I’ve been both practitioner and client in therapy settings, and I’ve experienced first hand (from both sides) the benefits and limitations of accepted mainstream thinking in mental health. As an adolescent and young adult, I really struggled to understand where I fit in this world. I was labeled, offered medication, and ultimately felt worse about my inability to just “snap out of it” and “feel better.” No one ever said they understood, or that it was okay for me to struggle with my feelings, or helped me understand where those feelings might be coming from. I was sad, which was ‘unacceptable’ and in my experience of treatment (at that time), the goal was simply to ‘get happy.’
Here’s the big thing we are missing in the way we treat and understand mental health: Emotions are a normal response to life experiences. They are not meant to be avoided, they are meant to be felt. When you are growing your understanding of yourself it can be lonely, and really sad. If your heart is broken because you have loved deeply, and lost that love for whatever reason, the pain can be overwhelming. When you have experienced unhealthy attachment from caregivers who were emotionally limited, abusive, or unavailable, you will naturally have a skewed understanding of love and relationships. You will have to be taught that there is another, healthier, more fulfilling way to be in relationship with others. But it is normal not to know. How could you? No one ever taught you.
Our life experiences shape how we walk in the world. We are not broken, we are not “ill,” we are trying to navigate a very natural internal response to our experiences of outer conditions. When emotions are felt deeply and intensely, as the ones that stretch us to grow often are, it is so profoundly human to desire escape from the uncomfortable sensations that present. We can go to great lengths, and engage in extremely destructive behaviors, in order to do so. This is where mental health “symptoms” often present – we may use substances like drugs or alcohol, over-eat, suppress our feelings to focus on the needs of others, play video games to excess, become a workaholic, or chronically overbook our schedule as a distraction. We may engage in unhealthy relationships, self-harming behaviors, or suicidal thoughts. We may become abusive ourselves, or unconsciously act out relationship patterns that hurt because we don’t know another way.
But this is where the mental health system, as it currently stands, fails us. At our most vulnerable point, we are treated most inhumanely – pushed through a system that is not set up to honor and recognize individuality and which, through its very nature, unwittingly reinforces deeply held fears that we are “different” from others in an ugly and undesirable way. Our feelings are not normalized, and we are offered more socially acceptable means of escape, rather than encouraged to lean in and learn to tolerate and integrate our experience.
No doubt that the forms of escape that we sometimes choose are damaging – for ourselves and others, and I am not suggesting that they do not need to be addressed. It is just that we cannot stop there. We must understand the source of our pain, so that it can be honored, supported, and healed. Anything else is just a band-aid, and at some point we will need another band-aid, and another.
It is time to meet the complex presentation of the human experience with courage and compassion. Life presents all of us with challenges. We must learn how to be with whatever presents, so that we may experience our lives fully, and thrive. We were never meant to only experience happiness, and when we allow room for other states of being, and invite them in without resistance, then we find that all feelings are transient, and we can lead a much more fulfilling life. I do not propose to know all there is to know about how to be with ourselves in this way, and I am excited to continue to learn, but here is what I do know: This is not a linear endeavor. It is a whole-person endeavor. We must move inward and meet ourselves, mind, body, and soul. We must bravely show up for the invaluable practices of self-inquiry, self-exploration, and integration, whatever that looks like for each of us.
We are all human. We are all in this together. And, in the inspiring words of yogi Ram Dass, “we are all just walking each other home.”