Can you really choose how you feel?

Sunrise North London‘It’s Tuesday. I call it ‘Choose-Day’ – because I can CHOOSE how I feel today!’

Never mind that’s it’s actually Friday. I see this kind of attitude lurking around online just a bit more than I’m comfortable with and, given that we are now entering a very challenging time of year for mental health and emotions generally, I thought I’d look a bit harder at it.

I can only speak from my own experience, but I think this is the worst ‘inspirational saying’ I have ever seen. If you know a more florid example of the genre, please send it over. I ought to have a Christmas competition, but you’d have to try very hard to beat that one. I suspect it’ll be me getting the Quality Street, but I remain open.

I am, for the moment, being lighthearted. And I should emphasise that I’m not knocking every just-for-today expression that’s ever been. In crisis, sometimes they’re all you have to cling to.

But – you can choose how you feel? Really? Others clearly subscribe to this view, as evidenced by articles with names like ‘10 Habits of Highly Unhappy People.’ There are quite a few of them around and they’re not difficult to find.

Great! You might think. We all fall into negative thinking and need a bit of a push out of it, don’t we? And actually, these articles often contain reasonable advice and appear on the surface to be well-intentioned. In a nutshell: don’t criticise or gossip, stop comparing yourself with others, don’t ruminate on the past, stop worrying about the future, stop feeling afraid, let go of your anger, look after your body, learn to trust people, stop focusing on the negatives, stop blaming others, express gratitude more, relax, and just be happy.

I can’t argue with any of this. In many ways, these lists are factually, existentially, correct.

But, as someone working in mental health, I experience increasing concern as I read through them.

They imply, or state directly, that feelings about your life and your place in the world are entirely your own choice. In different ways they flag the person’s apparent inner negativity as a reason for their problems, and how they may even be enjoying their misery.

Worst of all, not a single one that I’ve seen contains references to difficulties external to the individual: anything from abuse as a child, to poverty, to physical or mental illness, to violence, to relationship breakdown, to having no work, to experiencing discrimination because of your race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, body type or anything else, and to experiencing a downturn in circumstances because of the recession we have all been experiencing for the last five years. Not a whisper.

I’ve seen too many depressed and anxious people fighting feelings like these, whatever their circumstances. I have, once upon a time, been there myself.

And the trouble with telling someone that they have chosen their feelings, is that if you bothered to look deeper into the individual person, you might actually see the pain and trauma they have suffered. I would then challenge you to tell them they had chosen their sacking, eviction, cancer or rape, because deep down, they wanted it.

Am I being a bit melodramatic here? Human motivations are complex. Sometimes we use problems as a form of defence when life gets too hard. We retreat into illness, or hide in the past, or paralyse ourselves with fear. There will be an old script at work in here, but it is way more complex than mere choice. You cannot moralise or shame negative feelings away.

So what do we have choice over? We can choose how we outwardly react. Perhaps not in the moment, but after some reflection. We can decide what we are going to work on to make a situation different. We can be mindful of our words and actions and their impact on others. We can see if there is any possibility of acceptance of any of our difficulties, just to remove the charge from them. (All that I have just said assumes our mental health is strong enough to do this.)

There is lots we can do, but choosing our feelings, I think, is not one of them.

Advertisements