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Self-Knowledge • Mood

Learning to Feel What We Really Feel

Mental well-being is the consequence of what sounds like a stupidly simple process, but is in fact an enormously and humblingly complicated one: feeling what we actually feel as close as possible to the moment we actually feel it – and then being able to express our state of mind either to ourselves or to another without shame or significant distortion.

In this account, if someone angers us, we are able to register our disappointment at our let-down at once; we can know – and be unfrightened by – our own fury. If someone close to us bullies us, we can take on board that our expectations have been betrayed and that someone we adore has not been who we needed them to be.

A so-called ‘well-adjusted mind’ is one that can, in a variety of situations, minimise the distance between what it feels and what it knows it feels, between the emotions that flood it and those that consciousness can register.

William Kurelek, The Maze, 1953

Unfortunately, there is nothing either obvious or guaranteed about such an alignment; it is more likely to be a lifetime’s achievement – the result of arduous and intermittent self-exploration – than any kind of reflex response. It’s far from our first choice to experience the lives we have. The natural inclination of our minds tends towards non-feeling, non-awareness, numbness and self-alienation; towards a powerful disassociation between sensation and knowledge.

This tendency is not hard to explain. We don’t feel because of the sheer desperate unpleasantness, surprise and insult of what we are typically asked to acknowledge. We lose sight of our emotions to avoid an untrammelled encounter with the full tragedy of existence.

Someone we love immeasurably doesn’t love us back; we are three and a half years old and it happens every night. We continue to think of them as very good and insist that we must, somehow, be very bad. 

Someone we are in relationship with wounds us through their neglect and lack of commitment. We feel nothing and stay around. We’ve long been told that anger isn’t something good people feel.

We suffer an immense loss in love; but we haven’t noticed because we decided years ago that nothing would affect us any more.

We have had a very bad fright but we haven’t realised, because strong people don’t get scared.

We long to be vulnerable and dependent but we’re not a child anymore so we’re chiefly irritable and very busy at work.

We are – it appears – a great deal angrier, sadder, younger, more tearful, idealistic, hopeful and dependent than we ever know how to be.

Our educations are partly to blame. A child picks up all sorts of clues from its environment about what it is possible to feel. Its authentic responses disappear fast through reminders that ‘big boys don’t say that’ or ‘little girls should never whine like this.’ It doesn’t require much to shut us down: ‘Don’t be so silly, you know full well you adore him, he’s your father!’ And who are we to say otherwise? 

We’re surrounded by powerful, well-disguised but hectoring reminders of what ‘normality’ requires. Sensible good people don’t feel immeasurably sad about things that happened decade ago or have complicated and surprising sexualities or harbour sharply ambivalent feelings about people close to them. We labour under dictates of what health demands that twist us into illness. At the soft end, we suffer a loss of creativity and vitality. At the harder end, we fall prey to paranoia, despair, physical ailments and chronic anxiety. 

The search for mental wellbeing requires us to try to  return as much of what we may have felt to its true destinations, to repatriate emotion wherever it has been exiled, to learn to be more of who we are.

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