Hostility to emotions, and the consequences

This post probably falls into the category of “cans of worms I probably shouldn’t open, but need to in order to stop them running round inside my head forever”. (Apologies for the horribly mixed metaphor there).

Not long ago I read an article about the shameful male suicide rate in the UK. I think the article was in the Guardian and I can’t find it now, but there are plenty of similar ones from the last couple of years, and they all make pretty grim reading: suicide is now the biggest killer of men under 45 in Britain, and the rate has been increasing. I don’t think it would be unreasonable to call this a crisis.

It’s not just a male problem, of course, but the suicide rate for men is around 3 times higher than it is for women. Intriguingly there doesn’t seem to be a correspondingly higher rate of mental illness in general in men, so naturally there’s been a lot of speculation about why that might be. Whilst I’m not of course claiming to speak for all men or to understand what all of them might be going through, I do feel that as a man who’s struggled with suicidal feelings quite a lot in the past, as well as spending a lot of time learning about mental health, I may at least be more qualified than most to stick my oar in.

The first thing that strikes me (and I’m aware I’m probably stating the obvious here) is that we have real problems with emotions in our culture. People aren’t just made to feel like they can’t express their emotions, which in itself would be bad enough; they’re often made to feel like they shouldn’t even have them at all.

You can see this attitude in almost any online debate, for example. Those raising concerns about how something might affect people’s emotional wellbeing are routinely ridiculed, dismissed as oversensitive snowflakes. Anyone who admits to experiencing negative emotions, no matter what their circumstances, is seen as weak and is brusquely informed that they just need to “grow up”, “man up”, “get over it”, “deal with it”, etc. (or worse), and that under no circumstances should they expect any help or support from others.

I can sort of see where this comes from, but for reasons I’ll go into shortly I think it’s a very flawed, irrational and destructive way of looking at the world. People defending this position are quick to point out that it wouldn’t be possible to have a world where no-one is ever upset by anything. Since everyone reacts differently to the world around them, we can only be directly responsible for our own words and actions, not for how other people might respond to them.

In this at least they are correct. It isn’t possible to engineer a society where no-one ever upsets anyone else, and attempting to do so would lead to serious problems, such as severe restrictions on freedom of expression. I also agree that it’s better if people have some measure of control over their emotions so that they don’t experience wild mood swings due to external factors they can’t control. But many commentators go much further than this, making various other assertions that don’t actually follow from that first one, and are in fact highly debatable. For example:

  1. That there is no downside whatsoever to upsetting people, so we don’t need to bother considering other people’s feelings before deciding to speak or act.
  2. That it’s possible and desirable for human beings to reach a state where they are no longer emotionally affected by other people’s words or actions.
  3. That when someone claims something has had a negative effect on them emotionally, they’re not genuinely hurt, they’re just being a crybaby and seeking attention, or trying to manipulate others.
  4. That people who are emotionally sensitive could quickly and easily become less sensitive any time they wanted, they just choose not to.
  5. That people who are emotionally sensitive just don’t have enough life experience, and a good dose of cold, hard reality will make them toughen up.
  6. That mental illness is some distant, mysterious, tragic thing that can’t be helped (or can only be helped by specialist treatment), and is not influenced at all by the way people treat each other in normal, day-to-day situations.

All six of these statements appear to be widely held beliefs, but I would dispute all of them. I suspect that many of the people espousing these beliefs are doing it because they want the world to work that way rather than because it actually does. I used to believe a lot of that stuff myself, back when I was badly depressed, and I used to think that attitude would help me get better, but as I described in my Safe Spaces post last year, it didn’t. It was a disaster. I think that’s why I feel so strongly about this… I hate to see vulnerable people being led down a path that might result in them experiencing years of needless misery, like I did.

“But”, I hear you say. “Isn’t your way just as bad, if not worse? Aren’t you just encouraging people to be self-indulgent, to wallow in self pity and demand that others walk on eggshells around them, instead of taking responsibility for their own lives?”.

No, I’m not. I’m encouraging people to face reality instead of denying it. In this case, the reality that human beings have emotions, that they’re an essential part of our existence, that we cannot live life to the full without them and that the things we do and say affect others whether we want them to or not. I know a lot of people are uncomfortable with emotions; they see them as troublesome, or childish, or mushy, or irrelevant, or effeminate, or whatever; but pretending they’re not there or pretending we don’t need them simply doesn’t work.

Whenever I think of someone trying to deny their emotions or bottle them up, I’m reminded of my old next door neighbour, whose solution to his water tank overflowing was to stuff plastic bags into the overflow pipe until the water stopped coming out. I never actually saw the end result of his endeavour since it would have played out inside his house, but I can’t imagine it ended well. Bottling up emotions tends to result in similarly bad consequences.

I think this is what a lot of people fail to understand. They present a false dichotomy between thoughts and feelings, with logical, rational, sensible thoughts on one side and hysterical, irrational, sentimental feelings on the other. They talk disparagingly about emotional people while seeing themselves as superior, rational beings driven by logical thoughts alone. But in reality, as Dr Jonice Webb puts it in Running on Empty (a brilliant book which I would totally recommend to anyone who’s struggling with their emotions, or even just finds this stuff interesting), the happiest and most successful people tend to be the ones who are comfortable with both their thoughts and their feelings, who have found a way to make both work in harmony, helping them towards achieving their goals rather than getting in the way.

I have read a lot of self help and psychology books over the years, some good and some bad, but Running on Empty puts forward one of the most helpful models for how emotions work and how to solve emotional problems that I have ever seen, and does it in a very clear and readable way. Here are some of the main points that I took away from it:

  1. Human beings evolved as emotional creatures, and there’s no getting away from that. Our emotions will always be there and trying to get rid of them isn’t a healthy or useful goal.
  2. Emotions are incredibly useful, indeed essential, for navigating the world. Every emotion is actually a signal trying to tell you something. Life works much better when you are able to listen to those signals and respond appropriately.
  3. Emotions are important and every emotion you feel is valid and acceptable. There are no “bad” emotions, only bad actions.
  4. Emotions that are expressed and out in the open are far less likely to cause problems, both for you and for those around you, than ones that are bottled up and denied.
  5. Many people do not learn good strategies for dealing with their emotions during childhood, for various reasons. This can lead to a range of problems later on in life: depression, anxiety, feelings of emptiness or not fitting in, even suicidal feelings in some cases.
  6. Being made to feel that your emotions don’t matter or that you somehow shouldn’t be feeling them can be particularly destructive.
  7. These problems can be overcome in adulthood by learning how to deal with emotions effectively, as well as other related life skills. Contrary to popular belief it is not “too late” if you didn’t learn this as a child. However, it can be difficult and time consuming, and some people may need external help to be able to do it.

This, to me, is a far healthier, more constructive and balanced set of beliefs than the ones I listed several paragraphs back.

This post is getting much longer than I intended, so I’ll try and wrap it up now. Getting back to my original point, I believe that at least one reason for the high suicide rate is the hostility towards emotions that’s unfortunately often displayed in our culture – especially if you’ve had bad experiences in the past, it’s difficult to cling to the belief that your feelings are important and that you’re entitled to feel the way you do when you’re bombarded with the opposite message several times a day. And I think the reason males seem to be more at risk is the old macho stereotype that men are supposed to be strong and stoic and not show emotion (and especially not “negative” emotions like sadness and fear).

If I’m right, though, what’s the answer? I don’t know. But I do think it would be a good start to at least acknowledge that emotions are, and always will be, central to our lives, and that living in a culture that’s hostile to them does have adverse consequences.

And we need to stop letting those who would have us do the psychological equivalent of sealing a dripping overflow pipe with plastic bags get away with claiming they’re the sensible, rational ones.

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