Validating Emotions

Emotions, and especially passions, are the source of the greatest good, and of the greatest evil.’
– Harvard Professor of Philosophy, Charles A. Dubray

In the psychotherapeutic field one often hears about the need for feelings or emotions to be ‘validated’. This type of talk has come particularly from those who are on the left side of the political spectrum and particularly mental health professionals who lean towards left wing politics, e.g. websites – Psych Central, Psychology Today.  In reaction to this type of talk, some of those on the right side of the political spectrum, have dismissed feelings as irrelevant in informing serious political discussions, e.g. Ben Shapiro, Stefan Molyneux.  This blog examines what is understood by ‘validating’ feelings, looks at how emotions are treated in modern psychological services and concludes by outlining what it means to truly validate emotions. 

Take a look around you. If you can slow down your own mind enough, sit and look at people as they go about their everyday business.  Many people are extremely agitated and anxious.  There is a restlessness that pervades our society.  Many people are feeling overwhelmed by the psychological pressure and emotional turmoil they are under. Mental health services can not keep up with the public demand, pharmaceutical companies have never been richer, and psychotherapists have never been busier.  Amongst all this anxious activity, one hears the cry that feelings must be ‘validated’.  It seems to come from those who are truly entangled in their emotions and want to be heard. What is certainly valid is that people are in distress and need help.  How people, especially those professionals in mental health services, decide to deal with and interpret or ‘validate’ emotional expressions is vitally important in helping people and society regain emotional stability.        

Emotions should be acknowledged (See footnote). Acknowledging feelings is essential in helping and communicating with people.  Feelings could be indicating an objective reality that the person is experiencing or has experienced, i.e. feeling more agitated after taking prescribed drugs, feeling guilty after aborting my unborn child, feeling sorrow after lying to my friend. What feels subjectively bad and what is objectively bad can overlap due to the nagging of our conscience which can trigger an emotional response in us.  Due to this, it is worth acknowledging feelings as they can, sometimes, be the first signs of something going wrong.  However, feelings are far from infallible guides. 

Feelings are often disconnected from the truth, especially if the experiences involve the passions as passions blind us to the truth, e.g. I feel good after casual sex (fornication) and so does the person I had sex with so what’s the harm in it?, I get a thrill out of petty theft so what’s the harm?, I felt happy on the day I was ‘married’ to my same-sex ‘partner’ so what’s the harm?. Our conscience can be misinformed and/or blinded by our passions/feelings.  Feelings are often wrong and can lead the conscience, which is informed by the intellect, astray. Therefore, feelings and one’s conscience need to be measured in the light of reason and evidence to see if there is any objective truth in the emotions experienced.  

Reason and evidence can guide people to the truth.  It is particularly important for mental health professionals to have a firm understanding of what is objectively true/good as they are the ones working with people who have lost their way. If the client/patient has no idea of what is objectively good/true, then it is even more incumbent on the professional to have a good idea of this.  Professionals also need to be humble enough to acknowledge that the personal experiences and emotions of clients or patients are worth hearing and exploring, especially in areas where there is no clear understanding of what is objectively true/good, e.g. a certain drug may not have caused agitation in many patients but there is always the possibility that it could have in the patient in front of you.  A correct formation and education in the truth about human beings and a humble attitude are essential traits in a mental health professional, particularly in any professionals that hold the power to force treatment on someone or take away their basic human rights.  The more responsibility one has, the humbler he should be. ‘For he that is the lesser among you all, he is the greater. (Luke 9:48).

While it is not possible to classify every emotional reaction as good or bad, a good and clear education about the nature of human beings and an accurate understanding of human psychology helps the professional to have a clearer understanding of emotional expression in humans. This formation also helps to give a clearer idea of when people’s feelings are disconnected from reality.  Being humble helps the professional to treat the person in front of them as an individual who has unique experiences and insights.  The basic premises of good psychological health care are summed up in: And thou shalt love the Lord thy God, with thy whole heart, and with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind, and with thy whole strength. This is the first commandment.  And the second is like to it: Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself (Mark 12: 30-31) (Or ‘All things therefore whatsoever you would that men should do to you, do you also to them.’ (Matthew 7:12)).  As mental health services become detached from these premises, it only leads to a rigid and totalitarian approach, which often is initially packaged as ‘care’ and ‘compassion’.  There are many wolves in sheep’s clothing today in mental health services.  Once society has detached itself from the divine guidance above, decreased freedom is the inevitable outcome. 

Increasingly, in the liberal/secular/Marxist paradigm that dominates mental health services, some emotional responses are seen as ‘right’ and others are seen as ‘wrong’. If you are annoyed or become irritated that the psychiatrist is not willing to validate the feelings you have that the drugs you are on are damaging your brain (which many do) and you express this to him you can be labelled as ‘non-compliant’ or ‘irrational’. If you don’t believe that you need the drugs you might be seen as ‘lacking insight’ and if you keep up the opposition, you might get diagnosed with another disorder such as ‘oppositional deviant disorder’ (While working on psychiatric wards I have seen this happen).  If you are feeling guilty about having had an abortion or about engaging in homosexual activity, the kind, warm hearted therapist will ease your worried conscience. Most likely, they will ‘validate’ your feelings with good eye contract and basic counselling phrases like ‘that’s tough’ and ‘poor you’ while telling you that you have done nothing wrong and that it is only society and the Christian culture you were brought up in that is making you feel guilty (This is what the Psychological Society of Ireland are currently doing). 

Authorities such as psychiatrists, can physically restrain you and force treatment on you if you disagree with their pseudoscience.  Psychologists and psychotherapists can encourage you to become a slave to sin and the devil by comforting you and helping you find ways of rethinking or reimagining your ‘negative’ emotions.  Your emotions and concerns may be acknowledged, i.e. the professionals may acknowledge your emotions by acknowledging that they are what you are experiencing, but they will eventually dismiss these emotions as not being in accord with their interpretation of reality.  In many cases, a softly, softly approach may be taken to convince you that their interpretation of reality is correct. If that doesn’t work some mental health professionals (who are often detached from reality themselves but have lots of letters after their name after many years of study) can bring the full force of the law down on you to force you to see the world their way.  If a professional or others are going to tell you that your feelings are not in line with reality or that ‘feelings don’t matter’ or ‘facts don’t care about your feelings’ (as some notable right wing political commentators suggest and are applauded for) they must do this with humility and they must be sure that they know the facts and have a good knowledge of the truth.  It is easy, due to pride, to force our false interpretations of reality on others and by doing so, we may be missing genuine concerns that the individual expresses which indicate that there is something seriously amiss. 

If today’s mental health professionals knew the truth of human psychology, they could really help people who have nagging consciences. They could then direct them appropriately, e.g. confession, catechism classes. Instead they mostly exacerbate the problem as Willibald Demal (‘Pastoral Psychology in Practice’) explains, If ever-recurring impulses or emotions which either cannot be defended before the tribunal of our conscience or appear to be indefensible do not find a natural outlet and are forcibly repressed from consciousness, they simply continue to grow in the subconscious and cause the gravest disturbances.’ The liberal/secular/Marxist mental health professionals are coming up with more and more convoluted ways of suppressing one’s conscience and the feelings that arise from it, while the Church, which many of these professionals criticize for suppressing people, has always acknowledged that emotional expression is part of what makes us human as Bishop Fulton Sheen (‘Peace of Soul’) points out: ‘[The Church] does not deny emotions, any more than it denies hunger; the Church only asks that, when a man sits at table, he shall not eat like a pig.  Our Lord did not repress the emotional zeal of Paul; He merely redirected it from hate to love. Our Lord did not repress the biological vitalities of a Magdalene; He merely turned her passion from love of vice to love of virtue.’  This is the healthier and nobler way of handling emotions, i.e. by directing them towards Love itself.

So, the ultimate judge of whether an emotional response is reasonable is whether it is line with the truth/reality.  Now, as there are so many variables that inform emotional expression, e.g. life experiences, temperament, character, education, understanding, what is and is not an appropriate emotional expression is difficult to decipher.  There are no fixed standards for emotional expression. To try to create fixed standards, could impede the cultivation of the personality of the most remarkable of individuals.  For example, if we were to apply today’s standards of ‘normal’ emotional expression to the lives of the saints many of them, such as St Francis of Assisi or St Martin de Porres, would likely have been diagnosed with mania, locked up on a psychiatric ward and drugged up for being too exuberant in their love of God, their neighbour and the animals of this world.  Other saints, such as St Dominic and St John Vianney, who were known to weep at the thoughts of all the offences committed against God, would likely to be diagnosed as ‘depressive’ and put on drugs that would blunt their emotions, such as SSRI’s, today.  While under the control of reason and guided by the light of faith, the emotional expression of these saints was an essential part of their being. 

Unlike, the Catholic Faith, which celebrates the cultivation of one’s unique personality and which has given many sainthoods to those who may be considered ‘mad’ or, at least, eccentric, by today’s standards, psychiatry and modern psychology is only coming up with more diagnoses and formulas to destroy individuality and numb emotions in the name of ‘scientific progress’.  In their efforts to control the emotional expression of the masses, psychologists and psychiatrists, informed by Marxist or liberal ideologies, have helped to tear down walls that gave people a chance to express themselves and their emotions in a safe and healthy way.  As Bishop Fulton Sheen (‘Peace of Soul’) notes,Life may be likened to children playing…the playground established by the Church might be a rock in the sea, surrounded by great walls; inside of those walls the children may dance and sing and play as they please. Liberals would ask the Church to tear down the walls on the grounds that they are a restraining influence; but if this were done, you would find all the children huddled in the centre of the island, afraid to play, afraid to sing, afraid to dance, afraid of falling into the sea.  This is exactly what it is happening today as the walls come crumbling down. 

The wisdom written on these desecrated walls has also been cast aside in our current era but fragments of great advice can be found such as those offered by Professor Dubray in the early part of the 20th century.  He speaks about how emotions need to be cultivated, controlled and ‘made an auxiliary in striving for the noblest aims’. They should be evaluated by and brought under the control of reason. Reason should be the master of feelings as feelings are blind in themselves and are not universal but vary across individuals. 

Until we get back to a stage where we truly understand what exactly a human being is and what human beings were created for, we will struggle further in our attempts to understand and evaluate the appropriateness of human responses. There will continue to be constant endless bickering between those who encourage ‘validating’ of feelings and try to create their own reality based on these feelings and those who dismiss feelings rashly and don’t believe that feelings are relevant in any serious discussion about life.  Let us understand ourselves and let God use us and our human frailty, which includes emotional expression, in the way He sees fit.

As Prof Dubray (‘Introductory Philosophy’) makes clear, ‘To try to eliminate all feelings from morality, and look upon them as obstacles to be removed, as the Stoics and Kant did; to look upon duty as being by its very nature a burden to be carried painfully and by dint of effort; to place the ideal of man in a state of perfect calmness and rest undisturbed by any feeling or emotion, is to misunderstand human nature, to overlook human psychology, and to give a rule unfit to guide men, since it fails to take men as they are essentially.’ Let us understand human psychology and emotions and use the energy they can inspire in us for the greatest good. If there is any real ‘validating’ to be done, let us first validate the true meaning of our existence.  Then let us validate the true dignity of each human soul by acknowledging the sadness that can come in this valley of tears and let us try to help each other to carry our crosses as we strive to find or stay on the straight and narrow path.  In this way, we do not give emotions the worship nor the disdain that the world thinks they deserve but, rather, we place them within the divine order to which they belong. 

This is truely validating emotions.     

Footnote:

Acknowledging emotions is not meant, in the sense, that strong emotions should be associated with objective reality if they contradict plain facts or conclusive evidence. Neither is it meant, in the sense, that talking about feelings is always useful as some people like to suggest.  For example, if someone rejects basic facts, e.g.‘2+2=4’ or first principles, e.g. ‘something cannot be at once one way and the contradictory way’, then Prof Dubray suggest that ‘nothing is left but to stop thinking altogether or go an asylum’.  You can still care for the person who is thinking like this but engaging in any conversation rather than pointing out the absurdity of their feelings may only validate the falsehoods they are expressing. Acknowledging emotions is meant, in the sense, that emotions indicate a psychological reality for people. In most cases, outside of the above examples, one can safely acknowledge them, i.e. acknowledge that certain feelings are real for the person you are speaking to, without encouraging the belief in obvious falsehoods.  For the above examples, where somebody doesn’t have an obvious biological/cognitive impairment that is disrupting their reasoning, the Irish expression, ‘Ah, would you cop on’ is probably useful in these cases as it is not too harsh but gets to the point quickly.  Gentle and firm encouragement is sometimes needed to help people see the absurdity of their feelings or beliefs before they get in a lot of trouble trying to live a life formed on false and unstable foundations.

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