Understanding mental illness: Treading the line between making space for our feelings and indulging them
It’s hard to say which is more dangerous: turning feelings into thoughts (self-pity, blame, rumination, paranoia etc), or turning thoughts into feelings (telling yourself what is okay and not okay to feel). But the beauty of being human is our ability to unlearn these habits and learn new skills.
A recent psychological concept, childhood emotional neglect (CEN), runs the risk of parent-shaming or relieving an adult of emotional responsibility for themselves, but it can be a useful tool if wielded correctly.
Even extremely loving and affirming parents cannot give their children’s emotions adequate space 24/7, especially because children’s emotions appear to be so fleeting and insubstantial to an adult.
In fact, CEN is not about love but skill. When adult figures didn’t teach us to identify and talk about our feelings regularly, we never learned those skills.
Editor's note: What does it mean to be ‘mentally ill’? In this weekly column, Sneha Rajaram writes about navigating through a ‘mentally ill’ life — encompassing aspects that are both everyday (medications, rights) and contemplative (the universality of suffering)
As the mental health discourse makes its way into more and more spaces, I see a fissure opening up and polarising people on the subject of mental illness. This division is hard to describe without making social generalisations: Some people, often from older generations, see the expressive millennial narratives around mental health as melodramatic self-indulgence and weakness, and others, often younger and on social media, see them as essential to personal and collective well-being.
This is not about those who are or aren’t diagnosed, or those who do or don’t go to therapy. Even therapists’ styles can be dictated by their age, I’ve found. Some of them are more explicit about the relationship with the self and some respect the silence of the interstices, the unspoken psychic gaps that can bridge themselves in response to a therapeutic dialogue.
Both camps of people seem to have formed their respective opinions based on how they responded to inevitable trauma when they were younger, according to the resources available to them. Often, children/teenagers whose negative feelings are given no space grow up to despise those who give their own negative feelings space — and see the concept of self-love as unfathomably immanent.
I am admittedly torn between these two camps. How can I “indulge” my upset feelings about blue ticks on WhatsApp when most people in this country are desperately fighting much mightier battles — for food, health, safety, freedom and dignity? This is how the expression “First World problems” must have arisen.
Sometimes I tell myself that when someone is drowning, it doesn’t matter if the water’s depth is seven or 30 feet. But this rationalisation cannot begin to cover the yawning chasm between the advantaged and the disadvantaged and our respective “problems”.
This is where a line from Terry Pratchett’s books has cleared things up for me: “Personal isn’t the same as important.” When I first read it, I noticed that he doesn’t say “personal is not important”. Just that importance is not a yardstick that fits particularly well into the personal realm. This helped me put away my comparing mind in situations where it wasn’t helpful to anyone.
I’ve portrayed this gap between two schools of thought as generational. But it actually might be related to something else that is only relatively generational in its patterns. A recent psychological concept, childhood emotional neglect (CEN), runs the risk of parent-shaming or relieving an adult of emotional responsibility for themselves, but it can be a useful tool if wielded correctly. Even extremely loving and affirming parents cannot give their children’s emotions adequate space 24/7, especially because children’s emotions appear to be so fleeting and insubstantial to an adult.
In fact, CEN is not about love but skill. When adult figures didn’t teach us to identify and talk about our feelings regularly, we never learned those skills. This is not at all about indulging a child’s sudden midnight craving for ice cream, say, or keeping the child at home because he/she hated the first week of school. It’s only about teaching the child on a daily basis to identify and name his/her feelings — similar to the process of detached observation that is encouraged in meditation. (Counter-intuitively, this actually develops discipline because it helps us eventually move beyond our feelings when we have to do things we don’t want to.)
However, this concept is also about recognising feelings and behaviours that wave a red flag — when a change in parenting strategy is actually needed. It is also about non-traumatic disciplinary methods and corporal punishment — the latter being a loaded cultural issue. But CEN is by no means a binary. It is a wide continuum, and many parents might just fall somewhere in the middle — they were aware of their children’s feelings to some extent and they encouraged their children to talk about them to some extent. Sadly, many more fall on the unaware end of the spectrum.
Because here’s the thing about feelings — they answer to no one. They come and go as they please. We can’t actually make them stop — only suppress them. Every one of us has moments where we try to tell our hearts what to feel — hey, this feeling isn’t appropriate, it isn’t who I am, it doesn’t align with my beliefs, so stop it. Even the Buddha’s first Noble Truth, “Suffering is universal”, can be misused: “Everyone suffers, there’s much darkness in the world. By feeling x, you’re acting as if you don’t know this, so stop feeling it.”
So what’s the difference between making space for our feelings and indulging them? Well, we can’t tell our feelings what to do. But we can tell our thoughts to neither perpetuate nor suppress our feelings. We can ask them to stand by while we witness our feelings directly without cheering or jeering, and then decide independently, consciously, whether we want these feelings to affect our behaviour.
Retroactively rationalising/ approving/ normalising one's CEN is throwing good money after bad: it’s done by adults in order to avoid acknowledging that we were powerless once, or imperfectly raised by parents whom we love and respect, or even to avoid acknowledging that we could've treated ourselves better all these years. If our feelings didn't mean much to our parents (although we ourselves meant a lot), what does that imply about the value of our feelings? Justifications like "That's how the world works", "Shit happens", "I was toughened up" etc. don’t change internal emotional facts, or how the human mind works. The less you believe in the laws of psychology, or think they don't apply to you, the more you're ruled by them and the more obvious your projections and rationalisations become to the casual observer.
A further step along the path of using "shit happens" to invalidate one's feelings is invalidating others' feelings too by judging or shaming them. An even further step, indicative of even poorer mental health, is being harsh to people and pushing their boundaries in order to test their "toughness" according to your personal yardstick, and seeing their understandably defensive reactions as weak, self-indulgent, ignorant of the darkness in the world, and violating your freedom to behave how you like. This is an attempt to turn them into you (which is how the annual college ragging cycle works). It marks the transition from being aware of the darkness in the world to becoming a part of it. The bully might even patronisingly think he/she is doing good by "toughening up” the victim to prepare them for adversity — similar to the rationale of “Spare the rod and spoil the child”.
Such people, who have created a gastric bypass inside their own heads, mistakenly see the validation of our own feelings and others’ as coddling. And yet, in a world where people co-exist, feelings tread on other feelings’ toes. Making space for everyone’s feelings might be impossible on a single platform, forcing a triage. Sometimes friends have to tell each other difficult, hurtful truths — otherwise we just become each other’s yes-men. We reflexively ruminate — one of the worst mental habits I have — and make a negative feeling last a thousand times longer than it would have if we had simply acknowledged it and practised self-compassion. (Again counter-intuitively, self-compassion is the opposite of self-indulgence, because if you beat yourself up a lot, you’re forced to indulge yourself to compensate.)
Here is where the stoicism of saying “that’s life” or “suffering is a part of life” helps — when these are not rationalisations meant to disappear one's feelings but a fresh perspective to help us suspend rumination and be present with our feelings. Then they are not a pressure to stop feeling, but a relief from unnecessary suffering.
Long story short, it’s hard to say which is more dangerous: turning feelings into thoughts (self-pity, blame, rumination, paranoia etc), or turning thoughts into feelings (telling yourself what is okay and not okay to feel). But the beauty of being human is our ability to unlearn these habits and learn new skills — and this is in fact the message of hope we hear in Buddhist teachings.
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