Are emotions you? Are your thoughts you? What makes you…you?
Sometimes people ask me what depression and anxiety is like. There are a myriad terms that can be used to describe it, but the best analogy I have found yet is that of a theatre performance in your mind. In my own mind, there is always a drama troupe putting on grandiose shows featuring rampant chaos and tragedy. For the longest time, I did not just see the performance in my head…I was a stream of consciousness racing through each of the performers without rest.
One of my counsellors asked me a series of incredibly poignant questions about life in general. She asserted that everyone, regardless of whether or not they are suffering from a mental illness, explores in some form or another the following:
- Are your emotions you?
- Are your thoughts you?
I want you to stop reading for a second and ponder the answers on your own for a while, one at a time. These are important questions to ask yourself in the name of building up your mental health throughout life. Go on, think and then come back.
Photo by Matt Krieg
Did you pause and try thinking about it on your own? Well, I hope you didn’t expect me to tell you the answers, because the point is that there is no right answer. The questions are purposely posed as yes/no questions, when their answer cannot be described purely in binary terms. One must consider each answer and why each could be correct.
Humanity is beautiful in that we are able to explore the blurred lines and grey areas of interesting and perhaps controversial questions. When my counsellor first posed these questions, I was sitting in a chair across from her and remained in silence for quite a while. You see, I am used to there always being a right answer, and one aspect of my social anxiety disorder is the fear of responding to a question incorrectly. So of course, I felt like I was being tested somehow and will be judged, even though I was in a completely safe space. I pondered the yes. I pondered the no. I pondered the yes again. The no again.
“Yes and no,” I said. She asked me why.
“When I am feeling depressed or anxious, the emotions are not necessarily me – just how I react to my own perception of a situation or a thought. However because I am experiencing that emotion, I cannot deny that it is a part of me and my human experience.”
She nodded for me to continue.
“So then it would also follow that my thoughts are not necessarily me either – since the thoughts are fuelled by my emotions. But at the same time, they are me because they are my thoughts.”
I’ll be honest, I felt like I was spewing nonsense. But my counsellor then asked me,
“So then, what makes you you?”
That threw me for a loop. What makes me me? I am aware that not knowing the answer was one source of stress for me before I had to cancel my term. I knew that not knowing specifically who I was stressed me out, but didn’t really understand yet what I am looking for in terms of aspects of who I am. So of course, there was another silence as I racked my brain for an answer. Finally, I answered,
“Well, I change all the time, so to paint a picture of myself with words wouldn’t accurately depict all that I am.”
I remember her smiling at that time. “Exactly,” she said. “So is the Nicole from a couple of months ago and her goals you? Or is the Nicole right now and her goals you?”.
You see, what I didn’t realize until she said this was that I thought of who I am now, whenever now was, to be the only version of me that will ever exist. This may sound absolutely ridiculous, and I am aware that it is common sense that we learn, grow, make mistakes, and therefore change. But my point is more that if I, for example, felt like committing suicide, I intuitively know that my past has shown evidence of changes in emotions, thoughts and goals. However, in that moment, I have the tendency to assume that the suicidal state of mind will never change. Of course, the danger in this is that it perpetuates sinking deeper into the depressive state, as we adopt the feeling of hopelessness (that our situation or experience will never change).
So we come back to the vision of the drama troupe in our heads. When I stream through each performer, I am taking part in the performance. Any theatrical performance aims to envelop their audience in a certain ambience or evoke certain reactionary emotions. And one can assume that actors must use their empathic abilities to take on the embodiment of their character in emotions and thoughts. Now, in the theatrical world, this is an amazing and enriching source of entertainment. In our own heads, however, we run the danger of letting the performance run our thoughts and emotions.
In our own minds, the goal is not only to imagine yourself as an audience member as opposed to a performer, but also to be able to create this balance:
The ability to acknowledge and validate one’s own emotions and thoughts, but also to realize that emotions and thoughts are transient. The show will eventually be over, and so the you now will not be you forever.
This means being able to laugh at yourself. “Wow, I’m fighting internally with myself! I mean I see why I’m upset, but what use is worrying so much about this?” It is extremely difficult to create this balance, so don’t be hard on yourself if you find yourself getting ‘caught up in the feeling’. The most important lesson to learn is that emotions, thoughts, feelings, goals…you…will change. This will take time and lots of mental imagery and practice. It is not even something that may fully develop. And all of this is okay. As long as you are aware of the importance of the practice and work on it frequently, you are making progress.
Always remember to BKTY (be kind to yourself),