La Belle Indifférence

There’s this concept in psychology I was fascinated to learn about. Conversion disorder is a condition in which an individual experiences a loss of some sensory or motor function (e.g. blindness or paralysis) but with no demonstrable medical evidence for the disability (e.g. upon examination, the eyes are perfectly free from defect, but the person is truly unable to see). About one-third of patients with conversion disorder exhibit what is known as “la belle indifférence,” or “beautiful indifference.”

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In the state of la belle indifférence, the patient who has suddenly lost the capacity for sight or movement would not react with terror, dismay, or any apparent worry about the fact that he or she is suddenly unable to see or move. On the contrary, the individual would seem completely untroubled and even at ease with the fact, leading many psychologists to believe the hypothesis that conversion disorder arises from the need to put up a defense against some unacceptable internal conflict—for instance, a woman who has just witnessed a horrific murder may suddenly lose her sight, as an unconscious way of resolving anxiety or shutting out from awareness the psychological conflict born out of the traumatic event.

Because the loss of sensation or motor control thus serves as a form of defense against unacceptable emotions, internal conflicts, or high levels of anxiety, the individual experiencing it would understandably not be so bothered by it and may even be unwilling to part from it, considering the benefits (i.e. relief from anxiety or blocking out of internal conflict from awareness) it affords. Hence, the phenomenon of la belle indifférence.

The idea of la belle indifférence particularly caught my interest because I have been described several times before, by friends and family, as “indifferent.” Frankly, I do not contest the observation, as I do have the inclination to show not much emotion or bother regarding things that would typically elicit some form of emotional reaction (e.g. anger, dismay, grief, or nervous tension) from people.

I believe I started wielding this quality since the time I recognized the human being’s inherent capacity to choose the response he would make in any given situation (this is oozing existential philosophy, I know). I have never liked being overly emotional or showing people that I’m angry, disappointed, or hurt, and so for the most part in emotional situations I’ve taken to indifference, sometimes to the point of stoicism (which is why I often feel like Marcus Aurelius and I must’ve been kindred spirits). This is especially true when I am faced with stressful, hurtful, or upsetting situations I cannot control or alter, during which times I blank up like a solid white wall until the height of the bedlam is over or the drama has died down a bit more. See, being indifferent is not like being a wallflower; it’s more like being the wall.

“Nobody realizes that some people expend tremendous energy merely to be normal.” — Albert Camus

In many occasions, some people have interpreted this inclination of mine as emotional stability or even strength. Other times, people see it as a personality defect of some sort, if not a total social handicap. It used to bother me that some people would label me as having a less-than-optimum adaptive capacity in life just because I would rather show indifference than my true emotions in situations when they would’ve chosen the latter if they were in my place. However, over time I must’ve developed an “indifference for my indifference” (what’s that word again? oh yeah, “indifferenception” >.<), because it is through this mechanism that I have survived the most impaling pains of my life and have avoided hurting people with my words or actions as a result of spur-of-the-moment outbursts.

 

My propensity for indifference, whether inherent or learned, has ultimately saved me from agonizing over things and upsetting situations I don’t have any control over anyway, and probably even from succumbing to depression when the emotional upheaval borders on the overwhelming. Often, it serves as a valuable buffer when all the hurt is raging at its most intense, at least until the outrage has mellowed down to levels I can reasonably face and handle without using indifference as a crutch or a pretense for recovery.

Because in every storm I weather, no, I do not come out unscathed just because I can call on indifference as a defense mechanism. What indifference does, is save me from the fatal blows.

“Life as we find it is too hard for us; it entails too much pain, too many disappointments, impossible tasks. We cannot do without palliative remedies.” — Sigmund Freud

I believe we all utilize indifference as a defense mechanism, only that we each use it in varying intensities, frequencies, and circumstances. Is it something we should actually go against, or be bothered about?

I think not, at least not unless it interferes with daily functioning or true recovery later on. If it helps one live better, maintain good social relationships, and retain his sanity, then we can let it be. “La belle indifférence” — the phrase itself is proof enough that even indifference can be a beautiful thing. ♦

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