your objectivity for a moment.

Keep reading, my friend.

2:02 PM  
Binnur Al-Kazily said...


Thank you for this very thoughtful post and your reference to my blog. I especially enjoyed reading your insights on emotional detachment, attachment and clinging. Nicely said!

4:06 PM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks, Binnur.

I found your post both facinating and enlightening. An inportant contribution on an important topic.

4:47 PM  
Joy said...

I came across your point in an article about X tips for a successful life. It really struck home. I recommended it everywhere. I wondered why, at 39 3/4 years of age, no-one had ever suggested it to me before. i thought about it a lot and i came to the conclusion that you have to be ready to hear it, you have to be mature enough to consider it, that saying it to a 7 year old is being callous, while for me, it was a very freeing and purposeful idea.

Like many good ideas, it is not applicable to everyone. It's unfortunate that those who disagree with you, can not sahre their opinion without a personal attack. I guess they've got a lot of things to learn.

12:51 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for a perceptive comment, Joy.

I never mind if people disagree with me. I have as much likelihood of being wrong as the next person. It was the abuse and obscenities that surprised and dismayed me.

Keep reading, my friend.

8:49 AM  
jana said...

just to try answer why you provoked sch a reaction: i suggest
1) you understand that you wrote something that is - strangely - not mainstream, a bit different and does not contain much of all those "but it might be different, uh, oh, everyone is unique, lets do some feng shui and buy my book here" usual things
2) you think about the internet and how people behave on it: when teh writer is anonymous or semi-anonymous he often uses much harsher words thatn when talking or writing as a "real" person.

(i have experienced similar reactions to the least "wild" things i have written or said. being a journalist/eradio person for 1ř years i have seen my share of such people... and do not worry much about them although it did take some time to get used to it!)

5:23 AM  
Carmine Coyote said...

Thanks for your comment, Jana.

I'm not really upset by abuse, just puzzled and saddened. But thanks for your thought anyway.

7:25 AM  

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