Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Stiff upper lip

Some people love stoicism. They think it gets them safely through a crisis without being washed away in a flood of unhelpful emotions. I'm not so sure about that. It can equally mean suppressing yourself and wading through a load of crap.

Sometimes those so-called unhelpful emotions are exactly what you need. They alert you to what you really want and to the fact that other people are blocking you from getting it. They stop you putting up with things that aren't in your interests.

It seems stoicism and the stiff upper lip are quite recent British traits. Centuries ago we were renowned for being over-emotional and lacking self-control. In fact it was considered essential in the best social circles. Gradually it became fashionable to control your feelings, grit your teeth and take whatever was thrown at you.

But why should we take anything that's thrown at us? Why should we put up with awful working conditions, or domestic violence, or relentless bullying in the name of stoicism and "not letting it get you down"?

Yes, there are times when a bit of self-control is necessary if you want to keep your job or save a relationship. But at other times letting go of your emotions is the best way to protect your self-esteem and stop other people trampling all over you.

I could have been stoical about the way my father insulted me and belittled me, even as a mature adult. Instead I kept away from him and refused to let him treat me badly. I didn't speak to him for years. But I kept my dignity and belief in myself.

I could have been stoical about the boss who persecuted me for a minor lapse in time-keeping. When he dragged me through a disciplinary hearing, I fought him every inch of the way. He still got what he wanted but I felt so much better for having challenged him.

Now and again I come across people who seem to have spent their entire lives being stoical - passively enduring dreadful jobs, tyrannical spouses, contemptuous children and interfering neighbours. And what good has it done them? They've let their identity be crushed and trodden-on and ended up an apologetic shadow of their true self. They've been all too willing to let the bastards grind them down.


  1. "It seems stoicism and the stiff upper lip are quite recent British traits"

    I just watched a re run of today's Jeremy Kyle!

  2. John: I've never watched Jeremy Kyle, but I gather he's notorious for provoking his guests into emotional and physical outbursts. No, not much stoicism there!

  3. I have a stiff upper lip, but it is due to nerve damage. Hopefully it won't last forever.

    I may well have let people walk on me down the years, but now I stand up for myself and if they persist, just I walk away and leave them without a target.

  4. Grannymar: Oh yes, I hope your lip soon recovers.

    Glad to hear you stand up for yourself - or walk away. Why indulge people who don't appreciate us?

  5. I will bear things endlessly...

    ...but not quietly.

    I guess that isn't stoicism, is it.

  6. Leah: Definitely not. Bearing it but complaining loudly sounds like a healthy response to me.

  7. I exited from the home of a tyrant too Nick, the only way I could beat him was to refuse to speak to him.

    I suppose that was defiance, the only weapon I had as a dependent.

    I do believe it has lasting effects on our behaviour with others, though.

    No I'm not stoic, I know far too many who are and I feel sorry for them.

    I like how you worded it.


  8. www: Yes, so you know what it's like to have an overbearing father. But as you say, the effects of that sort of emotional rupture do seep out into other relationships.

  9. I saw Ian Hislop on the One Show last night... he said that the British only developed a stiff upper lip so as not to be like the French. Apparently before our scuffles with Napoleon we were all touchy-feely.
    I might watch Hislop's programme on iPlayer.

    Guardian review

    Me... I like a good rant.


  10. Scarlet: It was the Ian Hislop programme that got me thinking about this. But I thought the French had their own equivalent of the stiff upper lip - sangfroid?

  11. I think being stoic is appropriate in a public place in some circumstances, if the matter can be hashed out later in private. But that certainly doesn't mean you allow someone to walk all over you.

  12. Nick, like you, I too got out of the control of my father and had little to do with him for almost half a century. But I succumbed to our social norms when he was destitute and took him into my home, a decision I regretted for near four years. Conflicting emotions of the right thing to do vs the reality of a dysfunctional relationship weighed quite heavily for that period but I did not have to be stoic to manage that. I gave back as much as I received and that was a safety valve till he became physically incapable of any movement. Then compassion, for lack of a better word, took over and I nursed him till he died.

    The point is that we often have to accept unpleasant situations, but we do not have to be doormats.

    I have no regrets now nor any resentments. only a great sense of closure and release.

  13. i am naturally pretty expressive but i have found that stoicism has served me very well through many hard times. when i say stoicism, i allow myself emotional expression but i limit it to very well trusted friends or maybe a journal or sobbing into a pillow. stoicism makes people take you more seriously and gains respect, not to mention it creates a stability i might not find otherwise

  14. Bijoux: I agree, public stoicism is okay if you know you can sort out the problem privately.

    Ramana: That's true, you gave back as good as you received. You didn't just tolerate the cantankerousness. And the important thing is that you chose to look after him, you weren't simply pushed into it.

  15. Kylie: Yes, stoicism is okay if as you say you also have trusted friends you can pour out your real feelings and frustrations to. Not sure that stoicism always brings respect though. I think some people see it as a bit cowardly and self-effacing.

  16. My mother was a proud stoic, and i guess I learnt it from her because I stuck, stoically, to my marriage for at least ten years longer than any normal person would. That said, i don't think it did me any harm: I utterly appreciate every aspect of my new, free, life. Even when things go, apparently, wrong.

  17. No stiff upper lip for me--I like to smile and laugh too much. I'm not much of a ranter, though. I would rather use my energy on being constructive.

  18. Eryl: I'm glad the ten stoic years didn't leave any psychic scars. And I'm glad you're now so happy with your new guy!

    Monk: No stiff upper lip? Never ever? Well, it's good that your lips are constantly on the move!

  19. Jeremy Kyle - best avoided.

    Stoicism - doesn't mean letting people walk all over you. So good for you resisting.

    national traits - germans used to be renowned as the soppy romantic ones in Europe - before the Prussians took over.

    Meanwhile Nick – You’ve just been nominated for two blog awards. Now calm down. Don't get carried away.

    To accept them you have to follow some rules – acknowledge it, list seven things, recommend some other bloggers, yadda yadda – details are here http://tinyurl.com/9yls7nc

    The awards are – the Versatile Blogger Award and the One Lovely Blog Award.

    You may now let loose with your emotions in response to this exciting news.

  20. I'm known in my family for being the one who won't pretend that things are okay when they aren't. But, in my own relationships, I think I can be overly accommodating. I'm not exactly a stoic, but I will just quietly withhold my thoughts while I decide what I want to do about something.

  21. "No stiff upper lip? Never ever? Well, it's good that your lips are constantly on the move!"

    ?? Just because something isn't stiff doesn't mean it's in motion. Have you never heard of being relaxed? :)

  22. Paul: No way would I ever let anyone walk all over me. I either fight back or I quit. I've seen too many people wilted by habitual stoicism.

    Blog awards, huh? I shall go and investigate.

    Agent: Personal relationships are sensitive. Sometimes some temporary stoicism and quiet reflection is the best approach.

  23. Monk: I don't see any contradiction between moving lips and relaxation....

  24. I wish I were better at letting rip but I'm a very under-emotional person. I wish it weren't so.

  25. Liz: Well, I guess you can make your feelings felt about something without actually "letting rip".

  26. Nick,
    "Monk: I don't see any contradiction between moving lips and relaxation...."

    Neither do I, but earlier you seemed to say if I don't have a stiff upper lip my lips must always be in motion. That doesn't necessarily follow.

  27. Goodness, Jean, you're a very punctilious person! Well, why not? But I shall have to be more precise in my throwaway comments, lol.

  28. No, I don't do stoicism. I moan, I whinge. I let it all hang out for everyone to see.

    I wouldn't know how to do it, even if I was moved to try. I'm too busy being me.

  29. Roses: Good for you. Why just stand by and take a load of shit? Unless there are very good reasons for taking it.