Self-Compassion requires recognizing that either/or’s don’t always apply to feelings or experiences
Is mental health important? Mental health, or mental well-being as I prefer to call it, has gotten a lot more attention in recent decades. Increasing understanding has shed light on how our mental wellness ties to every part of our lives—our job performance, our family and social lives, and even our physical health.
Mental Health is not an Either-Or Proposition
Big Picture: Mental Health vs Mental Illness
The problem is that, till recently, the view has tended towards, “either I’m mentally healthy or I’m mentally ill.”
From a perspective of health in general, that doesn’t make sense.
If you eat your daily requirements of fruit and vegetables, get a moderate amount of exercise, limit your intake of sugar and highly-processed foods, but still have high blood pressure or arthritis—are you healthy? Sick? Which is it?
It doesn’t make sense to view our health as an either-or, so why view our mental health that way? (For more on that, see https://talentculture.com/employee-mental-health-not-either-or-proposition/.)
Individual Level: Emotions Are Not Just Opposite Word Pairs
When it comes to mental health, the overall concept is not the only casualty of dichotomous thinking. Somehow, we’ve come to think of emotions as contrasting duos like black and white.
Maybe this inaccurate view comes from third-grade grammar class where we learn about opposite word pairs.
Or perhaps it’s an oversimplification by an ever faster-moving society.
Whatever the reason, we tend to think that if we feel one thing, we shouldn’t feel the other. (Trying to think we “should” feel anything brings on a whole list of problematic complications, but that topic deserves its own post!)
Over a year ago, I faced a dilemma.
I wanted to feel grateful for something. I DID feel grateful. But despite my best efforts, annoyance kept welling up in me. I felt guilty. What right did I have to feel frustrated? I should be grateful!
The situation arose in the aftermath of the COVID lockdowns. Working from home had lost its charm for me, as it had for many others. In the early stages of my business, I couldn’t afford to rent. So I worked out a deal with a local organization. I would volunteer for them on an ongoing basis, and they would allow me to use one of their empty offices for free. Win-win.
I was grateful.
I wasn’t technically on staff, so they couldn’t give me a key. With many of the staff still on flexible schedules, though, there was no guarantee that the office would be unlocked when I got there. Yet I was there at the same time almost every. Single. Day.
This resulted in a round of texts and attempted phone calls each morning as I left the house and/or arrived at the office. Often, someone would let me in or send me a lockbox code by the time I arrived or soon after.
Once every couple of weeks or so, however, I’d arrive and get no response from anyone. After 15-20 minutes, I’d give up and go home to work while stuffing down frustration.
“I shouldn’t be irritated,” I’d tell myself, “I’m so lucky I even have this arrangement! What right do I have to ask for more?”
No matter how hard I tried to focus on my gratitude on the one hand for the free office space, the exasperation wouldn’t go away.
Self-Compassion: Both are Valid
Kayla Hemphill, LPC says:
“One thing I’ve learned in my practice that I wish more people could understand is that many things are not ‘this or that’ but rather ‘this and that.’ Just because someone experiences something different than you doesn’t mean that there isn’t some truth to what you are experiencing as well. Both can be based in reality. Just like with feelings. I can feel joy and sadness at the same time.” (Emphasis added.)
Hemphill touches on the aspect of the either-or fallacy as it relates to individual well-being, one that touches on the dilemma I mention I above: feeling emotions that we’ve learned to think of as conflicting. (For an expert discussion on that: http://timhillpsychotherapy.com/feeling-multiple-emotions/).
As I had to learn in my office space dilemma, gratitude and annoyance can coexist. Love and hate, appreciation and dissatisfaction, affection and exasperation—they do not mutually exclude each other.
Conclusion: Complex Humans have Complex Emotions
Once I acknowledged that my grateful appreciation for my workspace did not invalidate the negative emotions I was having, I was able to address them. A permanent solution was promptly found.
We often think simplifying things can make things easier. Yet in my case—and in many others—reducing complex emotions to a dichotomy did the opposite. It complicated things.
We are complex creatures. Our emotions reflect that complexity.
Resisting that will make our life harder. Embracing it moves us forward.