The saying "pain demands to be felt" by John Green in his novel, 'The Fault in our Stars' is probably the most memorable in the novel— or the film; if you are a literature traitor. On hearing, it appears so obvious that we cannot reference the statement to be profound, but still, it lingers as a truth in our mind. Like all good literature, he skilfully puts the truth in a perspective that speaks to the human spirit. When we think of the word pain, it is easy to get wrapped up in thoughts of hot metal on skin or my personal most dreaded: stubbing my little toe on just about any object.
Moving from that, we can also picture emotional pain from the unfolding of unwelcome realities; heartbreak, loss and other such feelings of disappointment. For physical pain, we are powerless in the face of biology and must grit our teeth or scream out loud; in time, we know it will pass. However, with emotional pain, the seemingly malleable nature of the mind and the illusion of free will has convinced us that if we knew the path to take, we can avoid the pain altogether. If the mind ever played a deadly trick on us, this is it.
Throughout history, humans had to live with a pain of some sorts, loss of loved ones, broken dreams, unfulfilled promises, and the list goes on. To defend ourselves from these things, or at least the pain they bring, we have tried everything; from the instruction of detachment issued by the Buddhist, to the strong jaw of resilience demanded by the stoics, and finally, the Judeo-Christian faith fleeting stance: it is all fleeting, after death a paradise awaits so why fret now for things only of the passing. We are aware of all these teachings, but still, at best they serve only as medicine for the consolation of pain that cannot be erased.
In modern times, psychologists have come to find that emotions all have their place in our mental health, so instead of the often preached emotion suppression, we need to focus more on emotion resolution. For a mentally healthy individual, emotions often highlight states of mind that haven’t been completely resolved.
When the state of mind is positive, like when that much-awaited employment letter finally drops in our inbox, we experience happiness. This will last until we get used to the change getting the job has brought: new car, better prestige, bigger salary, etc. After all this, we are angry at our boss because he won't let us take a day off from our dream job.
When the situation prompting the change in our state of mind is negative, like our beloved pet dying; until we can resolve living life without our furry friend, we can’t help but feel a sadness over it. Three months later, we have a new animal we can't seem to stop fussing over.
Sometimes we find ourselves in situations where we cannot resolve changes emotionally leading to suppression as we try returning to normalcy. These suppressed emotions left unresolved hide in our minds and crop up in various ways, some of which are unable to identify.
It is no surprise that the suicide rate in men is higher in every studied culture, this is because socially, men are often expected to be more stoic in the face of pain. In fact, the phrase ‘man-up’ exists for this particular notion to be reinforced.
In the hit Pixar film Inside Out, the need for the negative emotions to not only exist but to be expressed as part of the pathway to resolution is made clear. This was most highlighted when the character 'Sadness' is shown to have a role to play in addressing pain. Unfortunately, the demand to be an ‘adult’ in today’s hyper-rational world forces us to think we are very much in control of our emotions. While it is our responsibility to keep them in check, we should have the liberty to express them without stern social reproach. In relationships, expressing anger or any negative emotion is now classified as a taboo. This shouldn't be.
This pattern of thinking is destructive for our mental health because it keeps unresolved emotions festering inside and manifesting as stress in so many other forms. Negative emotions that go on unresolved for a long time leech on our energy. It also affects our general mood and can cause us to be irritable which hurts people around us.
Understanding that emotions are meant to be felt and resolved, not just rationalized away, is a great way to start taking responsibility for our emotional and mental health. If you may, think of emotions as cholesterol that block our mental arteries. Sure you can carry on like nothing is wrong until you get hit by a stroke, but taking responsibility to watch your diet and take the right medication will go a long way unclogging to better circulation.