ON MENTAL ILLNESS: Being In Touch With Emotions—Is This a Good Thing?

Jack Bragen
Thursday July 03, 2014 - 01:22:00 PM

In the 1980's, a couple of different times I was an inpatient at Kaiser Martinez psychiatric ward, (a facility which probably no longer exists) and many of the staff members were very good. Some of them gave talks. One female staff member wrote on a chalk board the words, "Feel what you're feeling." 

My interpretation of this is that you should not be out of touch with where you are, on the emotional map, in the moment. This does not have to entail that you go deeply into traumatic incidents of the past and relive them for some profound therapeutic purpose. Rehashing old pain is often useless and it is sometimes harmful. The exceptions to this might include if old pain is interfering with your present day-to-day living, or if the issue keeps arising and doesn't go away. 

But, concerning the moment, you should at least be aware of how you feel. 

It is partly through being aware of how you feel that you might be able to forestall improper actions that could arise from painful emotions. The prevention of yelling at someone with whom you are angry isn't repression. The prevention of doing destructive things when you feel bad also isn't repression. Repression only exists when you fail to acknowledge an emotion. Self-discipline of a constructive type exists when we acknowledge our feelings but control our actions and speech. Self-harm is as negative as harming someone else. 

It is important to realize that our fellow human beings also have feelings. Other people are affected by how we behave toward them. Failing to realize that your fellow beings have feelings, and only considering your own feelings, is arrogance. This is not to say that my behavior has always been pristine. 

You can't judge someone with a mental illness by the same standards as someone else. That is, unless they are in a position of assuming responsibility and would like to be treated as a non-disabled person. That doesn't mean you can't invoke reasonable accommodation. Several editors have forgiven some of my idiosyncrasies that might be related to my condition. 

To summarize, we ought to acknowledge our feelings and not suppress them, but we do not always need to act on our feelings. 

And yet, I might add that going into the feelings excessively can cause them to be overemphasized. And this excessive emphasis on feelings is common among consumers in the mental health treatment system. It can make a person more manipulable, and can cause inability to perform in a demanding situation such as a job. Also, excessive emphasis on emotions can be pretty darned uncomfortable. 

The level of emphasis of emotions is adjustable like a volume control on a television. There may even be a "mute button" for emotions. 

This doesn't make the feelings not exist; it is an adjustment concerning how emphasized they are in consciousness, and thus of how aware we are of our feelings. For example, in an emergency situation, we're not focusing so much on how we feel because it is essential that survival actions happen. Another example: In a job situation, you can not afford to avoid certain tasks merely because they are uncomfortable—you have to work. 

(Most people haven't learned to change the emphasis level of emotions voluntarily. Usually this adjustment will happen to people as a response to environment. A more demanding environment produces a person less sensitive to discomfort. If an environment is too comfortable, you end up with an oversensitive person.) 

If you go around in life with the emotions muted at all times, then you will be cut off from a part of yourself. This can lead to severe problems in life. However, it is good to have the ability to at least temporarily suspend feelings in a situation where they would get in the way too much.