Most of us tend to start from the assumption that our emotional responses are inherently right – which is a sane place to be. Those of us who cannot trust the validity of our emotions tend to be badly damaged, and make very little sense to anyone else. It’s very hard to be a functional person with a belief that your emotional responses are fundamentally invalid. However, if you’re mentally ill, you may well be feeling anxiety, paranoia and depression in ways that are not a fair reflection of reality. Simply invalidating those responses leave the sufferer even more adrift, stuck with the feelings, unable to trust them and not having some magical way of moving beyond that.
How we relate to other people’s feelings is really important in terms of how we function within communities and whether we support or undermine each other.
On a few occasions now I’ve run into people whose fundamental belief is that we all feel the same sorts of things in the same degrees and for the same reasons. Take that as a starting point and your own responses become the yardstick for what everyone else should be feeling. When this doesn’t work, it can be easy to assume there is something ‘wrong’ with the person who feels differently. Rather than face the disorientation of admitting the model is flawed, and perhaps not even able to recognise this is a model, not a truth, it can be tempting to hang on to the story and invalidate the responses of anyone who feels differently. That approach precludes any meaningful interaction with most people or their emotional experiences, and narrows our capacity for empathy.
Often our ability to empathise depends on our ability to imagine, and on how good our imaginations are. Can we take our modest, first world problems and empathise with a person who has just come out of a war zone? We may be at risk of arrogance and assumption if we think we can, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try! There is a lot of commonality in human emotion, and there are far too many people whose reality really does feature the unthinkable. Trying to imagine and empathise without becoming too attached to the stories we create that way, is a very difficult balance to strike. It’s something I struggle with, and trying to think my way into other people’s experiences is a big part of what you do as an author.
We can also practice some very unhelpful forms of double-think, where what is true for us is not assumed to be true for other people: If I feel got at clearly the other person is being mean. If you feel got at, clearly I am being challenging and perfectly reasonable. If I question your Druidry and your right to call yourself a Druid, that is my right and I’m doing you a favour. If you question mine, you are bullying and abusing me. I’ve seen this far too many times. It shuts down dialogue and makes it virtually impossible to talk about real problems. If we cling too hard to the belief that we must be right, we cannot hear when we’re getting things very wrong. If we are too readily persuaded we are entirely wrong though, we open the door to anxiety, depression and paranoia. The person who is not well cannot trust their own emotions, but it is also true that the person who is persuaded not to trust their own emotions becomes unwell.
There is an immediacy to emotion, and perhaps the most pernicious story of all is that we cannot control our responses. This idea is used to defend violence and rape at the extreme end. “I felt it and I couldn’t not do otherwise” allows pretty much anything it occurs to a person to do. No emotion is wrong – they are simply what we get. However, as we grow out of childhood, and we grow through adolescence, we should become able to control our responses to enough of a degree not to be harming other people with them.
March 22nd, 2014 at 12:58 pm
So true and so bravely talked about here. I will share as more understanding and empathy is so needed in this world right now. It also reminds me to check my responses inner and outter.
March 22nd, 2014 at 1:34 pm
…my computer has just swallowed the initial response I wrote, but I shall try again, because you have (as you always do) touched upon something so important.
I recently came across the idea that all emotions are true, if not necessarily right – they all tell us something, but we need to pay careful attention to what they tell us, and make sure we act on them as honourably as we can. That distinction between the emotions and the actions resulting from them is crucial.
When I was younger, I was put in an awful situation where certain people would say and do deeply hurtful things and then accuse me of imagining those things, because I was “unstable”. I was lucky enough to retain an awareness of objective evidence that those hurtful things had indeed happened, but even so, that sort of undermining of a person’s trust in their emotions and the validity of their emotional responses is just terrible. It actually really does unhinge you – if you can’t trust what your emotions tell you about the world, what can you trust? Undermining that basic trust in the perceptions of the world robs you of your ability to take part in it fully – it robs you of your voice, which is based on the assumption that your experience of the world is valid and has as much right to be expressed as anybody else’s. And, as I am learning, it takes a *lot* of hard work to get that back,
When it comes to empathy, perhaps the most important part of it is allowing ourselves to remain curious about the huge variety of human experience that we can never, ever know first hand. Allowing people to express their true emotions, instead of expecting them to fit a certain pattern, would heal all sorts of ills – for example, rape trials, where juries have to be briefed on the fact that victims are usually *not* going to express their emotions in the way people who have never been rape victims would expect.
Yet another long ramble. Your thought-provoking posts do seem to bring them out in me!
March 23rd, 2014 at 7:40 am
Thank you for sharing – some hugely important insights there. It is perhaps a greater cruelty than the physical harm done that abusers so often rob victims of the right to their perceptions, feelings and experiences. Rubbish the response and the victim can be kept available. It is a hideous thing, and all too common, and very much needs talking about.