Saturday, September 23, 2023

World Mental Health Day | How ‘feel-good gyan’ on social media actually makes us feel worse

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Shreya Christina
Shreya has been with for 3 years, writing copy for client websites, blog posts, EDMs and other mediums to engage readers and encourage action. By collaborating with clients, our SEO manager and the wider team, Shreya seeks to understand an audience before creating memorable, persuasive copy.

By Darpan Singh: This weekend a retired IAS officer, like many former bureaucrats today, tweeted a bright photo of a butterfly hovering over a bunch of flowers, asking people never to be sad about losing anything in life because “when a tree loses a leaf, a new leaf is ready to take its place.” Around the same time, a Twitter handle “specializing” in mental health posted a thread telling people how to never get angry.

Both offered “wisdom” about how not to feel two powerful emotions. They are not alone. Every day, a barrage of such posts, including from supposedly “professional” accounts, floods social media with self-help tips for “happiness”. But many of them even make us feel worse than before.

Let’s talk about grief first. When we lose something, we definitely feel sad. And it’s helpful because unprocessed grief makes us bleed. And sadness won’t just disappear because we don’t want to feel it. Worse, you may also feel anxious because you are sad. Grief feels bad because we’ve always been told it’s not right. When a child is told not to cry, the message to her is: she should not be sad. Grief helps us to heal. Repression hurts.

As for anger, it is an emotion that gives us strength and determination to be assertive and protect our boundaries. Without anger we become a doormat. If we dig deeper, we’ll find that anger masks hurt. Anger shows that our hopes are gone, our expectations are not fulfilled.

Like all emotions, anger is an energy in motion. If we continue to suppress anger, it will cause this energy to accumulate and lock in us, restless for a release. Then even a small, hugely disproportionate trigger can make us explode helplessly at some point. Then maybe we should be ashamed. When angry men scream and become violent, angry women cry because they are more conditioned not to express their anger. We need to find a balance and understand the value of healthy anger.

And why only sadness and anger? As psychiatrists around the world say, no emotion is good or bad. They are ordinary. For example, even the much-maligned sense of shame tells us that we are not god; we have limitations and we have to stay within that. On the other hand, envy also tells us what we might be missing in our lives. But we beat ourselves for feeling jealous.

All emotions are valid and carry meaning. By fully honoring them by staying with them and not fleeing or fighting, we can feel alive again. When we harden our hearts to escape sadness, we also skip happiness, which is much more fleeting anyway, but remains the most wanted.

ALSO READ | How teachers’ mental health affects students’ study progress

But our urge to feel all emotions, even the difficult ones, never really dies. This is why so many of us loved the picture of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal so much. The image was about sporting glory, farewell and rivalry. But we were also drawn to it because the two icons did something that we, especially men, have been trained to always be happy, not to do, even though our deepest core always wants to honor our sadness. That’s why we like certain books, movies, and music, and not others.

The truth is, we can’t pick out emotions. It’s the way we react to it that we have to control. In the case of anger, it may be the utter aggression that we want to regulate. Likewise, grief should not be a reason for self-harm. We must seek help and know that we are not alone.

It’s such a tragedy that being emotional or vulnerable to adults is taboo. Lines such as Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota and Acche Bachhe Rote Nahi remain popular. It’s common to hear, “She’s such an emotional woman or I’m no longer an emotional man.” Even going by dictionaries, when we’re not emotional, we’re indifferent, apathetic, emotionless, and even nearly dead.

What we really mean by saying we’re not emotional is that we weren’t difficult or unpleasant or drama queens. The reality is that many of us are unable to identify and honor all emotions. That’s why we label them as good and bad for obvious reasons. What we don’t realize, though, is that even the so-called good emotions don’t exist in a vacuum.

Let’s go back to the most sought after emotion, happiness. During the recent one-word tweet trend, many people posted happiness. Happiness is beautiful in its place, but can become problematic when marketed as the single emotion of choice. Because life is full of people, places, events and situations that make us angry, sad, worried and jealous. Anything but happy.

ALSO READ | Deepika Padukone Says ‘If Mom Hadn’t Identify My Symptoms, I Don’t Know…’ While Discussing Mental Health

We need to observe ourselves when we write to each other on social media, or otherwise, on occasions such as birthdays. Of course we mean well when we wish a friend “Stay Happy”. The answer, of course, is one of the versions of “Thank You”. Such exchanges, while often deeply felt, are somewhat problematic. No one can stay happy. And that should be okay. But why not accept this reality more directly?

The quest for a permanent state of happiness is one of the main reasons why we live in denial and suffer more. Isn’t it appropriate to talk more about, for example, resilience and vitality? Shouldn’t we instead be striving for emotional growth?

As British philosopher Alain de Botton says, we are all broken in our unique ways, and this itself predisposes us to our fair or unfair share of misfortune. So, if we wish to get well soon, what’s plan B? What if the person becomes unhappy? By getting a better handle on our reality, our misfortunes become survivable and life more bearable. Unless we can embrace unhappiness and work on our lives, it will remain a challenge to feel happiness, even if it finds us.

We also have some frequently shared posts on Facebook from accounts posing as relationship counselors without much understanding of human psychology. They normalize toxic behavior and romanticize suffering. One of the viral posts shows the face of a crying woman and the caption roughly translates to: True love means waiting forever for the one who hurt you deeply and left.

Those who share and value such ideas may not realize that they give power to trauma-driven responses such as future-falsification, nonsense-fitting, and magical thinking of people gasping and crumbling us. On Instagram, hundreds of accounts called “Gulzar Ki Shayari” and such are pushing such falsehoods 24×7 to their massive following.

Recently, a tweet went viral. It showed a young child “falling in line” when his mother takes off one of her shoes and moves to hit him with it. Thousands of people “liked” the video, and many of them “humorously acknowledged” in the comment section that shoes have long been the most effective weapon for taking on naughty children. What almost went unacknowledged was that the post wasn’t funny at all.

ALSO READ | Refusal to recognize mental illness as a major problem for the well-being of the elderly: experts

Any threat of violence against children is not funny. It is because of such parental behavior that, for example, today we have many adults who use megalomania and other defenses such as addictions, from shopping to sex, to mask the inner shame, to somehow feel good about themselves. A crucial sign of children who have grown up with such oblivious parents, with an urge to control and resolve, is that they care too much about approvals from a large number of strangers, often on social media.

Social media motivational quotes are now an industry on social media. Many of them are like addictive self-medication that only makes symptoms worse. Take this infamous one: “Never declare yourself. Your friends don’t need it and your enemies won’t believe it.” We can use such messages to justify our defenses, but what they fail to show us is that sulking is a self-destructive, confusing mix of intense anger, our desire to be understood and, at the same time, our equally intense commitment to direct communication.

As Alain de Botton says, this dangerous ideal, the promise of wordless understanding and mind-reading, can be traced back to our childhood when we were not skilled enough to communicate our pain. But our worlds have changed, and so should we. We can make a start by looking beyond our sulking adult selves to accept and forgive the disappointed, angry, unspoken child in us.

Many social media “influencers” also tell people about the importance of self-love. But the opposite of unconscious self-loathing, which usually results from neglect and abuse, is not self-love. Self-love has the danger of turning into a narcissistic, defensive mask. The ideal should be self-acceptance and acceptance of aspects of life that are out of our control. Likewise, the opposite of depression is not joy. It is vitality and resilience. And the opposite of fear is not always being calm. The ideal should be not to be concerned about our worries.

What these random social media posts do is take out the rest of the essence in us and push unnecessary, unscientific and illogical gyan on mental wellbeing, making us feel even worse. What Buddha said centuries ago, and which few Instagram scrolls talk about today, still holds true and can help us stay healthy in an insane world: Life is painful.

And it’s the painfully deserved insights into who we really are and who we’ve been until now that can make our lives more meaningful.

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