A Headshrinker's Guide to the Galaxy

Psychoanalytic wisdom for everyday life

Just Turn Your Feelings Off, 'Book of Mormon' Style

How to deal with your feelings more effectively

Oh, Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone, you slay me! I had the great pleasure of seeing your musical, The Book of Mormon, at the Pantages Theater in Hollywood last weekend. I can’t remember the last time I laughed so much! Thank you!

Not only is the musical, The Book of Mormon, a side-splitting parody of religion, it offers keen insights into human nature as well. As a psychoanalyst, I was particularly struck by their vivid picture of how we foolishly try to manage our difficult feelings by turning them off like a light switch.

One of the clever songs goes like this:

I got a feeling,
That you could be feeling,
A whole lot better than you feel today
You say you got a problem,
well that’s no problem,
It's super easy not to feel that way!

When you start to get confused because of thoughts in your head,
Don't feel those feelings!
Hold them in instead

Turn it off, like a light switch
just go click!
It's a cool little Mormon trick!
We do it all the time
When you’re feeling certain feels that just don't feel right
Treat those pesky feelings like a reading light
and turn ‘em off,
Like a light switch just go bap!
Really what’s so hard about that?
Turn it off!

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Indeed, one of the main challenges of psychological life is to learn how to deal with feelings effectively. The song goes on to highlight some pretty pesky feelings that we humans find most difficult to handle: anger, helplessness, grief, and guilt, in addition to fear of homosexuality. The undeveloped mind often deals with such unbearable and unwanted feelings by casting them out in some way. Some of the classic ways are:

  1. Through projection. We get rid of disturbing feelings by locating them in someone else. For example, “I’m not angry; you’re angry.”
  2. Through avoidance. We side-step troubling feelings. Even though we sort of know we have them, we never get around to really facing with them.
  3. Through compartmentalization. As the song says, we put our feelings in tiny boxes on a shelf, pretending that they don’t affect the whole of our lives.
  4. Through denial. We get rid of painful feelings by shutting them off, as if we could deny their very existence.

As the storyline of The Book of Mormon illustrates, these methods don’t work very well in the long run. We actually need access to our feelings in order to deal effectively with life. Otherwise, thrown away like a boomerang, they come back to us. Feelings that are switched off are like a person who has been killed but still has unfinished business; they come back to haunt us.

The song offers an alternative. Perhaps we could just turn “down” our feelings instead of turning them “off.” Elder McKinley rightly says that this approach is like converting the light switch into a dimmer switch. But he mistakenly argues that this approach will never work. You can’t hide or lie about your feelings, he says. That’s too risky. They might leak out. You’ve got to cut off them off completely. The only way it will work is if you crush them!

It is a wonderful parody, really. And just like a good parody, the strategy that it opposes is actually the strategy that works. When helping my patients learn to manage their difficult feelings, I actually use the analogy of installing a dimmer switch. By getting to know our feelings rather than getting rid of them, we come to experience them in a more moderate, manageable form. And as with a dimmer switch, we learn to have some modest influence on how much they affect our lives.

Tsultrim Allione, a Buddhist leader in the United States, shows us this important truth in her book, Feeding Your Demons. She understands that the fight to defeat and eradicate our painful emotions tends to backfire, strengthening rather than alleviating their hold on us. I love her idea that we must feed our demons in order to free ourselves from their power. We must get to know our feelings, pay attention to them, and even make friends with them. This is the path to inner peace and mature self-control.

Copyright 2012 by Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D.

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Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, working with adults and couples in her private practice in Pasadena, CA.

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