"Cool rationality is intelligent; intense emotion is weak, ill-thought-out, hysterical."Rachael Ren

CN: mentions of mental health and suicide

A friend once told me (Hatty) that I was too clever to be Christian. Some years into our friendship, she confessed that she had been surprised to find out that I was religious, as if faith were incompatible with having an intelligent, inquiring, ‘rational’ mind. I didn’t mind at the time, and now as I no longer have particularly strong religious convictions, it’s easy to look back in amusement. However, this bizarre interaction picks up on a strange, imagined dichotomy prevalent in my life, in Ashna’s life, and in society as a whole: that apparent contradiction between valuing emotionality, for example religious fervour, versus being quietly, coldly, rationally ‘clever.’

“At some point, I made a semi-conscious decision to sculpt my identity around ‘being clever’, with all the associations that come with it.”

Like many Cambridge students, I (Ashna) considered my academic performance a significant part of my identity while growing up. It was so often noticed and commented on, in comparison to any of my other traits, that I quickly began to see it as the most notable quality I had: a convenient niche to carve out for myself. In school, where children have their first encounters with social roles, groups and hierarchies, a niche like this can be a crucial step towards knowing where exactly you fit in. So at some point, I made a semi-conscious decision to sculpt my identity around ‘being clever,' with all the associations that come with it.

I was always aware that one of these associations was cool-headed rationality. I remember procrastinating during a year 9 IT lesson by doing personality quizzes with my friends, and gleefully exclaiming to them: “I don’t feel things; I’m basically a robot!” I delighted in my scores on the ‘Systemising and Empathising Quotients’ — two tests that plotted logical, systematic thinking against emotional intelligence and sensitivity — which I took as proof that my supremely rational mindset was almost completely unfettered by emotion. Actively devaluing something as fundamental as emotional sensitivity might seem like a pretty obvious recipe for misery. But in fact, I did successfully construct an identity around it for a few years. The ‘socially awkward smart kid,’ whose awkwardness was supposedly a consequence of being too ‘smart’ to feel or understand something as irrational as emotion, was a role I felt comfortable playing in my early teens — however clearly misguided it might now seem.

“The ambitious may be encouraged to leave their emotionality at the door.”

Of course, that didn’t last. There is no reason why this trope of rational and emotional intelligence being mutually exclusive should hold true. Looking back, it’s clear that my logical and emotional reasoning were not nearly as separable as this strange stereotype would have you believe, and this certainly isn’t unique to me; anyone who has applied their academic intelligence to a subject involving human behaviour or to articulately explaining someone else’s motivations or character knows this is the case. We also know, at least in theory, that berating ourselves for experiencing strong emotions or suppressing these feelings often leads to a vicious cycle: the ‘rebound effect’ which characterises several psychological disorders and leads to a suffocating emotional spiral. Yet still, this association persists. Cool rationality is intelligent; intense emotion is weak, ill-thought-out, hysterical.

These tropes have a long and gendered history. Suppression of emotions is a well-known trait of masculine gender roles; men, taught to shut off their feelings and shield themselves from vulnerability, are less likely to seek help for mental illness and three times more likely than women to commit suicide. Meanwhile, ‘hysteria’ is a concept tied closely with the historical baggage that reduced women to overly-emotional wombs-on-legs, incapable of rational thought. To overcome this barrier, women have felt the need to become more like stereotypical broad-shouldered, blazer-wearing, loud-voiced ‘men in charge’ that apparently epitomise success. The ambitious may thus get swept up in ideals of ‘masculine’ cleverness and success, encouraged to leave their ‘feminine’ emotionality at the door.

“Being ambitious need not preclude ‘being in touch with your emotions’.”

Yet, as I (Hatty) have gotten older, I have begun to recognise the strength that can be found in emotionality. Towards the end of secondary school, I started to ask myself why I was too proud to let myself cry at films, too scared to be vulnerable in front of my friends, and too stubborn to be outwardly sensitive. When a particularly tumultuous period of my life came along, it became impossible to keep my feelings bottled up. I found that deep conversations with my friends about how we were ‘really’ doing really helped. Then, I began making a conscious effort to process every wave of emotion that came my way. If I felt stressed writing a supo essay, I found that it was better to recognise this, focus on something outside, and take a moment to breathe — rather than just ‘dealing with it’ and powering through. I also got into the habit of writing a daily journal, purposefully and deliberately reflecting on my thoughts and feelings. Building this into my routine is one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I now have a record of my recent emotional progress; I can reflect on feelings I only recognise in hindsight, and consciously adapt patterns of behaviour to healthier alternatives. It can take effort to be emotionally savvy.

Intelligence comes in many forms. Devaluing ‘feminine’ emotionality in favour of the blind pursuit of academic success is damaging to everyone involved. Being ambitious need not preclude ‘being in touch with your emotions.’ We are taught to be proud of academic success, and it is true that logic and cleverness will open doors and prove vital at Cambridge. However, allowing yourself to feel is a central component of being a healthy, functioning person, despite the fact that little extrinsic value is placed on emotional intelligence. The latter helps us to make deep connections with other people, encourages us to be kind, improves mental wellbeing. Most importantly, these two traits are not mutually exclusive; both help us be better. One thing that both Ashna and I (Hatty) have learnt is that becoming a robot is not a ‘clever’ thing to do.


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