At the age of seven, Gillian Lynne earned the nickname Wriggle Bottom because she couldn’t sit still at school. Because her teachers believed she had a learning disability, they asked Gillian’s mother to take her to the doctor.
During the visit, the doctor left the room to speak with Gillian’s mother in private. But before leaving, the doctor turned on the radio.
While watching Gillian alone in the room, they saw her jumping and spinning to the music. That’s when the doctor looked at Mrs. Lynne and said, “There is nothing wrong with your child. She is a dancer.” For treatment, he recommended that Mrs. Lynne put Gillian in dance school.
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Gillian went on to have an incredibly successful career as a dancer, choreographer, and director. During her lifetime, she worked with the Royal Ballet, London Palladium, and Broadway.
I believe Gillian’s story contains an important lesson. That is, we are often too quick to assume that people are broken. 1 And, I think the modern-day mental health narrative is making this problem worse. Let me explain.
Between 2002 and 2019, the number of US adults receiving mental health treatment or counseling increased by 148%. 2 A once rather private and secretive treatment has become part of popular culture.
Many celebrities, including Dwayne Johnson, Halle Berry, and Ellen DeGeneres, have opened up about their struggles with mental health. 3 Also, a new genre of self-help books like Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art Of Not Giving A F*ck and Lori Gottlieb’s Maybe You Should Talk to Someone have helped people ease into the topic.
In many ways, this is great news. That’s because spreading the mental health narrative improves the odds that those who need help will get it.
But, with every upside comes potential downsides. And the mental health narrative has its downsides.
In this article, I’ll discuss two problems with the mental health narrative. Then, I’ll follow that up with some helpful ideas for dealing with difficult emotions.
In the game of telephone, people pass a message around a circle by whispering it into the ear of the person sitting to their left. This process continues until the message returns to the person who created it.
If you’ve ever played this game, you’ll know that the final message is rarely the same as the original message. What people say and what people hear often varies. When it comes to the spreading of information, this is almost always the case.
While it’s good that the mental health narrative is growing, its message is not immune to the game of telephone. What begins as a helpful idea from a therapist often evolves into something different. This is a big issue.
To give this problem some context, imagine the consequences of a poorly spread chemotherapy narrative. What would happen if the message that “chemotherapy is good for people with cancer” became “chemotherapy is good for people?”
A subset of mental health disorders is characterized by strong negative emotions like anxiety, sadness, and fear. Those suffering from these conditions experience emotions so intense that they interfere with their daily lives.
For example, someone with social anxiety disorder may experience so much anxiety in social interactions that they avoid leaving their home. Likewise, someone with depression may experience a level of sadness so strong that it makes them contemplate suicide.
While it’s good for people with these conditions to change their relationship with negative emotions, that doesn’t mean everyone should do the same thing. Unfortunately, a poorly spread narrative about these disorders has led many to believe that all negative emotions are bad. This message is wrong, and it leads to two big problems.
Thinking that all negative emotions are bad leads you to believe something is wrong with you whenever you experience them. This belief tends to create problems where problems don’t exist. Let me explain.
Assume someone without a mental health disorder ends a 10-year romantic relationship. After the initial shock of the breakup, that person begins to feel lonely. They miss intimacy, communication, and sharing life’s special moments with someone they love.
Occasionally, this person feels sad when they see a couple in love or spend the holidays alone. While it’s normal to feel sad in these situations, a poorly spread narrative says otherwise.
For example, how often have you heard the saying, “you’ll never find love until you’re happy alone.” Messages like this are harmful because they suggest negative emotions are the problem. They say, “you’re single because you feel sad and lonely.”
Someone who believes this message can quickly enter the spiral. Instead of recognizing that it’s normal to feel lonely during the holidays and getting on with life, this person feels bad for feeling bad. They beat themselves up for feeling lonely because they believe feeling lonely is the reason they are single.
Soon this person begins to worry about feeling lonely in the future. That’s because, in their mind, continuing to feel lonely ensures they’ll remain single. This belief leads to questions like “what’s wrong with me?” or “why do I feel this way? In the end, this person begins to feel angry and resentful about their situation.
Unfortunately, this problem isn’t limited to loneliness. The downward spiral can turn any negative emotion into a perpetual cycle of anxiety, guilt, and sadness. For instance, consider what would happen if a widow believed it was wrong to feel sad.
I think it’s important to talk about the spiral because I believe it is at the root of many mental health problems. I think everyday people feel normal emotions like sadness or anxiety. Then, because they believe it’s wrong to feel these emotions, they enter the spiral, and their life spins out of control.
The first question many people ask when they believe negative emotions are wrong is, “how do I stop them?” And unfortunately, a part of the mental health narrative suggests you can. Messages like “stop negative thoughts,” “end anxiety,” and “always be happy” are everywhere.
I think this is one of the most harmful ideas in modern therapy. I say this because negative emotions are a normal and natural part of the human experience.
The truth is, you will never stop experiencing negative emotions, and there’d be something wrong with you if you did.
While negative emotions are painful to experience, they’re also critically important.
For instance, fear lets us know when we are in danger. We remember the pain of the past because it contains important lessons. And we worry about the future because our survival depends on it.
Additionally, many of our emotions encourage us to be part of a group. That’s because people in groups are more likely to survive.
In this light, it’s easy to understand why emotions like loneliness and jealousy are helpful. Loneliness motivates you to return to the group and jealously acts as a warning sign that an important relationship may be at risk.
I believe the illusion of control causes many people to enter the spiral. The following analogy explains why.
Suppose you believe you must prevent yourself from aging to be successful. Because you’re trying to achieve the impossible, you go your entire life feeling like a failure. Every birthday, grey hair, and passing second makes you feel worse.
Likewise, people who believe they can stop negative emotions are also trying to achieve the impossible. As a result, they feel worse whenever they experience emotions like loneliness, anxiety, or stress. When you think this way, it’s not long before you enter the spiral.
The main takeaway here is this. It’s ok to feel negative emotions. Feeling anxious before a first date, sad when your dog dies, or lonely after a divorce is normal. Additionally, there’s nothing wrong with you if you feel these emotions. It just means you’re human. Emotions only become problematic when they take over your life or lead to poor decisions.
As you’ve learned, you can’t control your emotions. Therefore, it’s important to note that nothing you do will guarantee to take away negative emotions. That said, the following three ideas can help you manage negative emotions more effectively.
Negative emotions become problematic when they take over your life or lead to poor decisions. This problem typically occurs when you let negative emotions influence your behavior.
For example, there’s nothing wrong with feeling lonely if you’re single. But, if feeling lonely causes you to isolate yourself at home and avoid going on dates, that is a problem.
You can avoid this issue by taking positive action despite how you feel. For example, you can choose to continue dating despite feeling lonely. Or, you can choose to work despite feeling unmotivated.
I’m not trying to make light of what it feels like to experience negative emotions. I’m also not suggesting this process is easy. I know firsthand how difficult it can be.
But learning to take positive action regardless of how you feel keeps your life on track. And while it’s not a guarantee, many people find that doing something positive helps them feel better.
There will be times when you can’t actively work on your goal. For example, assume you want to fall in love and get married, but you weren’t able to land a date for the weekend. As a result, you feel lonely.
In this situation, you don’t have to stay home and marinate in self-pity. Instead, you can choose another positive behavior that will increase your odds of feeling better. In this case, you might call a friend, exercise, or watch a movie.
I’m well aware that people have true mental health disorders. If you are one of those people, I sympathize with your struggle and encourage you to get the help you need.
That said, true mental health disorders are not as common as the mental health narrative leads us to believe. For example, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) affects 1% of the population. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) affects 4% of the population. And even the most common category of mental illness in the US, anxiety disorders, affects only 18% of the population. 5 6
Sadly, today’s mental health narrative has convinced many people that there is something wrong with negative emotions. As a result, a person feels anxious and automatically assumes they have an anxiety disorder. Unfortunately, this creates an “I’m broken” identity which can significantly impact your life.
For example, it’s not uncommon to hear perfectly normal people say things like I can’t be social because of my anxiety. I know I like a clean room, but that’s my OCD. Or I can’t focus on my homework; I’m so ADD.
The point here is simple. Don’t automatically assume there’s something wrong with you.
If you like a tidy room, that doesn’t mean you have OCD. Chances are you’re just a clean person. And, if you’re having difficulty focusing on your statistics homework, that doesn’t mean you have ADHD. It’s more likely that you find the topic boring.
Similarly, there’s a big difference between feeling anxious and having an anxiety disorder or feeling sad and being depressed.
Here’s what’s important about this message. Once people realize that negative emotions are normal, their beliefs change. The identity of “I’m broken” becomes “I’m ok,” and that single shift in perspective is incredibly powerful.
Here’s how to overcome two problems you might face when dealing with difficult emotions.
1. Don’t rush the process. Sometimes negative emotions come and go rather quickly. For example, maybe you had a bad day at work. In that case, venting to your friend might make you feel better.
But, at other times, feeling better won’t be so easy. Unfortunately, emotions like grief need to run their course. For instance, if you lose a loved one, you can’t expect to feel better right away.
In situations like this, it’s important to remember that resisting your emotions will only make them worse. That’s because fighting your emotions keeps them fresh in your mind. Additionally, by focusing on negative emotions, you take your attention away from what matters.
You can avoid this problem by learning to accept your emotions while being willing to accept them. I’ll warn you. This isn’t an easy task. But if you learn to stop fighting your emotions, there’s a good chance you’ll feel better.
One way to stop resisting your emotions is by changing your internal dialogue.
If you’re resisting your emotions, you might have an internal dialogue that says, “I hate feeling this way,” “I want this feeling to go away,” and “what’s wrong with me?.” This dialogue makes you feel trapped and powerless.
In contrast, if you’ve learned to accept your emotions, you might have an internal dialogue that says, “I feel sad, and that’s ok,” “I don’t like this feeling, but I know it will pass,” and “I can act in positive ways despite how I feel.” This dialogue puts you in control and gives you hope.
2. Keep taking the first step. Finding the motivation to take action can be difficult at the best of times. It can seem impossible to feel motivated when experiencing negative emotions like sadness or anxiety.
For this reason, it’s easy to get trapped in a funk. Instead of doing something productive like calling a friend, exercising, or meditating, you isolate yourself and ruminate. This cycle only makes your problem worse.
If you find yourself in this pattern for an extended time, there’s often value in just doing it. Yes it sucks, no you don’t want to, and it’s certainly not easy. But taking positive action helps. And avoiding positive action will only make your situation worse.
Think of it like doing your taxes. You probably never want to do your taxes, but we all know what happens if you avoid them.
Here are two signs that you’re taking the ideas in this article too far.
1. You avoid ideal behavior. I mentioned above that you don’t have to marinate in self-pity if your original plans don’t work out. Instead, you can choose another positive behavior. That said, I don’t want you to become dependent on your alternative behavior.
For example, suppose you turn down the opportunity to go on a date to watch a movie. In that case, you’re using your alternative behavior as a crutch and avoiding the behavior that will help you achieve your goal.
2. You accept the wrong negative emotions. There’s value in being willing to experience negative emotions like grief. However, there are some negative emotions you should never be willing to have.
For example, if your partner abuses you, it would be harmful to stay in the relationship and accept the fear and anxiety that come with it.
Here are the key takeaways from this article.
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