I recently had the honour of doing a presentation to a community struggling with mental health challenges during the pandemic. There is a lot of advice on the internet about what to do with the mental health challenges during the pandemic and during the lockdown. However, what I see missing from these conversation is what to do with the emotions that come up about the pandemic and the lockdown. What about this never ending cycle of fear-hope-loss? In fact, in my experience conversations about emotions are largely missing from our public discourse. So I took the the presentation as an opportunity to reflect and share my own philosophy about emotions.
To me, a big part of having good mental health is being able to match your emotions appropriately to situations. That means if you’ve recently got a promotion that you’ve been working really hard for – the appropriate emotional response would be happiness! If you’ve recently lost a loved someone – the appropriate emotional response would be sadness. Too many times, I hear people experience something and immediately deny their emotions. They’ll say something like “I know I got that promotion, but I don’t want to get too happy”, or they’ll say “I recently lost my Aunt, but I’m trying not to be sad about it”. Every time this happens it breaks my heart that this our relationship to emotions.
I hold a very pragmatic and functional approach to emotions. Emotions are nothing to be afraid of, they are functional and there’s probably a good reason why they’re coming up for you.
· Happiness – to determine what is good and what we want more of
· Sadness – to inspire us (think of all the art that’s been created in response to sadness), or to let us know that something is distressing
· Surprise – to us know that something was not expected
· Anger – to give us strength
· Fear – to protect us
In my experience working with couples and families the most predominant emotion that I am curious to explore is fear. Fear that your romantic partner is going to leave you, fear that your romantic partner will stop loving you. Nevertheless, once the function of an emotion is determined, it leads to a much richer conversation about what is really going on.
Lets take anger for example. Historically, if you’re struggling with anger, well you ought to take anger management classes where you’ll learn to take 10 deep breaths anytime you’re angry and if you forget, you just need to try harder, and if you get angry at yourself for not remembering to do your skills, well then you might have some disorder. There may be some value to this, but if we take a functional approach to emotions we can see that anger is just a response that perhaps has to do with not feeling like you have strength in a given situation. Anger comes up when we feel powerless and we feel we have no other options other than to be angry. I would be curious in speaking to an “angry person” about their views and experiences of strength, power, and control. I may encourage them to dive into the following questions:
· What about your present life makes you feel as if you don’t have strength?
· What does it mean for you to be weak?
· What are other ways to show strength?
The thing about emotions is that the messages we’ve received about emotions are mostly silly and fall flat to our current understandings of the brain. In fact, common understanding of emotions could be doing more harm than good. Growing up, I was often told not to be emotional. I was told messages like control your emotions, manage your emotions, deal with your emotions, fix your emotions. Being emotional was seen as a sign of weakness. It was unproductive to be emotional. In reality the messages should’ve been – engage with your emotions, ask them what they want from you or just feel your emotions. They don’t need to be taken so seriously all the time. Emotions are transient, they come and go, they’re normal. And, sometimes the best way out is through.