In the absence of severe injury or affliction, your mind is the only thing in this world over which you have 100% control. Let me say that more clearly — you can only control your mind (i.e. not other people, not the weather, not even your own health completely). The funny thing I find is that many of us will work to vigorously control our surroundings rather than take ownership of how we react to our surroundings. If there is truth in the notion that we can control our minds but not our surroundings, why don’t we as a society put a greater emphasis on working through our emotions?
At times, it seems that we are simply afraid to talk about emotions. If we broke our leg, we wouldn’t lie to our colleagues about why we require time off, but for some reason, we struggle to tell someone about our pain if it does not stem from blunt force or an invading pathogen. We are humans; our bodies are soft and so are our feelings. Pain is pain and must be treated as such. Unfortunately, here in the United States, there is a stigma surrounding emotions and mental health. We have seemed to develop a culture that shuns tears and teaches people to ‘suck it up.’ In this way, people are taught not to address and resolve their hard feelings rather to ignore and suppress them.
It also does not help that “mental illness” is at times used in a derogatory manner. For example, it is not uncommon to hear someone explain away the ‘crazy person’ name calling and yelling at the McDonald’s cashier as someone clearly ‘suffering from mental illness.’ This example is peculiar because, at least in my opinion, there is nothing inherently offensive about “mental illness,” yet applying this word in this way stings. Perhaps, this is because when it comes to mental health, we only recognize it at one end of the spectrum— poor. While we are quick to honor and praise great physical health like that of professional athletes and super models, we do not place a high value on “world-class” mental health. In this way, it seems that mental health, by virtue of its use in everyday conversation, inherently refers to “poor” mental health.
On some level, however, we all know that being in control of our emotions and taking actions to improve our mental health is a positive and proactive thing to do. There is a famous book called Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, which I was assigned to read for a class on mediation that I took a while back. Rather than shy away from emotions in the workplace, this book discusses how our emotions affect us and how we can address them and come to terms with them in a productive way. In addition, this book and others teach us to consider our emotions as one piece of information. How do our emotions line up with the reality of the situation? How can we reconcile this gap? If we are taught to recognize, digest, and analyze our emotions, rather than dismiss them, we will have better control over our emotional health (and way less stress!). Methods including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which aims to improve mental health, by challenging and changing unhelpful cognitive distortions, improving emotional regulation, and developing personal coping strategies, have been instrumental in answering the above questions and teaching us how to deal with rather than suffer from negative emotions.
At the end of the day, it is my firm belief that the happiest people are not the richest, most successful, rather they are the ones that best manage their emotions and adopt a healthy perspective on life. These are the people that do not carry their stress around until it wrinkles their skin or makes their brittle and gray. Instead, these are the people that confront these difficult emotions in the same way most of us would confront a bad cough. These people make it a priority to address their pain that no one can see, undertake steps to help treat and manage their pain, and, if all else fails, these people get help for their suffering.
Learning how to effectively manage stress is hard to master but may be one of the most important lessons we may ever learn. Stress in the short term may lead you to make impulsive decisions that threaten close relationships, our education, or work. Stress in the medium term, can change our cheery, friendly dispositions into one that is closer to sadness, agitation, or anger. Stress in the long term can lead to anxiety, depression, and have physical consequences.
It might sound trite to ask, “is the glass of water half full or half empty?” But, the truth behind this thought experiment is that the glass is simply half water and half air, and the rest is up to your perception. If we can learn to see our emotions, understand them and work with them (rather than let them overcome us), we can see more situations in our life like a glass that is half full rather than half empty. And, wouldn’t it just be nice if things were a little better if only in our heads?