When feelings don’t work

Perhaps these days there’s somewhat better awareness about mental illness and mental health in general. But there’s still plenty of misconceptions and misunderstanding. I’m not an expert, but I have worked in mental health awareness, and I have a mental illness. Specifically, I’ve been diagnosed with major depressive disorder, but I’d like to talk broadly about mood disorders and what it means to have “disordered” moods or emotions.

Imagine working at a nuclear power plant. Not only do people depend on this plant for pretty much everything involved in modern life, if something goes wrong, it can go very wrong. It is life or death.

The alarms blare. The indicators show the nuclear core is heating up. The core can quickly escalate to meltdown, which would be a disaster. Luckily, there’s a protocol for this. You can follow the protocol and do what you were trained to do. There’s always one thing to keep in mind as you go through the steps: the nuclear core could be heating dangerously, but it’s also possible that the warning indicators are just malfunctioning. Both are problems, but they’re different.

This is an analogy for what my emotions can be like. A real nuclear power plant has protocols that cover both possibilities and ensures maximum safety. But as a person, I wasn’t really taught how to think of my feelings as being “faulty.” Of course, that assumes there is a “correct” kind of feeling. So let’s unpack that, at least a little.

What’s the purpose of feeling angry? Sad? Anxious? Why do we even have feelings? In a functionalist perspective, emotions evolved. This means there was a survival/reproductive benefit to having these responses. The theory suggests that negative emotions focus our attention toward solving critical survival challenges. Fear makes us pay attention to and react to threats quickly (fight or run). Anger can motivate us to be assertive and seek to fulfill a goal. Because we are a social species, a lot of our feelings have to do with social situations and how we relate to others.

But what happens when these “alarms” start when there is nothing to be afraid of or angry with or sad about? No matter the cause (or lack of cause), an emotion is immediate and real because we experience it: if I am sad about nothing, I still feel sad. That sadness affects what I see, what I notice, how I think, and what I want to do even if I know it doesn’t make sense.

In short, thinking of my emotions as faulty indicators is one way I understand myself. Sometimes they’re fine, just like anyone’s typical experience. But sometimes, they’re not about anything, and I know they don’t make sense. It’s a double loss for me: I feel bad AND I feel frustrated for feeling bad. Even when you know an alarm is broken, you can still hear it, right? I know things are going well, but I don’t feel well.

For me, that’s the final tension: balancing what I know against what I feel, and checking if what I feel is “reasonable.” Most of the time, I’ve got it handled. Sometimes, I’m confused and want to throw my hands up in frustration. I use my mind to monitor my feelings, but my mind is the thing that has a problem, so how do I know for sure if I’m doing it right? It’s impossible. And yet life goes on. I manage most days. Many days, I don’t even have to think about it. I’m actually really lucky, if you ask me. I made it this far, after all.

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