The Upside of Inhibition

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

But inhibition isn’t the enemy, nor should all passions be acted upon. For one, there’s healthy passion and unhealthy passion, and there’s also a difference between being called and being driven. There’s harmonious passion (flexible persistence toward an activity—more of a flow-state), and there’s obsessive passion (persistence at any cost—the passion controlling you rather than the other way around—and self-esteem and identity all wrapped up in performance).

In addition, 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 inhibition in order to have a conscience. It’s also the logic behind second thoughts and the software that asks if you’re sure you want to shut down your computer. (There ought to be similar software for the “send” button on email.)

When I first got a puppy, I remember being shocked at how many of the communications in her direction took the form of commands and inhibitions: “Come,” “Sit,” “Stay,” “Stop,” “Lie down,” “Heel,” “No jumping,” “Quit barking,” “Drop it.” Certainly you need all that to ensure that an animal “gets along with others,” and—since I wanted her to become a therapy dog—to be sure she behaves herself at the children’s hospital and the nursing home (and that she doesn’t go after the tennis balls residents attach to the bottoms of their walkers to make them glide more easily on linoleum).

Still, inhibition is one thing when it’s just circumstantial—when you need to rein in your puppy, hold your tongue, get work done before going 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 becomes 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 in the world is being obstructed, and you’re in danger of grinding to a halt.



“If you ask me what I came into this world to do, I will tell you. I came to live out loud.” —Emile Zola

Every Friday night in downtown Asheville, North Carolina, weather permitting, a large group of between 40 and 50 drummers gathers in Pritchard Park and plays their djembes and djun djuns, ashikos and congas, cowbells and agogos and shakers, for hours, while hundreds of people listen, dance, take pictures, and show off the more peculiar aspects of their personalities and wardrobes.

 One recent Friday I saw a man wearing billowing pantaloons and an embroidered gypsy vest, and sporting a shiny purple bag over his head, of the sort you might take home from an exclusive department store, to which he had attached antennas and cut out eyeholes. I’ve also seen a woman who hula-hoops while reading books, a guy with a bone through his nose like a Sumatran, another who plays a jumbo-sized kazoo amplified with a megaphone, and a belly dancer in full regalia who dances with a sword on top of her head.

A local police officer even stops by on occasion and, while in full uniform, straps on a djembe, redefining the concept of a cop on the beat.

All of them, myself included, gather together in an unfettered display of what French sociologist Emile Durkheim called “collective effervescence,” the passion or ecstasy induced by communal rites, rituals and raves, harvest and burning-man festivals, trance dances, parades, religious ceremonies, and rock concerts. Such events help to create a sense of unity and community among people, provide a counterbalance to life’s dispiriting forces, and give folks a grand and inclusive opportunity to express themselves.

In a culture pressure-cooked by anxiety and fear, with so many inhibitions on authenticity and self-expression, I consider it almost a political act to give people an excuse to let their backbones slip, if not to help them feel part of something bigger than themselves, surrounded by the larger hive.  


Delivering Your Truth

Whether our self-expressions involve dancing or singing or running a restaurant, whether they’re communal or personal, the hunger is the same: to get what’s on the inside out. To make the unconscious conscious, the invisible visible. To let our cats out of the bag.  

We have voices that want to be outspoken and bodies that want to move and shake, stories that need telling and secrets that need spilling, gratitudes and creativities to express, and ideas we need to run up the flagpole in hopes that others will rally around us.

In a sense everything you do is an expression of who you are, including such diverse choices as the shoes you wear and the way you raise your children, spend your time, solve your problems, react to suffering, and go about your work. The question is, are those actions an expression of who you really are? 

When improv teacher Nina Wise asks students what brings them to her classes, they talk of something missing in their lives, a longing to rekindle the spirit of self-expression, spontaneity, and play—the turbines of creativity. They want to lift the lids they’ve clamped over their lives, beneath which are great balls of fire—energy, emotions, expressiveness, passion, contribution.

What they’re ultimately after, she says, is “delivering the truth.” And whether we deliver truth through words, images, or sounds, through art, innovation, or improvisation, we release the heat of the spirit and say “yes” to what wants to emerge in our lives.

To express means to push outward, to press into being—and not just to transmit but to reveal. Expression is e-motion. It’s pro-creation. It’s giving birth to not only your passions, visions, and talents, but also to yourself, unearthing and sharing your deepest authenticity, if not the deeper voices that want to speak through you that are also trying to push their way into the world—your Buddha nature, your Christ consciousness, your True Self. 

And if your passions and vitalities aren’t being expressed, they’re being suppressed, repressed, or depressed—they’re being forced down. We’re driven to express ourselves not only to be true to ourselves as the most naturally expressive of creatures, and for the sheer self-satisfaction of it, but also in order to make contact.

The circuit isn’t complete, that is, until you share your passions, letting their flames fan out into the world and into the lives of others who, just maybe, could use the illumination themselves.


Meeting With Resistance

The world, unfortunately, isn’t always so accommodating to our passions. Life, in fact, is so full of deterrents to self-expression that what we casually refer to as “normal” behavior is really a state of arrested development. It’s so pervasive we often don’t notice it.

I recently consulted with a woman who told me that when she was growing up, her parents sent her to her room for any displays of “negative emotions” like tears, anger, or frustration. That is, they punished her. Banished her. So it’s no surprise that at 40, after a lifetime of repressing half her emotional repertoire, she’s feeling blocked from being the full powerful self she’s going to need in order to be the healer she intuits herself to be. She quite rightly refers to her mission as “soul retrieval.” 

It’s not just negative emotions, either, that we’re told to stuff. It’s big emotions, loud emotions, inconvenient emotions, and exuberant emotions that rattle other people’s calm and collectedness (and sometimes our own). 

In her book Exuberance: The Passion for Life, Kay Redfield Jamison calls exuberance “an abounding, ebullient, effervescent emotion, kinetic and unrestrained, joyful, irrepressible, at its core a restless, billowing state, a fermenting, pushing-upward-and-forward force.” In its most original sense, it was an expression of fertility, coming from a Latin phrase meaning “to be fruitful.” 

But people aren’t always in the mood for our restless, billowing emotions, our kinetic and unrestrained enthusiasms, or our desire to deliver the truth. Sometimes our love of life is just a bit much on people’s nerves, a little too close to anarchy (a state it can easily tip over into). And sometimes it only reminds others of what they themselves have lost or abandoned; hushing us up becomes a way of silencing their own grief. 

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 parts of ourselves we push away just turn up somewhere else, urgent and rebellious. As the Mexican poet Jose Frias once said, “I drink to drown my sorrows, but the damn things have learned to swim.” 

If you’re not used to expressing yourself, creatively or emotionally, you’re probably going to have to start by forcing yourself to get up from the couch, put on some music, and dance. Or doodle in the margins and drum on your desk, write poetry on restaurant napkins and sing in the shower, say what’s really on your mind, and do your true work in the world. 

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

Author Biography: 

Gregg Levoy is the author of Callings: Finding and Following an Authentic Life (Harmony Books), and Vital Signs: The Nature and Nurture of Passion (Tarcher/Penguin), from which this piece is adapted. Printed with the permission of Tarcher/Penguin. Copyright Gregg Levoy 2014. Visit Levoy's website at