Thursday, January 19, 2017

Emotional Relativism

In my younger days I never really understood just how things fit together in my life.  I always had a roof over my head, food on the table, and clothes on my back.

By the time I became "emotionally stable" in a sustainable sense most of my friends saw me as wise beyond my years as I was nearly always able to empathize and give advice on how to handle what life threw at them.  Being told that I'm wise has always felt a little bit silly.  Most of what I told them was simply looking at the bigger picture and obeying rules of common sense.

Around the age of 17 I still kept much of my pain buried deep within.  My friends all knew I was hurting.  If I let slip in what way or how close I was to checking out of this world they would grow worried.  A lot of them were afraid that they would be unable to return any advice to me... so they kept their distance.  Others tried their best and I loved them for it.  Someone caring about me meant more to me than someone having a magical answer to give me.  There was no magical answer.  Care was enough.

Around then I came up with the idea of emotional relativism.  It was during a period of sobriety that after a couple of years of numbing myself into feeling nothing I found myself craving to feel everything... good or bad.  This often meant facing my demons and since I was frequently the center of our social circle, these demons were sometimes on display.

Most people didn't think they could empathize with whatever I was feeling.  If a kid was white and his parent's weren't divorced and had never been abused, it was tough for them to understand being an orphan, abused, and the victim of bullying and racism.  By this time I had discovered something.  I'm not sure why it felt so ground-breaking at the time and I'm still not sure why more people haven't figured it out in their adult lives.

The primary principle of emotional relativism is that feelings aren't unique.  In most cases I believe that "the best feeling you've ever had" is probably the best feeling you've ever had.  While time and experiences may change what triggered said feeling, I don't believe our emotional spectrum really deviates much from that... we merely over-write our association with the memory.  Think along the lines of something that made you feel like you could take on the world... that you were walking on air... that the world smelled of wonderful flowers and full of hope.  I believe most people experience this dozens of times over their lifetime... the causes come and go but the feeling remains the same.

Similarly, I believe the "worst feeling you've ever had" works in a similar way.  This is the one that always hung people up with trying to relate to me when I was in a bad place.  "The world hurts and it will never get better."  I think everyone has felt this momentary pain at some point, whether it was the death of their pet as a child or watching a loved one as the life fades from their eyes.  The only difference between me and them was that this feeling wasn't momentary.  The loss of hope made it linger far too long... the "it will never get better" part became the harder burden to bear.  That being said, I would never claim that the depth of my sadness at a given moment was ever more painful than someone else's sadness during their worst feeling.  I simply had experienced more... my worst had been over-written more often than theirs by that age.

I think this is why I get so frustrated with politics, society, and the like.  People want to believe themselves to be special and unique in a way that they really aren't.  When I encounter someone of this nature and am able to reach an amicable discussion I am arrogant enough to boldly claim that I know exactly what makes them happy.  It goes a little something like this:  You are happy when you love and are loved.  You are happy when your present needs are met and you can plan for the future.  You are happy when you have hopes and dreams that you seek out and feel like they are attainable.  You are happy when your life feels fulfilled and meaningful.

Their response is often along the lines of "Well, duh, doesn't that make everyone happy?"  They put the ball on the tee and beg me to swing.  I usually give them a few seconds to put it together.  We aren't all that different from anyone else.  While the details may change, the deepest needs of our heart aren't unique at all.

The same can be said about our fears, our anger, our frustrations, and the like.  What I feel when I am angry is the same as what you feel when you are angry... but the details of what causes it may be different.

I always felt the world would be a better place if we could all see how similar we are to everyone else... but most people like to focus on the differences.  It's quite a shame to miss out on everything beautiful about people by getting hung up on minor details.

I will return to the topic of this post before I deviate beyond that.  I don't know why but I have never permitted myself to be okay with my own place in emotional relativism.  In my quest to be stronger I always cited others that were in a worse position than me in order to justify that I'm not feeling "as bad as humanly possible."  I had a friend that spent a few years on and off being homeless.  Under-educated single mother, siblings, living out of a car each time they would get evicted, often following a medical emergency.  I had a friend that grew up in Central America in a country run by an unstable military regime.  At 11 he threw a rock at a tank that had rolled into his town and was thrown in prison.  For several years he was beaten, tortured, and starved before being released and moving to the USA.  I had a friend whose mother went insane and for years she would whip them with coat hangers that she heated up on the stove until they were glowing red hot.  How could I justify feeling as bad as I did when I didn't have it "that bad."  I regularly beat myself up over that in an effort to be stronger.  I never allowed my emotions to be relative.

It is in this that I truly feel the extent of my damage.  I cannot forgive myself.  I cannot accept myself.  I cannot allow myself to be measured by reasonable standards.  As I write this I realize just how fucking unhealthy it is to feel this way but I have somehow managed to find a delicate balance in all of it.  The downside is that there are times that I feel my entire life is built up around continuing to exist... as if that is the best there is for me.  The odd thing is that this isn't depression talking... it's the inner-voice of my heart that continues to lead me down this path and I don't know why.


  1. Feeling guilty about being depressed because you haven't "had it as bad" as others, is a dead end street, and just adds fuel to the fire of one's self-negative feelings. It's one thing to recognize this, and quite another to do anything about it, especially when you're trying to talk yourself out of feeling so down. It's a big topic, fur, and you can at least take some solace in the fact that you've managed to wade through it all and still function. There are many others who have not been so strong. Your ability to intellectualize it all has been a source of your strength, but can also serve as yet one more reason to feel depressed at your inability to conquer your demons. "If I'm so damned smart, why do I feel so shitty" sort of sums it up. I wish I had an easy answer, but in the end I do believe it pays to explore yourself in an effort to understand, and you are certainly capable of that. As the hippies used to say, keep on keeping on.

    1. Thank you, Lady Grey.

      Those were the thoughts that plagued me 20 years ago and I have since been able to shed thee guilty feelings from back then. While I still struggle to accept myself time has taught me that while others may be "more functional", their own chosen coping methods are not always great choices.

      It took until I finally found proof that I could be loved to make that leap but there was a stretch that was definitely a struggle.

      It is funny that I still crave to help and support people as I did then. As I look back at the changes I see just how strange it was to be called wise. I really didn't know much back then and still know that I have much to learn now.

      I think the most important lesson for me has been that it's not about stopping things from hurting, but being able to always rise from the ashes in its aftermath.

      Take care.

  2. A lot of this is so similar to what I have felt and thought through the years, just not as organized. :)

    I absolutely love your last sentence in your reply to Lady Grey, and I couldn't agree more.

    1. Thank you, Misty.

      It feels good that you can relate to those sentiments. Another case of my feelings not being unique, but we never know unless we hear it from others.

      Take care.

  3. You wrote this very well and made some great points about how we all feel the same emotions and have different triggers or situations. I used to take comfort in knowing that someone else had gone through worse. If only I had a dime for every time I thought to myself " I understand that... but I still feel this way". How can I be depressed if they need me? How can I feel jealous if I know he loves me?


    1. Thank you, Miss Lily.

      Discovering that emotions are so similar across people is what allowed me to finally open up after keeping everything buried for years.