Balancing Inhibition and Exhibition

How to referee the competing urges to express yourself and inhibit yourself

Posted Mar 03, 2015

Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

I have a regular writing practice in the mornings, which I do partly to keep the machinery oiled and generate material, partly to keep unpacking the writer's voice, and partly because I'm just passionate about writing and like to do it.

    What I'm attempting to do is stream-of-consciousness writing, or freewriting, in which my mottos are “garbage is good” and “quantity leads to quality.” But I'm seldom able to overcome the habit of editing while I write, the critic effectively riding on the creator's back during the act of creation.

    What the critic does is continually toss grammar and punctuation at me in midstream, pester me to consult the thesaurus, and badger me about my logic, structure, even the truth—when all I want (or rather all the creator wants) is some momentum and a halfway original idea.

    Sometimes I come around. I turn to the critic and say, “You. Out. When the creator is finished, then you can come in and do your thing, but not until then. Otherwise I'm driving with one foot on the gas and the other on the brake, and it's having a constipating effect on my work. It's the opposite of free-writing.”

    And this whole routine is set against the backdrop of another constraint on my writing, which is that when I sit down to write, I'm not just hearing the voice of the critic, but a whole brass section of fears and insecurities about being a writer at all. Doubts about my abilities, fears of rejection (which in this profession is enough to stun a panhandler), and a constant comparing of myself to others, especially the great writers. 

    It's like having an auto-immune disease where the body attacks itself.

    A rabbi of my acquaintance once told me, however, that I should write anyway—despite all the arguments against—because writing is a labor of love, like service, and like service it's not about me. It's not about whether I'm comfortable, or can measure the effect of my good deeds, or whether anybody even says thank you. “It's about something you have to say that you believe the world needs to hear,” he said. “And you should say it as much because the world needs to hear it as because you need to say it.”

    The desire to make room in your life for passion—to keep your spark, your life-force, intact—will always have to contend with agents of decay and distraction. All the forces of resistance and inhibition, from within and without, that can easily rob you of your vitality if you let them. 

    But the human psyche is like the Earth. It's a closed system in the sense that there's no out as in throwing the garbage out. There's no trash icon. Whatever you push down just comes up somewhere else. A Mexican poet named Jose Frias once said, “I tried to drown my sorrows with drink, but the damn things learned how to swim.”

    At the very least, they'll just keep coming back, the things you push away and that want expression, whether they're passions or sorrows (sorrow is just a form of passion anyway; the word passion itself comes from a word meaning “to suffer”).

    The truth is, if being your full passionate self is risky, so is not being your full passionate self, because the closets into which you stuff whatever you refuse to express are the body and soul, and they can take only so much before bursting open and spilling their contents into the room.

    I've heard it said that repression of the lifeforce is what drives most people into therapy, and just about every school of psychoanalytic thought is based on this:  if you would be healed, turn and face your wounds. If you want to live with passion, you have to confront whatever blocks its expression, and it's a threefold strategy: confront pain, process it, and reclaim your vitality.

    Easier said that done, of course. I've known people who wrestle alligators, chase after tornados, and motorcycle-jump over rows of school buses, but who wouldn't be caught dead in a therapist's office, or a 10-day meditation retreat, or doing “innerwork,” which they call navel-gazing and I call mental health.

    But inhibition isn't necessarily the enemy, nor should all passions be acted on. For one thing, there's healthy passion and unhealthy passion, and a difference between being called and being driven. There's harmonious passion (flexible persistence toward an activity, and more of a flow-state), and there's obsessive passion (persistence at any cost, the passion controlling you rather than the other way around).

    For another thing, inhibition isn't just a hindrance. It's also an ordering principle in the world, telling leaves when and when not to bud, telling animals when and when not to shed. And you need it to have a conscience. It's also the logic behind second thoughts, and software that asks if you're sure you want to shut down your computer. 

    Still, inhibition is one thing when it's just circumstantial—when you need to hold your tongue, or get work done before heading out to play, or just do the right thing. But when inhibition starts leaving its toothbrush at your house, that's another story. When it's your default position, your unconscious tactic of blocking experience and maintaining the status quo at all costs, then it's time to hit the reset button, because then your passion-driven movement into the world is being obstructed.

    I met a young man recently who said he’s always wanted to be a teacher and speaker, but spent so many years “biting my tongue,” that he literally had a pronounced scar on the tip of his tongue, like a big callous, from where he’d bitten it repeatedly.

    If you're not used to expressing yourself, though (creatively or emotional), if you're not used to acting on your passions, then you're probably going to have to start by forcing yourself. To get up from the couch, put on some music, and dance. To doodle in the margins and drum on your desk. To write poetry on restaurant napkins and sing in the shower. To take your poems and jokes out to open-mic night. To say what's really on your mind. To do your true work in the world. 

    Start with the subtlest impulses to express yourself, and build from there, slowly unharnessing yourself from the yoke of inhibition and conventional conduct. If you have to, fake it til you make it. Once you become accustomed to cutting loose, maybe even begin enjoying it, you won't have to force yourself anymore. Then it's a matter of enchantment.

For more about Passion, see