What does it mean to talk mental and emotional health?

To set the stage, let’s first discuss the word perfect.  From childhood schooling, along with being raised by parents who grew up with a similar education, we learn there’s truly a perfect score or grade or thing in life (10/10, 100%, 4.0GPA, shiny new toy, awards).  Understandably, we begin to associate these achievements in academic excellence and success with a very positive human emotion (recognition; aka feeling special or unique or enough) that is continuously reinforced in our families, communities, vocation and western culture.  This feeling of being perfect and/or chasing perfection is very tempting and does not escape us as adults.  We continue to follow the belief that perfection is possible and within our grasp, if only…

When you start to think about the idea of perfection, it really can’t exist.  It’s more like a moving target between people and time and completely resides in our egos based on learned beliefs.  We like to attach to outcomes associated with today’s activities akin to how studying will improve our test scores.  Really what we’re striving for is not objective at all, it’s a feeling of love, acceptance and belonging (aka enough).

Eventually reality starts to set in.  Objectively and subjectively, what life distills down to is learning to manage or cope with imperfection, surrendering to it and maybe even embracing it!  Imperfection within ourselves, the people closest to us (especially if you live together), family, community, vocation, society, past, future, religion, death and so on.  Keep in mind the imperfections you perceive aren’t necessarily the imperfections everyone else sees, so a strong argument can be made many of these imperfections are simply differences.

The moral of the story is what kind of coping mechanisms, or defense mechanisms, have you learned in life to deal with all these imperfections and/or differences?  This is truly where our mental and emotional health intersects.  In a nutshell, all rational coping mechanisms have the opportunity to be healthy or unhealthy in nature because it’s more the emotional side of the equation that matters most in dealing with any hard situation or moment (aka emotional baggage).  Moreover, it’s always an emotional spectrum and never just good or bad.  Below are examples of coping mechanisms when dealing with life’s hard moments that are starting to be encouraged in the schools (see Figure 1). 

Figure 1. Kelso’s choice wheel

Further to my earlier point, Table 1 below displays the emotional side and consequently usually more defensive side of otherwise healthy rational coping mechanisms.  The big difference between the two is being triggered emotionally (eg. unresolved hurt feelings of the past). 

 Table 1. Examples of Coping vs. Defense mechanisms

Kelso’s choices/rational healthy coping mechanismsIrrational coping mechanisms or defense mechanisms
ApologizeBut I’m right
Make a dealMy way or highway
Wait and cool offOver-react and Fight
Go to another gameFear of change
Talk it outAvoid conflict
Share and take turnsIt’s mine
Ignore itDistract, distract, distract
Walk awayNever come back
Tell them to stopI have it all figured out

So now the real question, what does it mean to talk about mental & emotional health?  The only way through these hard moments is by facing them head on and however you do this is the real struggle.  Finding a healthy framework to cope that make’s sense for you is the commitment to overall health.  I don’t have all the answers, but I do know there’s a better chance of moving forward in a healthy manner when we start spending time in these spaces ourselves and opening up with those who’ve earned the right to listen and share.  When we do this individual work, it also benefits those around us.  

Fortunately, we are now living in a time when talking about mental and emotional health is becoming a thing thanks to so many brave souls challenging the status quo.  Turns out, it’s not that uncommon.  Those suffering from unresolved grief, trauma, depression, suicidal thoughts, overwhelming (or just normal) stress and anxiety are now beginning to feel they can gain access to resources that weren’t there before, albeit still not a perfect system by any stretch, at least it’s progressing and that’s all we can ever expect.  From my perspective, finding true mental & emotional health is when we are no longer inhibited or disabled by emotional pain or suffering, and begin to be empowered by it.  Easier said than done, but it starts with being the change you want to see and don’t forget to build a solid support network when times get tough because they will.

By Jay Downs April 24, 2020

Jay Downs is a mental & emotional health enthusiast and runs his own retirement coaching practice to support retirees in their preparation, transition and fulfillment.  You can find out more at JMDretirementcoaching.ca 

Published by Jay Downs

Retirement coach from Winnipeg, MB, Canada

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