The Most Under-Rated Relationship Skill: Suppression (Or, “Don’t Just Do Something. Stand There.”)

The Most Under-Rated Relationship Skill: Suppression (Or, “Don’t Just Do Something. Stand There.”)

George Will used an apt phrase to describe the policy options toward Syria. When faced with universally bad choices, he opined, “Don’t just do something. Stand there.” Better to do nothing than to do the wrong thing just to do something.

This twist on the original phrase captures an invaluable counterpoint to the regime of disclosure, tearful confession, revelation, therapeutic declaration, and “honesty,” whatever the hell that even means. It’s time we had more “just stand there” in our lives and less “do something,” of an emotional or verbal sort. This advice is especially important in relationships.

Suppression is the most under-rated relationship skill. No, you won’t read this advice in the Self-Improvement aisle where, to my eternal shame and anger, my cultural commentary on marriage is mis-shelved. (It exceeded the imaginative, literary, and entrepreneurial capacities of commercial publishing to recognize the problem and, anyway, publishers are under a delusion that you, the reader, will only buy an actual book when you can be manipulated into believing that it actually and tangibly will give you advice and instructions on how to behave, or precisely describes your specific, personal, individual life. In other words, publishing imagines that you are a hopeless narcissist).

Self-Help literature’s generic survival depends on giving you a script, plan, action agenda, or assessment quiz for doing something to improve your relationship.

But doing nothing and just standing there is often the best course. Also, it’s free, and requires no DVD or promotional t-shirt.

In psychoanalytic theory as I understand it, repression refers to material that has never been brought into consciousness, whereas suppression refers to material that percolates to consciousness but is set aside, pushed down, or forgotten about.

In my example, suppression means, more informally, keeping an emotion, issue, or annoyance to yourself, rather than airing it. It means opting for silence over revelation, for emotional largesse and stoicism over the treadmill of “processing.”

You’re with a partner at a party. You’re mildly irritated that they’re paying too much attention to someone else. What to do. Share the feeling? Just let it go? Or, your feelings are hurt because your spouse prefers to spend time rafting or golfing with buddies than with you (I’m making this up—I know neither golfers nor rafters).

“It’s dishonest not to share that feeling,” the confession-loving partner objects. “You’re just hiding important emotions from your partner.  It eats away at the relationship and kills it. The feeling festers.”

At some point, the act of not fussing about something or airing it verbally became synonymous with toxic deceit.

To argue the other side, excessive sharing is undignified, boring, often futilely circular or recursive, and etches into the relationship’s Permanent Record what are often nothing more than ephemeral, ill-formed notions or feelings that will mysteriously expand, like a Chia Pet, to monstrous, undeserved proportions if shared—and because you shared. Emotions are so fluid and permeable, like a river. They change, whether confessed to or not. The very act of sharing and articulating an emotion gives it a permanence, stature, and ever-fixed presence in the relationship archive that oftentimes, it doesn’t deserve.

Perhaps there’s a tendency to link emotional disclosure with relationship wellbeing—and to make a vice out of the arguable virtue of suppression—because having been fed a diet of memoirs, self-help and confessional literature, we’re inclined never to believe in our intimate lives that a cigar is just a cigar.

It’s not that a spouse made an innocent mistake; it’s that the action conveys deeper symbolism. The simplest micro-malfunctions or just quirks of human relations become meta-narratives. Book reviewers love “honest” memoirs. They’re always calling them “GRIPPING” and “FIERCE” (don’t believe them, by the way. Nothing is more contrived than the presentation of self in a memoir. It’s just that in the better ones, the author’s vanities and intentions manage to be so inscrutable, inoffensive, or impenetrable that the reader doesn’t notice or understand them).

Suppression’s villification has worsened with social media and a gazillion online media outlets, where people write for free about every minuscule sexual or relationship issue. If a Slate or Salon writer can make this much out of thong underwear, a family squabble, or some bizarre sexual mini-drama with their partner, then we should process things with the same avidity, too, right?

Don’t. You have to understand: There are whole enterprises of therapy, entertainment, and media, that make money off of getting you worked up over nothing, or of urging you never to accept the tribulations of love graciously and quietly.

They don’t want you to passively but tenderly embrace the flawed humanity of your beloved in its totality, but, rather, to pathologize the hell out of it, and then do a post-mortem, using their book as scalpel and saw. Equanimity is their enemy.

In this capacious therapeutic economy, which encompasses not only therapists but ancillary self-help regimes, media, and literature, things must connote. You must process. Confess. Otherwise, what fills all the millions of pages? (but try finding the adjective “vulgar” in any of these outlets).

When I was in high school I was very close to several girls in my class. Occasionally, we’d play a game in which we’d name each other’s “best and worst qualities.” 

This was, of course, a profoundly stupid idea.

Eventually, we gave up on it, but not before some wretched nights in which we had to grapple with the unvarnished opinions of our very closest friends in the world. Curses were hurled, tears shed, and fragile reconciliations achieved, but usually only when the offending “honest” speaker confessed (honestly or nor) to intoxication, or “took it back,” in that great playground art, or just begged for forgiveness for having been such a fool.

The traits we revealed as bad points were better left suppressed. Obviously.

And the thing is, the critical comments weren’t in any deep or inviolable way even that honest. The deepest honesty is that we were a tribe, and we cared for each other a great deal, with all of our flaws and complexities, and there was no way to represent that reality in one conversation or gesture about a hurt feeling.

Does confession or emotional sharing bring greater intimacy? This is where suppression takes a hit. Not sharing fully creates distance. It’s a form of “emotional withdrawal.”

I’ve no doubt that such cases exist. I’ve seen, and been in,  plenty of them. I’ve also seen scenarios where the remorseless airing of grievances and their subsequent processing weakens the heart of the relationship as surely as a series of minor heart attacks, over time, will cause permanent scarring and damage.

There’s no rule of relationship physics that can predict generically how the decision not to suppress a feeling or an insecurity will break. Like as not, it can bring estrangement, distance, outsized bitterness, and chronic defensiveness. It can powerfully reorient a relationship. In most cases, it lingers hard and deep in the partner’s mind.

But, we’re told, suppression is presumably bad for your health. In the 1970s they called it “gunnysacking,” and it was thought to be a cause of male heart disease. Men suppressed so much emotion that they were dying of heart disease caused by failure to disclose. Some of them started crying; others went to therapy sessions where they hit people with oblong pillows; others just spouted a new vocabulary and then secretly went back to doing what they were doing before.

Having lived through relationships with the emotionally stoic and slurry alike, it doesn’t seem to me that suppression ruined  health or relationship any more often than emotional nitpicking. Rather, suppression is a gesture when—the healthy part—you notice how you’re feeling, but choose to set it aside,  to put it in a little box in your head, even to push it down.

At some point, somewhere, I crossed a line. Because now I say, give me the WASP any day.

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Meet Dr. Jennifer Doudna: she's leading the biotech revolution

She helped create CRISPR, a gene-editing technology that is changing the way we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

Courtesy of Jennifer Doudna
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

Last year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first all-woman team to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology. The technology was invented in 2012 — and nine years later, it's truly revolutionizing how we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

CRISPR allows scientists to alter DNA by using proteins that are naturally found in bacteria. They use these proteins, called Cas9, to naturally fend off viruses, destroying the virus' DNA and cutting it out of their genes. CRISPR allows scientists to co-opt this function, redirecting the proteins toward disease-causing mutations in our DNA.

So far, gene-editing technology is showing promise in treating sickle cell disease and genetic blindness — and it could eventually be used to treat all sorts of genetic diseases, from cancer to Huntington's Disease.

The biotech revolution is just getting started — and CRISPR is leading the charge. We talked with Doudna about what we can expect from genetic engineering in the future.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Freethink: You've said that your journey to becoming a scientist had humble beginnings — in your teenage bedroom when you discovered The Double Helix by Jim Watson. Back then, there weren't a lot of women scientists — what was your breakthrough moment in realizing you could pursue this as a career?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a moment that I often think back to from high school in Hilo, Hawaii, when I first heard the word "biochemistry." A researcher from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came and gave a talk on her work studying cancer cells.

I didn't understand much of her talk, but it still made a huge impact on me. You didn't see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was very impressive.

I remember thinking right then that I wanted to do what she does, and that's what set me off on the journey that became my career in science.

CRISPR 101: Curing Sickle Cell, Growing Organs, Mosquito Makeovers | Jennifer Doudna | Big Think

Freethink: The term "CRISPR" is everywhere in the media these days but it's a really complicated tool to describe. What is the one thing that you wish people understood about CRISPR that they usually get wrong?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: People should know that CRISPR technology has revolutionized scientific research and will make a positive difference to their lives.

Researchers are gaining incredible new understanding of the nature of disease, evolution, and are developing CRISPR-based strategies to tackle our greatest health, food, and sustainability challenges.

Freethink: You previously wrote in Wired that this year, 2021, is going to be a big year for CRISPR. What exciting new developments should we be on the lookout for?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple teams around the world, including my lab and colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, working on developing CRISPR-based diagnostics.

"Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time."

When the pandemic hit, we pivoted our work to focus these tools on SARS-CoV-2. The benefit of these new diagnostics is that they're fast, cheap, can be done anywhere without the need for a lab, and they can be quickly modified to detect different pathogens. I'm excited about the future of diagnostics, and not just for pandemics.

We'll also be seeing more CRISPR applications in agriculture to help combat hunger, reduce the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers, fight plant diseases and help crops adapt to a changing climate.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.

Freethink: Curing genetic diseases isn't a pipedream anymore, but there are still some hurdles to cross before we're able to say for certain that we can do this. What are those hurdles and how close do you think we are to crossing them?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There are people today, like Victoria Gray, who have been successfully treated for sickle cell disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are absolutely still many hurdles. We don't currently have ways to deliver genome-editing enzymes to all types of tissues, but delivery is a hot area of research for this very reason.

We also need to continue improving on the first wave of CRISPR therapies, as well as making them more affordable and accessible.

Freethink: Another big challenge is making this technology widely available to everyone and not just the really wealthy. You've previously said that this challenge starts with the scientists.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: A sickle cell disease cure that is 100 percent effective but can't be accessed by most of the people in need is not really a full cure.

This is one of the insights that led me to found the Innovative Genomics Institute back in 2014. It's not enough to develop a therapy, prove that it works, and move on. You have to develop a therapy that actually meets the real-world need.

Too often, scientists don't fully incorporate issues of equity and accessibility into their research, and the incentives of the pharmaceutical industry tend to run in the opposite direction. If the world needs affordable therapy, you have to work toward that goal from the beginning.

Freethink: You've expressed some concern about the ethics of using CRISPR. Do you think there is a meaningful difference between enhancing human abilities — for example, using gene therapy to become stronger or more intelligent — versus correcting deficiencies, like Type 1 diabetes or Huntington's?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't.

There's always a gray area when it comes to complex ethical issues like this, and our thinking on this is undoubtedly going to evolve over time.

What we need is to find an appropriate balance between preventing misuse and promoting beneficial innovation.

Freethink: What if it turns out that being physically stronger helps you live a longer life — if that's the case, are there some ways of improving health that we should simply rule out?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The concept of improving the "healthspan" of individuals is an area of considerable interest. Eliminating neurodegenerative disease will not only massively reduce suffering around the world, but it will also meaningfully increase the healthy years for millions of individuals.

"There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't."

There will also be knock-on effects, such as increased economic output, but also increased impact on the planet.

When you think about increasing lifespans just so certain people can live longer, then not only do those knock-on effects become more central, you also have to ask who is benefiting and who isn't? Is it possible to develop this technology so the benefits are shared equitably? Is it environmentally sustainable to go down this road?

Freethink: Where do you see it going from here?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The bio revolution will allow us to create breakthroughs in treating not just a few but whole classes of previously unaddressed genetic diseases.

We're also likely to see genome editing play a role not just in climate adaptation, but in climate change solutions as well. There will be challenges along the way both expected and unexpected, but also great leaps in progress and benefits that will move society forward. It's an exciting time to be a scientist.

Freethink: If you had to guess, what is the first disease you think we are most likely to cure, in the real world, with CRISPR?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Because of the progress that has already been made, sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia are likely to be the first diseases with a CRISPR cure, but we're closely following the developments of other CRISPR clinical trials for types of cancer, a form of congenital blindness, chronic infection, and some rare genetic disorders.

The pace of clinical trials is picking up, and the list will be longer next year.

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