I’m just going to say it. I think we might feel too much. No, scratch that. I think we think about how we feel too much. That we have become obsessed with the need to analyse every emotion to death and, given our proclivity to naturally gravitate towards the bad (partly because murky emotions like guilt, shame or anxiety are far more complex and interesting than happiness and partly because evolution – in the interest of our survival – has programmed us this way), we are now spending more time than ever focusing on things that, when given such concentrated attention, only swell in their own importance, drowning out the rationale of perspective or the tugging of other emotions.
According to data compiled by Psychological Counsellors in Higher Education Ireland, the number of third-level students who sought counselling in the last academic year has doubled since 2010. This is despite a global, celebrity-fuelled campaign around mental health awareness. It begs the question: if we are creating a more positive space for mental health, if we are de-stigmatising, normalising, and opening up the necessary conversations around mental health problems (which we all could suffer from at any point in our lives) then why are self-harm figures increasing exponentially every year? Why does the problem seem to grow the more we talk about it? Are we really creating a space for those in need to seek help or are we equally, as renowned psycholinguist Gillian Bridges suggests, encouraging an epidemic of emotional obesity that has us gorging on negativity instead of prioritising resilience?
Emotional obesity refers to the overemphasis on emotion in a way that neglects resilience and perspective in favour of disproportionate wallowing. It is the new phenomenon that Bridges eloquently titles “an emotional wankfest” where, in promoting positive mental health and creating a platform where people can be honest about how they feel, we have unintentionally endorsed a feeding frenzy that only exacerbates and elevates negative feelings.
I’m no mental health expert – I probably should have premised with that – but I think one reason for this emotional appropriation is the new vocabulary mental health awareness has birthed. In opening a (much-needed) dialogue around mental health, we’ve unearthed a whole new language for an uncomfortable emotional ether that was previously intangible. Suddenly, we have at our fingertips an entire catalogue of words to describe emotions we previously may never have registered or been too scared to identify, let alone articulate. It is an intoxicating lexicon that gives us power, attention, contextualisation and a magic password to a community of celebrities, lifestyle gurus, and strangers previously unrelatable and untouchable.
Humans love to name things. Our adoration for categorisation knows no bounds – it gives us the illusion of control and perception of power in a world in which we can feel overwhelmingly helpless. However the act of naming doesn’t solely give power to the person doing the naming; it bequeaths equal importance to the thing being named. The danger of this is that we are now putting inordinate weight on emotions that are really just part of the trials and tribulations of life.
Naming is important – it can create detachment and thus perspective from our feelings. No longer is that uncomfortable emotion a part of us or an emblem of our weakness – it is its own isolated, impersonal entity. Indeed, many people suffering with depression or anxiety christen their illness with names like ‘Patricia’ or ‘Kevin’ to help them remember in those dark moments that this despair or lethargic numbness is not them.
However, for those not suffering from a mental health illness, this love of naming holds a risk that is reflected in the ever-increasing numbers of people – particularly young people – presenting with mental health problems; a figure that critically outnumbers the amount being diagnosed with a condition. You see, this detachment can be used as a shirking of responsibility and abandonment of personal accountability. A bad day, an unhappy rut is no longer our problem to understand, tackle and overcome but rather an external issue that is happening to us. We become passive in our own wellbeing. It’s not me, we say. It’s anxiety, it’s depression, it’s an illness that is separate and independent of me. It is something that, while happening to me, is not me, and therefore not mine to own. We lose sight of the fact that bad days – lord, bad weeks! – are a fundamental part of the human experience. That unhappiness is as common as happiness and, if we want to achieve contentment, then it is our personal responsibility to do so. But that requires hard work, it necessitates the squirm of self-examination and, in pursuit of this, the fear of finding things we might not like within our cavernous selves.
This is in contrast to the contradictory yet pervasive pleasure to be found in emotional obesity. There is a perverted delight in the now ubiquitous need to embrace, dissect, and revel in every negative emotion. I have seen enough Instagram posts and articles, I have had enough soul-bearing heart-to-hearts with friends and an ever-patient mother to know that there is a masochistic pleasure in exposing vulnerability and airing the previously unpalatable.
It is rather like eating a chocolate bar in a culture obsessed with deprivation diets. We gorge on it – binge on what we’ve spent entire lives being told is bad and wrong, indulging in a desire we’re exhausted from repressing until, before we know it we’ve consumed an unholy slab of Dairymilk in record time. That is exactly what we are now experiencing with our emotional health.
After generations spent starving for words and shapes to hang our sadness onto, the ban on emotional expression has suddenly been lifted and we find ourselves not just taking a bite out of this newfound knowledge but devouring the whole Biblical tree. And how could we not? Going from a place of extreme deprivation to sudden liberation can only breed excess. After an age of being denied not just a space to voice how we feel or an audience to listen to us but a vital part of our very human genetics, how could we not overindulge, how could we not be drunk on the liberation to be, and feel, and express ourselves as we choose?
And while that kind of unrestrained indulgence feels good, it feels even better when there’s a receptive and empathetic audience there to validate you, to bolster you with “me toos” and remind you that you’re not alone. That, I believe, is the true crux of the emotional “wankfest” Bridges refers to – we are all getting off on this almost orgy of angst and collective despair. For the first time, emotion is kind of cool – it is a club we can all gain access to, with the simple backstage pass of negative feeling. And so, we get our hit. We rub our wounds against each other and are briefly satisfied. Yet the craving for that same attention – for those feelings of belonging, of validation – hits again and we eat another chocolate bar bigger than the last, until perspective is lost in the hedonism of intense emotion that discounts perspective and disfavours rationality. Bridges said it best when she said “we need less focus on the self and more on the world beyond the self.”
The uncomfortable truth is that we live in a world that prioritises self-absorption over perspective. It distracts us with the enigma of ourselves from the larger – and infinitely more troubled – bigger picture. How does that make you feel? we are asked on a daily basis – by advertising campaigns, celebrities, surveys, friends, teachers. With this constant prodding to begin and end our days with the self-reflection of an ‘I’, we begin to over-indulge in the deluge of our own constant – and ever-changing – emotions and forget one fundamental, unavoidable fact: that life is hard and a bad day is a reality inescapable.
Please, do not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting a return to medieval days where conversations around mental health end in stigmatised exiles of “crazy”, “mental”, or “insane”. We need to continue encouraging emotional honesty and the fundamental truth that it is perfectly normal not to be ok. However, as numbers of people presenting with mental health issues continue to rise – in just two years hospitals have seen a 6% increase in self-harm presentations – we equally need to begin trimming the emotional fat. Resilience needs to be taught and the old-fashioned importance of perspective reinstated as a companion to every strong feeling. We need to stop appropriating someone else’s constant reality as our transient present. We need to learn resilience, to trudge through the bad in pursuit of the good, all the while understanding that both sides of the spectrum are fleeting, temporary and critically innate to the human experience. This is imperative for our own wellbeing but more importantly, it is also critical in ensuring that the resources, care, and attention for those suffering with mental health disorders are safeguarded. In a service overworked, overstretched, and underfunded, let us not forget that we must mind others by minding ourselves. This starts by ending the conflation between feeling and condition.
Because the truth is – however inconvenient – that just because the chocolate is there, it does not meant that we have to eat it. Sometimes we need it, sometimes devouring it is a form of soul-filling, regenerating catharsis, but sometimes maybe a square will suffice. Emotions are much the same. We may not be able to control how we feel but we do have a measure of control in how we choose for those feelings to affect us. My mother – an infinitely wise psychiatric nurse – compares them to clouds passing overhead. Sometimes they might envelope us, sometimes they might be so fleeting we wonder if they were ever even there. However, just because they’re there doesn’t mean we have to float away with them. We can choose to pull them down…and we can choose to let them pass us by.