Do we really need to get emotional?

Media coverage of mental health issues, and the prevalence of psychological distress amongst us, is probably greater now than it has ever been. Sometimes this coverage, with its headline grabbing statistics, may even feel like overkill. ‘Forty-one per cent say they would seek help from a counsellor for depression’; ‘Fifty-four per cent say that they (or someone they know) have consulted a counsellor …’, etc.

These figures are taken from BACP’s Attitudes to Counselling and Psychotherapy survey from 2014 and quoted in their recent fortieth anniversary publication of Therapy Today. It’s true that the subject of counselling is now pretty well established in common parlance, and not before time. Hopefully the days are pretty much behind us when to seek help from the talking therapies for psychological or emotional distress (which is perhaps a more helpful form of words than ‘mental health issues’) was stigmatized as weakness.

Earlier this year Prince Harry talked frankly in a televised interview of how emotionally shut down he had been for the thirty years following the death of his mother, Princess Diana. His campaign to take the shame out of emotional distress and emphasise the importance of acknowledging difficult feelings is worthy and hopefully will have helped others who have struggled to ask for help. His appeal attracted a great deal of favourable publicity.

This message was moderated in April 2017 when political columnist Janan Ganesh wrote an article entitled Not everyone needs to get in touch with their feelings. Ganesh questioned whether we might have gone too far in this drive to be more open about our emotions. He suggests that ‘some people are just unemotional’ (although he admits that some people might be so ‘as a coping tactic’). He also expresses the hope that current efforts to promote acceptance of our emotional selves does not encourage people to ‘root out suppressed intensities that are just not there’. And it is true that therapy is (or should be) largely about exploring reality and most certainly not about implanting false or misleading ideas or ‘memories’.

But whatever view one holds about how open we should be on the subject, we cannot ignore the fact that all of us have an emotional dimension. The extent to which we reveal this or are prepared to discuss it is a very personal matter. But there are times when to deny or distance ourselves from our emotions is unhelpful to us. For most people the task of addressing difficult feelings is not straightforward. It takes time – the number of routes into each of our emotional selves will be as infinite as the variety inherent in human nature itself. It can also be scary, because it will mean confronting our own vulnerability.

In particular, if we have any history of being subjected to neglect, rejection, betrayal or bullying then it is natural to fear allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. We fear exposing ourselves to further treatment that does not respect or value us. Finding a trusting relationship where we can feel safe enough to confront vulnerability is an important step towards discovering the value in the reality of who we are.