The body wears down as we age, but the mind can stay sharp for much longer. So why do we treat it with such neglect?
You’ll notice something pretty quickly when you stick around with people long enough to see a few slumps: We’re terrible at applying first aid to our intangible wounds. Sure, we know how to disinfect a skinned knee, but we have no idea what to do with emotional injuries.
That begs the question: Why? After all, we establish a direct connection to our feelings long before we learn any medical skills. So why are we so bad at managing emotional pain?
On my first camping trip ever, I embarked on a nighttime foray into the jungle with a close friend. As she was cutting firewood, she struck her right index finger with the blade and gave herself a surface cut. Since it was a tiny cut that barely tore the epidermis, she wasn’t physically incapacitated. But psychologically, she was freaked out, so we were forced to pack up the camp and leave at about 9 PM that night, mere hours after we set up.
Circumstances forced us to call our mutual friend to pick us up and help carry some of the supplies, since my friend didn’t want to use her injured finger that much, but the friend we called feared the outdoors like the plague. A city girl born and raised, this friend panicked the moment she left the parking lot to make her way to our campsite.
By the end of the night, this friend we called to help us boasted the worst emotional state among all three of us. To make matters worse, her boyfriend committed somewhat of a faux pas during the whole incident by indirectly belittling her angst, which sent her into immediate emotional lockdown. As I sat in the backseat of her car watching my other friend console her, I noticed how much she was beating herself up for being upset. It honestly felt like she had traced a line down her arm with a box cutter then proceeded to peel the skin back on both sides to check for any internal damage. It was mortifying to watch. This made me think about pain and how we deal with it.
Over time, we don’t get better at managing pain.
We only get better at ignoring it. But ignoring a problem does nothing to fix it. Because eventually you get tired of ignoring and it hits you again, only this time you’re more weary from having pushed it away.
Our habit of ignoring emotional injuries inhibits our ability to heal them. We carry emotional scars so long because they never healed when they were supposed to. It’s no wonder childhood trauma is all the rage these days — it seems that people have no idea what they’re doing with their emotions.
The fear of pain hamstrings us all. What’s meant to be a guide rail instead acts as a whip. We tend to bury pain in order to avoid fixing the problem that causes it. That’s the extent of our pain management because fixing the problem is always the harder thing to do.
Stigma doesn’t help.
A close friend of mine recently suggested that I have an eating disorder. For context, I eat a lot of food. Now, I’m not overweight. In fact, I’m pretty fit and active. But the sheer volume of my consumption and its link to stress planted the thought in her head. Now, I adore this friend, and she (mostly) adores me. We tell each other almost anything. Once, I jokingly asked for her comments on the taste of semen. Unfortunately for me, she obliged. My point is, we’re tight.
Yet despite our well-established rapport, being on the receiving end of such a direct comment didn’t feel good. I noticed myself getting defensive, which immediately alerted me to an issue. After all, I know she has no ill will towards me.
But on the other hand, no one wants to be the guy with an eating disorder.
Think about that for a second. Why are we so afraid of having emotional or mental weaknesses? I mean, I know for a fact that I can probably lift more weight in a deadlift than most people reading this — I have almost four years of experience weightlifting, and I’m a 20-year-old male. But you probably don’t care about such a physical “weakness” on your part since physical weaknesses are extremely common. So why do mental weaknesses carry such weight if they’re just as common if not more so?
Everyone and his dog has an eating disorder these days, especially in the young millennial cohort. And in the big scheme of things, it’s not even the worst mental injury to have. So why do common ailments like these carry such weight? No one wants to be the guy with the eating disorder, but why?
The notion that emotional injuries warrant shame is repulsive. We all have them. They’re valid experiences. And to some extent, they could even be a necessary part of growth. So treating them like scarlet letters is a tremendous overreaction. No one loses their mind and calls an ambulance if they see you get a hangnail from painting the shed one afternoon. But imply that you struggle with attachment issues? They’ll never look at you the same way again.
I don’t know why we suck at emotional first aid. I’ve never been good at it myself, so I couldn’t tell you what we’re missing. But I do know that if you keep peeling your emotional cuts open, you’re in for one rough time. After all, the ride is bumpy and you’re bound to get scrapes. It’s high time you learn to slap a band-aid on that shit.
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