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How Much Can You Control Your Emotions With Mental Illness?

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Back before he started on his path to learning how to live with me, my husband used to refuse to say he was sorry if he hurt my feelings. “I didn’t mean to,” he would say.

“If you stepped on my toe without meaning to, you’d say you were sorry,” I replied.

“Yes, but if I stepped on your toe, I’d know I hurt you.”

“I tell you that you hurt my feelings. That’s how you know you did.”

“I can’t control your reactions. I say something and you react with hurt.”

“I can’t choose my reactions when you step on my toe. It hurts and I say ouch. It’s the same when you hurt my feelings.”

We’d go around like this for a while.

Later, he came around to the idea that I couldn’t control my reactions. There were things that he couldn’t see inside me, from my emotional triggers to my bipolar disorder. At last, he admitted that I couldn’t control my reactions and learned to apologize even for things he didn’t mean to do.

Later still, he claimed that maybe I couldn’t control my emotional reactions, but that I had control over what I did about them. I maintained that I couldn’t necessarily do that. My feelings were hurt and I cried. I could choose whether or not to leave the room or stop speaking to him, but the tears were not optional. They were not something I could choose or control. Believe me, I’ve tried.

Our admittedly small example has larger implications. There seems to be a lot of things we’re supposed to be able to control. Your mind, your relationships, your emotions, your actions, and your words are said to be things you can control.

I would disagree with some of that. As my experience with my husband showed, I couldn’t control my emotions — I didn’t choose them. I can’t control my relationships. There’s another person involved, with a lack of control over their emotions as well.

And my mind. When you live with serious mental illness (SMI), you’re acutely aware that, a lot of the time, you can’t control your mind. From overthinking at one end of the continuum to psychosis at the other, the mentally ill mind does what it will. Personal choice can’t control it. We’re not able to reach inside and change our brain chemicals or the past traumas that influence our minds and our choices. Sometimes medication and therapy can’t control the mind either.

There are also a lot of memes — and people’s opinions and statements — saying that we can control whether we are happy or not. “Choose happiness.”

“The only difference between a good day and a bad day is your attitude.”

I’m not even sure that’s true for people who don’t have mental illness. Emotions aren’t something that can easily be switched on and switched off. Before I was correctly diagnosed and properly treated, I simply had to go through a spell of depression and wait for it to pass. It’s still largely true for me, except that now I know that the depression will pass, and a lot sooner than it used to.

I don’t think that it’s a good idea to deny your emotions, either. If you feel hurt or sad, let yourself feel that feeling and work through it. It may be trying to tell you something — that you’re angry for a reason, for example, and need to address that reason. Or if you’re sad, recognize that there’s something making you sad and stay with that sadness for a while. Forcing yourself to behave cheerfully denies the reality of your emotions and merely puts a mask on them. And that’s not healthy. Sooner or later, those feelings will leak out from behind the mask or shatter it.

I’ve always been a great believer in choice. But there are things I don’t think a person can or should have to choose. Emotions and our reactions to them are not within our control. Our actions are — leave an abusive relationship, seek help for mental illness, take medication every day, and so much more.

But not everything about us is subject to choice, and I think it’s better to recognize that than to deny it.

(And for those of you who are curious about it, my husband and I have chosen to work on our individual and mutual problems and have accomplished 40 years of struggle and working together to control what we can accept and what we can’t. We choose that struggle and that work every day.)

Getty image by Uwe Krejci

Originally published: March 10, 2023
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