The Case for Emotional Health

Like many people I have been encouraged by the candour demonstrated by Prince Harry regarding the death of his mother.  

Naturally this has given rise to discussion in some parts of the media on the state of mental health, and particularly amongst young people.   Good news.  And yet …. 

I want to take a stand for something.  Sometimes coaching conversations with clients reflect and focus upon what they are willing to take a stand for.  So I’m going to walk my talk here.  I’m taking a stand for adding to our language in this domain.  I’d like to see us talking about emotional health and well being and not just mental health.    We insist upon living in a world that separates and delineates mind and body into separate entities and so it seems emotional health from mental health.    Where exactly is the line - and no doubt there are qualified mental health professionals out there who can spell this out for me more fully?  

Why does this matter?  

There are two reasons why I am taking a stand here.  One is simple ‘marketing’.  In a world where ‘mental health’ is still stigmatised and one in which ‘emotional intelligence/empathy/compassion are becoming more widely accepted, surely it would help to talk in terms of emotional health rather than mental health.     I do not seek to further stigmatise mental illnesses, but rather to recognise that we would all do well to pay attention to our emotional well being.  Talking about our emotional health, framing it as such might just make it that bit easier.  Acknowledging that we have emotions and that these come to work with us every day, that they shape our response to events would be a start.     If I showed up to work one the next few weeks/months feeling grief at the loss of someone important to me would I really be declared as having a ‘mental health issue’.  If I am upset by the images of the ravages of war appearing on my TV screen nightly - am I experiencing mental health issues?  No I’m not, I’m simply in touch with and feeling my emotions.    Is grief really a mental health issue?  It’s a human emotion issue, it’s an every day issue, although hopefully not an every day occurrence!  

The second reason I’m taking a stand is to do my bit to move the discussion into recognising our more holistic humaness.    I think it is really important to recognise that we are a whole ‘system’ shaped by our genetics, our nurturing and our life experience.    Our life experience influences how our nurturing and potentially to some degree our genetic heritage plays out.   When we are impacted by events - whether that is Trauma with a capital T (for example the loss of a parent) or whether it’s trauma with a small ’t’ (perhaps being embarrassed or belittled in front of colleagues) - there is a sensational response in the body, in the system which in turn is interpreted as an emotion.   If we are to heal, it is this which we need need to pay attention to.   Emotions give rise to thoughts and actions.  We act as a consequence of emotion, even when they are hidden from us.   The very word emotion originates from the latin word movere meaning to move.   The work of Antonio Damasio et al provides further evidence that it’s the bodily response rather than cognitive interpretations which produce emotions.  

Taking a ‘whole system approach’  is relevant for leadership too.  Recently I worked with someone not dissimilar to Harry.  He’d lost a parent and chose to bury his emotions and feelings associated with his loss.    A survival strategy - because the body is excellent at working to ensure that we survive!   Moving away from his feelings rather than feeling them was his way of not being overwhelmed by them.    It was his valid coping strategy.  

What happens though when this response becomes his natural way of being in the world?   When this response - blocking, denying the sensations and feelings becomes normal when stuff gets awkward or sticky or uncomfortable.  How does this strategy prevent him from connecting with others?  We understand that Harry said that his long-term approach led to two years of chaos, near break down and being very close to punching someone.   The short term response of blocking feelings to deal with the immediate situation is helpful to a point, but not when it becomes a long term way of being.  

The consequence of shutting down our emotions and feelings is that it limits our ability to connect with people from a place of genuine authenticity.  If we cannot feel ourselves and our own emotions because we have learned to anaesthetise ourselves then we cannot feel others.  This means that we cannot connect with genuine presence to our team mates, our colleagues and those we seek to lead.   Not because we don’t want to but because we have wired ourselves not to.   

In days gone by, that might have been OK.  Stiff upper lip and all that.  Stoicism rules OK.  But not today.  In a world in which, particularly younger generations want to be led by real humans, by authentic people who care, who have a passion and a commitment, the ostrich survival technique will no longer cut it.    So let’s start recognising that we are emotional beings andgive proper account toit.