Emotion + Stigma
Thing With Feathers was created to address the stigma surrounding mental health illness and that is something that is incredibly important to me as an individual as well. However, I also believe that there is another stigmatized part of everyday life that we need to address. It is not “more important,” but it could be said to be one of the causes of mental health stigma.
If you read our “Roots of Stigma” post, then you know that a large amount of this stigma is fear and misunderstanding. While this is undeniably true, I would also like to point out a topic which is often thrown to the side despite the fact that it affects everyone in a very direct manner. That is, I would like to talk about how we, as a society, deal with emotions.
If you have ever been told to “get over it,” “control your emotions,” or been otherwise made to feel guilty or unworthy of your emotions, then you have been victim to society’s negative attitude towards emotion. On the flip side, if you have ever been called “cold,” “cold hearted,” or “heartless” because your reaction is different from someone else’s or because you express emotions in a different way than people have come to expect, you have been a victim of society’s expectations for emotion.
We, as a whole and as a society, have come to expect ourselves and others to control our emotions. That, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. The harmfulness comes when we take this expectation to the extreme--the shaming of emotionality. We act as though emotions are unacceptable, particularly if they are negative. Sadness, jealousy, anger--all of these and more are seen as toxic, unacceptable emotions. Even worse, these emotions are often belittled as unimportant or even childish. In fact, this approach to emotions teaches us that our emotions and the emotions of others do not matter unless we see them as justified by a large event. This, I believe is where this overarching issue meets with the issue of mental health.
Many perceive the idea of being depressed merely as being sad. Due to a large view of sadness as an overcomable, unimportant emotion (excepting situations of great distress such as a traumatic event or death of a loved one), many people feel comfortable or justified in telling those with depression that they are overreacting, being childish, or that they simply need to get over it. Those who have not experienced depression for themselves typically can not understand the severity of it. This is not necessarily their fault, but that should not excuse them from trivializing the emotions of others. All emotions from all individuals should be respected, no matter how small.
What this all boils down to is this: others judge your emotions by their personal emotional response. If what you feel does not line up with what they feel, they struggle to relate or empathize with you, and therefore deem your reaction irrational or unimportant or wrong, and often completely dismiss the emotion you feel. This results most often in the ignored individual convincing themselves that their emotions are unimportant or irrational. So, they start internalizing everything, refusing to let anyone in out of fear that they will again be seen as wrong or simply brushed away. Anxiety, PTSD, bipolar disorder, and many other mood disorders are often met with the same treatment, as well as things like ADHD, ADD, etc.
What this entire approach ignores is that emotion is, by definition, not logical. It is also largely uncontrollable. While we as humans are in control of our actions, our emotions are out of our control. We can rein them in and decide what to do with them. We can even ignore them if we wish. But the healthiest way to deal with emotion is to acknowledge it’s there, which can be immensely difficult when surrounded by those who think your emotions do not matter.
All in all, in order for us to address the stigma surrounding mental health, I believe that we must first, as individuals, learn to accept our emotions and the emotions of others. If we do not see emotions as a vital, healthy part of our lives, then how can we help those whose emotions have made their lives difficult? The world needs compassion and empathy. That is what makes us human, and that is what gives me hope.