We would all like to live in an ideal state of serenity and mastery. Feeling good seems like a right these days. You presume everyone else feels good and you are entitled to what everyone else has. If you don’t feel good, you feel entitlted to services that can fix it. If you have kids, you expect pain-free lives for them, and blame public services if they don't. Yet emotional pain persisists, and is even increasing according to data generated by providers of mental health services. Is this a crisis? No. It is a combination of rising expectations and the substitution of mental health professionals for other emotional self-regulation tools.
In the past, families slept together in one room and children slept in one bed. People antagonized each other and there was no escape from it. Diseases swept through and you watched people sicken and die at young ages. They wasted away in front of you and you didn't know when it would happen to you. You rarely left your village, and neighboring tribes invaded it on a regular basis. You didn’t expect a pain-free life but you did what you could to avoid pain. Today, your greatest pain may be feeling left out, or intruded on by annoying co-workers and housemates. But you can fill your head with the pain of others by watching the news. You can trigger pain by watching movies about people with ideal lives. Your mind keeps going toward pain for reasons you can’t explain. The mental health industry’s offer of help is very attractive.
Mental Health Services Substitute for Other Forces
In the past, people managed their pain with coping mechanisms that had unpleasant side effects. We are eager to leave these old mechanisms behind and let the mental health industry manage pain. When pain persists, we are stranded. We wonder what went wrong.
Lack of funding is the problem, the mental health industry assures us.They can fix everyone if only we would give them more money. They generate crisis statistics to bolster this quest for money. Other explanations of the problem are ignored, such as:
1. Service providers do not believe in your personal power. They see you as a victim of a bad system. They teach you to think of yourself as a victim and to focus your life on "changing the system." This reinforces an adolescent sense of powerlessness and resentment instead of building acceptance of adult life. Service providers must embrace the victim theory of life in order to get their credentials. They know they will be shunned and excommunicated if they question the victim theory.
2. Mental health services inhibit the natural process of learning from the consequences of your actions. All through human history, people learned from the consequences of their actions. You don't learn when you blame your frustrations on forces outside yourself. The therapeutic approach to life promotes the fantasty that doing what feels good will solve everything. When that doesn't work, the only explanation entertained by the therapeutic approach is that funding for services is inadequate. This obstructs insight into the facts of life: Your brain sees itself as the center of the world, but experience keeps confronting you with the fact that you are not the center of the world. Your brain strives constantly to avoid harm, but you keep confronting the fact that you will die someday. Social services cannot insulate you from reality. You are better off adjusting to it while you still have time.
3. Emotional self-regulation is a learned skill. We are all born agitated and helpless, and we learn self-management skills slowly over time. Often we learn imperfectly from adults who are imperfect. But even if we grew up in a perfect world, emotional pain would be part of life because the brain constantly seeks and thus encounters disappointment. Managing disappointment is a skill we can build, but you might neglect that skill-building work if you expect a service provider to do it for you.
My book, Beyond Cynical: Transcend Your Mammalian Negativity, proposes an alternative to the crisis mentality.