Many of us are striving to achieve something in our lives: Emotional health. Whether we think about it that way or not, when we pursue “happiness,” emotional health and stability is often our goal. One of my favorite actresses is Kristen Bell. You know, Veronica Mars, The Good Place....this cute little film called Frozen.....She is not my favorite because she is objectively the best actress or even subjectively, to me, the best actress. She’s certainly very talented, sure. However, what draws me to her, and many of us to her, is her energy, candor, wit, and obvious inner strength. Okay, maybe this is what you'd describe as a girl crush? Anyway, these traits can’t help but come across the screen and make me feel like I, too, can achieve a Kristen Bell-like zest for life.
On my recent commute, I was intrigued to find out that her husband, Dax Shepard, has a fantastic new podcast and his first interview subject was Kristen. As I listened to the interview, Dax and Kristen were so relatable and brutally honest, as usual. I was again thoroughly impressed with Kristen’s life philosophies regarding having positive self-esteem and seeking to make choices based on what brings her joy. I found myself impressed with what an emotionally healthy person Kristen seems to be. Dax, too, has a lot of wisdom and insight but I mean, the interview subject was Kristin. Even as I was thinking how I could best use Kristin and Dax’s attitudes and philosophies to help my own therapy clients, and in her true, tell-it-like-it-is-while-remaining-adorable Kristen Bell way, she once again brought up her depression.
Yes, Kristen Bell, a seemingly mentally healthy person has a diagnosis of depression. It seems contradictory. How can I state that I believe that even while she describes how she struggles to get out of bed on some mornings due to her emotional state, that I also believe she is thriving emotionally? It’s important to note that I do not know Kristen Bell personally [um, but, six degrees of separation, amirite? It's only a matter of time]. Point being, I can’t definitively label her emotionally healthy, per se. Certainly it would be unethical of me to personally diagnose her. However, I can definitively say that she outwardly displays traits of someone who recognizes the value in, and actively works to maintain her emotional health. So let’s explore what it really means to be emotionally healthy, anyway:
Myth 1: Emotionally healthy people are never depressed/anxious/down on themselves, etc.
Fact: Emotionally healthy people are human [obviously]. Part of being human is having emotions: Yup, all of them. Furthermore, just as genetics and environment can contribute to medical conditions, so can they contribute to mental health conditions. It is certainly possible for an emotionally healthy person to have experienced a mental health condition. However, emotionally healthy people develop resilience, coping skills, awareness of their triggers, and a willingness to continue pursuing emotional health. They are devoted to their task. It’s important to note that there is also a difference between a trait and a state. A trait is an inherent or longstanding way of being. Emotionally healthy people have practiced the necessary skills for emotional health that it becomes closer to being a trait they have. A state is a moment-to-moment emotional fluctuation of being and is influenced by many factors, both internally and externally. Emotionally healthy people have learned how to manipulate their state of being, taking advantage of internal skills and external controls.
How do they do this? When Kristen wakes up and realizes she is feeling down and hopeless, does she wallow in that state of being the rest of the day? Not likely. She may allow herself to feel those feelings for a moment, then she probably takes active measures to change her state of being and connect back to her trait of positivity. She might think of all she has in her life that brings her joy, she might go for a jog to increase her endorphins and increase mindfulness. The good news is, we too, have the ability to change our state of being on a moment-to-moment basis. However, just like for Kristen, it may be necessary to work with a therapist or take medication to increase your ability to do so.
Myth 2: Emotionally healthy people have everything they want/have already achieved all their goals
Fact: Emotionally healthy people usually do have most of what they want. But it’s not for the reason you think. First of all, emotionally healthy can still be susceptible to the subtle/not-so-subtle marketing around them telling us we want/need more. Even Kristen Bell can’t pass up a good deal at Target! However, emotionally healthy people know to be wary of comparing themselves or what they have to others. Even people who aren’t wealthy or have very few material goods can achieve emotional health. The trick they have learned is to fully appreciate everything they have. If there is something they want, materialistically-speaking, or a goal they want to achieve, they set realistic goals to obtain what they want without sacrificing their acceptance and appreciation of their current reality. They may even self-analyze and attempt to gain insight when ever they do feel compelled towards attaining something. And they absolutely work to have realistic expectations of what the sought-after item, experience or achievement can bring them. Bottom line: They live in the present, without overly emphasizing or focusing on what may be to come in their future.
Myth 3: Emotionally healthy people are excited about the future.
Fact: They may be excited, especially about something specific, but more importantly they do not live in fear of the future. When you have learned to live in, be content with, and be mindful of your present moment, you realize that you are just as capable of doing so in future moments. You are empowered to know the level of control you have over yourself and your emotional state, no matter what comes your way. You even recognize there will be difficulties ahead, but you generally feel confident in your ability to use the same coping skills you possess now to move forward. Emotionally healthy people may also recognize the opportunities for growth that come from experiencing emotional pain and hardship. They don’t seek these difficult times, but they have a plan to thrive because of and in spite of them.
Myth 4: Emotionally healthy people have perfect relationships.
Fact: There is no such thing as a perfect relationship. Sure. We know that. Okay, but how cute are Dax and Kristen together, especially when they are honest about their respective personal "issues" and shared relationship imperfections? Still, obviously emotional health is a difficult, though worth it, thing to achieve. Far more of us are striving to obtain it than have already achieved it. Because of the many of us in process of achieving emotional health, naturally, emotionally healthy people are likely to have plenty of relationships with people who are unhealthy emotionally. Relationships between emotionally healthy and emotionally unhealthy individuals are no healthier than the established boundaries between them. An emotionally healthy individual knows it is not his or her job to cater to the other person’s emotional state. They do not enable unhealthy people or unhealthy behaviors. Rather, they are clear they take accountability only for their own emotional state.
Due to that sense of personal accountability, emotionally healthy people are more likely to attract others who are emotionally healthy. Having other people around who are also emotionally healthy is a motivation to maintain their own emotional health. Since emotionally healthy people have learned they can’t bring someone along for the ride or achieve it for anyone but themselves, they know they need their strength to carry their own load. They also expect those around them to be accountable for their own emotional health. Interestingly, even this trait is inspiring to those around them who aspire to be emotionally healthy. Modeling emotional health is the healthiest way to help those around them also achieve it.
Myth 5: Once someone has achieved emotional health, they will always be emotionally healthy.
Fact: Once you’ve learned and implemented the skills to achieve emotional health, you are more likely to maintain it or more quickly know how to regain it if you are derailed. We can not control every experience life throws at us. It is always possible to experience a trauma that overwhelms the current ability to cope. Emotional health takes dedication but it is not completely within our control, either.
Consider the action a person who is in good physical health regularly takes: Exercise, eating healthy, and taking care of themselves. Imagine this person get injured and requires time to recover, lessening his or her ability to exercise and leading to some muscle loss. Even in this scenario, the person has the ability to control other aspects of their physical health: How they eat, sleep, and follow the treatment recommended for their injury. If they physically heal, they know how and what to do to get back on the path to their previous level of physical health.
We also have some control with our emotional health, even if there are factors outside of our control. As long as we are recognizing what is within our control, making our best efforts to maintain our emotional health in those controllable areas, and accepting ourselves during the many times we will fail, we may actually be a more emotionally healthy person than we thought. In fact, you may already have your own unique brand of Kristen Bell [insert the name of someone you think exudes emotional health here]-esque, adorableness.
Imagine you innocently hit your arm with your car door one day after returning from a long day of work and errands. You’ve bruised yourself. That was not fun. Maybe you even muse about how you tend to forget where various bruises came from, but assure yourself that with this one, certainly you’ll remember! Two days later, you gently bump the same spot on your desk at work. You pull your arm back dramatically, touch the tender, slightly discolored area and realize you have a bruise. That hurt. Hmm.... Where did that bruises come from, anyway?
Over the next few days, you are constantly reminded of these sensitive nerve endings on your forearm, though the tell-tale color has significantly faded. Someone puts their hand on your arm while speaking with you, you brush it against the doorway as you turn a corner too quickly, and even the hard spray setting on your shower suddenly seems just a little more aggressive than you remember.
What’s going on? Is there some cosmic joke, or scientific theory to explain a sudden universal attraction to explain the constant, painful reminders of the existence of this protuberance? Sure, cognitively, you know that’s not the case.
Now, instead of a physical breaking of blood vessels just under the skin (a bruise) leading to this new sensitivity, imagine a time when you were emotionally wounded by the way someone treated you. Think of how you might have reacted (or over-reacted) and felt deeply offended, or even lashed out verbally.
What if I told you that it wasn’t them. Well, it wasn’t about them, anyway. At least, not entirely. Just like the gentle spray on your arm from the warm shower water isn’t suddenly violently offensive, we are often hurt by the way people treat us because of deeper, earlier bruised egos and painful prior experiences that have left us emotionally sensitive and vulnerable to specific triggers.
Almost all of us have deeply ingrained negative beliefs about ourselves: Whether internalized through traumatic experiences that left us feeling as if we are not able to protect ourselves, abandonments that led us to feel unworthy of love, or unfair blame or unrealistic expectations placed on us that left us feeling we are innately bad.
The experiences connected to these beliefs may settle in to our subconscious after awhile, becoming difficult to remember the specifics. Yet, the messages we internalized may actually strengthen and be reinforced over time. Our mind may take future experiences, attach the negative belief and file it deep in our mind’s filing cabinet under “unsafe,” “unworthy,” “Not good enough,” or any number of categories. These negative belief files become crowded and we become more and more sensitive to people’s thoughtless, self-serving, immature or even intentionally cruel words and behavior towards us. Their behaviors, intentional or not, touch our sensitive, emotional nerve-endings causing us to recoil in pain even if we can’t remember the original cause of the sensitivity.
How can you reduce these sensitivities and sort through the old files of negative messages about yourself? There are many treatments and therapies that can help you recognize your triggers. You can learn positive coping skills so you don’t overreact in a way that (ironically) increases your chances of making a hurtful situation even more difficult to remedy (CBT and DBT are therapies that can help, for example).
There are therapies (such as EMDR) that can help you sift through the cabinet full of overstuffed files of painful experience and re-sort them in to more adaptive categories: “I did the best I could,” “I am good enough as I am,” or “I have ways to protect myself now.” When our mind jumps to these messages when confronted with a trigger, how much nicer would it be if you could really believe that! With internal messages such as these more positive ones, the power of future hurts is minimized- significantly.
If there are emotional triggers that keep bringing unwanted pain to your life, maybe now is the time to address those triggers. Family Solutions Counseling has therapists trained in CBT, DBT and even EMDR. Let’s talk about what can we do to help you reclaim your emotional strength and move you forward today.
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