Tag Archives: emotional literacy

Stories of emotions

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.

Can a personality be disordered?

Prompted by a friend on facebook, I spent some time at the weekend looking at what Mind (a UK mental health charity) www.mind.org.uk has to say about the subject of personality disorders. It’s not a thing I’d given much thought to before. Just the name suggests that there are things to be uncomfortable with here –what is more personal to any of us than our personalities, and what could be more damning than to be told that there is something wrong with yours? Much of the additional language around specific disorders, is pejorative, and I imagine, demoralising for anyone diagnosed.

One of the things that defines a person as ‘unwell’ in this way, is that other people have a problem with them. I was talking last week about the pathologizing of difference (which is how I came round to this issue via facebook.) To what extent is the idea of personality disorder quite exactly this? To what degree do we need to be inoffensive to others in order to not be labelled as ill? It’s a very interesting question. Social functioning is a useful life skill, we generally do need to be able to deal with other people effectively. But how acceptable do we have to be? And is the bar set in the same place for all of us? I’d be prepared to bet that the more money and power you have, the less antisocial people will find you, be you ever so paranoid and aggressive. Can we pause and think about the kinds of opinions politicians and religious leaders sometimes spout. Disordered, at all?

What really got my attention though, was the discovery that ‘personality disorders’ can be treated with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Now, CBT is all about changing how you think. A disorder that can be treated with CBT, is a thinking disorder, pretty much by definition. Not a personality disorder. Not some kind of failure as a human being, but a learned, acquired or induced pattern of thinking that does not work and can be changed.

Would it make a difference if we called them thinking disorders? Paranoid thinking disorder sounds very different from paranoid personality disorder. The former implies hope for change, for a start. Dependant thinking disorder, narcissistic thinking disorder… my feeling is that a change of word there makes a lot of odds and may be more accurate.

Now, if people are getting mental health issues to the kind of degree ‘personality disorder’ implies, with issues that can be treated with CBT… we’re back to how we raise and teach people in the first place. How much suffering could we avoid if we routinely taught thinking skills to young people? If we taught coping mechanisms that won’t render you dysfunctional, if we did more to support self esteem, embrace difference and diversity, to encourage rational thinking, to teach people how not to be eaten alive by fear or to become convinced that they’re the be all and end all. We have the tools. We could not be using CBT restoratively if we did not have the tools. Why are we not using what we know in a more active, preventative way to nurture good mental health?

Of course if people know how to think, they can question the status quo, and that might not suit some people very well at all… call me paranoid…