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.