In order to fully remove serious emotional problems and maintain a generally happier state we may need to challenge and change our ‘global view’ of emotions as a whole. I call the transition from the globally non-accepting to accepting viewpoint of intense emotions ‘Normalisation’. All emotional problems, including emotional disorders such as obsessions and phobias, are very normal life events.They are undesirable, but normal. Trouble is, sufferers are extremely good at hiding their suffering for very long periods of time (by the way, they are also good at healing and never telling anyone about it). You may be surrounded by people suffering with emotional illness and not know it. A survey carried out in the US a couple of decades ago produced results that shocked the government – it revealed over half the population could be classified as mentally or emotionally ill. Think your emotional condition is an isolated and unusual incident? Think again.In my day job working in education I see three to four people a week with intense emotional problems such as phobias; long term depression; anger issues and OCD – and I do not work as a counsellor or a psychiatrist. They see many more. I might see a person with a broken leg once or twice a year. Yet I have never heard a person with a broken leg refer to their situation as abnormal. Painful? Absolutely. Inconvenient? Definitely. Abnormal with lots of self-criticism? Never. When I talk to people with emotional illness they make ‘my condition is abnormal’ comments continuously – and so do those around them.I suspect the real reason we tell ourselves emotional problems are abnormal is because we, and society, just wish these foggy hard to sort out problems did not exist and by denying them access to our view of what normality is we can put them on hold for a future rainy day. Unfortunately having an emotional problem makes every day a rainy day. Broken legs have to be dealt with there and then because we cannot function in the outside world if we do not – but emotional problems? They will keep – as long as we all decide they are abnormal.Once we open up to the need to heal our emotional problems, however, we naturally have to declare our condition real and the transition to normalisation starts to happen – but it comes at a price that includes:
accepting sole ownership for developing your self-management skills
taking repeated risks
expanding your pain barrier
developing your learning process.
Accepting sole ownership for developing your self-management skills Sole ownership of your emotional well-being lies with you. You become the detective, the evil scientist experimenting on yourself, the decider, eventually your own skilled healer. There are no shortcuts and no immediate external rewards so your motivation to do this long-term work comes only from you. Let us add personal cheerleader to the list of new roles you need to develop.Others may help with advice, with additional cheerleading and with other subtle things over time (for example counsellors support our unconscious transition to normalisation by creating an atmosphere of unconditional acceptance which you then pick up on). Ultimately though the whole thing is your responsibility to carry out alone on a day by day basis in between seeing those helpers and advisors. You decide when emotional healing should start and when it ends; this normal responsibility is the same for all of us.Taking repeated risksWhen you want to heal from an emotional disorder for the first time in your life you must learn how to disconnect from the outside world and risk going within – into the ‘you’ that is at that moment a very painful you. When you get there you will be the only person who arrives. As you approach these places inside they release more intense painful energies sparking ambivalence – the internally painful state in which two emotionally supported belief systems collide with each other. I’m going in, do not go in; I am right, you are wrong; this will kill you, so why has it not killed me before? One belief system craves change while the other wants to keep the status quo and screams ‘you are making things worse!’ and goes on to show you images of failure and how things could end in disaster if you continue.This is both frustrating and frightening. What if you get it wrong? What if you get to a place inside and find you are trapped in a worse place than you were before you decided to take this journey and this worse place becomes your normal day to day emotional setting – would it not be better to stay just as you are? What if you get inside an emotional response and discover you are evil and always will be? Maybe you will open up an emotional response and it will compel you to attack someone (anxiety disorders such as obsessions and phobias are built around the need to prevent these things happening – but you will not know this unless you are willing to take the risks). We go through the same risk taking process as bungee-jumpers and parachutists do – it feels exactly the same.We may not survivie – but we do. Do it often enough and you will find the alleged risks just make you giggle a bit when the warning signals appear. ‘Oh, that old chestnut’. As you develop confidence in taking the ‘going-in risks’ you develop the understanding this is normal. You do not remove the risk-taking process, you embrace and normalise it. It works the same way for all of us.Expanding your pain barrierI have never had a broken leg and no, I do not want one thank you – but if I did have a broken leg and I recovered from it I would have expanded my pain barrier. That is, I would have expanded my understanding of what I can go through without it killing me and would know what actions need to happen to get me back to good health. Negative emotional responses tend to travel along the same nerve routes as our physical pain system and for this reason they register as though they were actually physically hurting us in our brain – but they do not and we can only learn about our emotional limits if we are willing to experience them.Although what we feel is real, the pain created is actually based on our perception of an event rather than the reality of the event. When we refuse to accept the nature of an external reality we do so with the intention of attempting to reverse the external reality and most emotional pain is about preventing or undoing something in the outside world that cannot be undone. When we want to stop or undo our own intense response we may have limited self-management skills and make the mistake of using yet another painful emotional response designed to undo the first – now we have an emotional disorder.All emotional responses are normal – there is no such thing as abnormal emotional pain. It is how we work with our emotions that causes or relieves our pain.If you had a close encounter with a lion and your fear caused you to move quickly away from it you would not stop to criticise your fear as it did the job of speeding you up and temporarily narrowing your thinking down to look only for an escape route – you would want it to do that. You would accept both the external reality and your response to it. You would be grateful to the response if it kept you alive.The same system reacts in regards to other external situations but if we do not want to hear what the response is telling us about our external reality (for example it may be telling us to leave a harmful relationship but we are torn in our decision because we have a strong dream of having a wonderful relationship instead) we cling on to it; we wrestle with it and pin it down – and it fights with us in its determination to protect us but we refuse to see it for what it is and the message it contains.
It is absolutely normal for our emotional responses to transmit pain when we are in situations potentially harmful to us – if we are unwilling to experience the pain when it first appears we risk having to endure it for much longer periods later. This is a rule of life.Developing your learning processWhatever you pay attention to improves learning and then what you learn improves what you are paying attention to.Chances are the reason you became emotionally ill in the first place was because you made some bad external decisions for yourself and had no idea that was what they were – you found yourself trapped and powerless and began to self-criticise. Learning stops the self-criticism first then it helps you release the emotional responses from which you gain insights and what you end up with is a route map for what decisions you should be making in the future according to the kind of person you are. When you start working in this way you learn to trust yourself and the results give you confidence.You learn a space exists between having an emotional response and taking external behavioural action. As children we learn the limited model of ‘have feelings: take action’, but when we become much more powerful as adults this belief system scares the hell out of us so we turn to suppression. Instead we need to develop the model ‘have feelings; go to safe space to safely release feelings while gaining the insights contained in them and then take necessary actions’.You learn that putting yourself first is very good for other people – how strange is that? Strange but normal.By seeing your emotional problems as normal and agreeing to work with them like you would any other real-life problem area you learn what lies beneath your immediately available day to day thinking is not the ‘hell’ you once saw it as but an amazing, commonly experienced resource most people are too frightened to access.Break a leg.