Friday, March 14, 2008

Dulling the senses...

A recent thread on a forum really got me thinking. I had a strong gut reaction to it, and that got me thinking about WHY I had such a strong reaction to it, which led to more thinking, and this blog...

I've been thinking that in our society these days, dulling down our senses and softening our experience of emotion has become such an accepted practice in life that we don't really question it.

What to I mean by dulling the senses? Well, anything that alters our experience of our emotions. First and foremost, we might think alcohol and drugs, but if we think about it further many other activities can also have this same effect. Eating to excess, tv watching, net browsing, and more obviously self-destructive behaviours such a cutting oneself, starving oneself, gorging and purging...

Most of us engaging in some form of dulling our own senses, of comforting ourselves or relaxing ourselves in ways that are not to the best advantage of our bodies or spirits or emotions.

We learn to do these things early on by watching what adults around us do.

This is where it has become entrenched in our society. It is completely acceptible to drink alcohol for fun and relaxation, or to eat ourselves sick in celebration of something, or to take drugs to have fun.

But are these things really serving those purposes or do they serve a different purpose.

Escapism is much sought after in our society. We esteem it in book reading, not so much in tv watching. Eating chocolate is almost universally celebrated as a way to "lift the mood", and alcohol "relaxes".

But what's really going on here. If we're completely honest. Isn't it simply a case of not wanting to deal with feelings of sadness or boredom? Isn't it actually about not being happy and feeling like not being happy is something we need to put a stop to, rather than look at, evaluate and possibly do something constructive about.

Many of these forms of escapism take hold in adolesence and I don't, personally, think this is just a coincidence. In adolesence, the adolescent has come to the end of their general learning about the world - the big picture - and have enter that stage in life when a person decides WHERE they belong in the big picture. Obviously, throughout life we re-evaluate this, but the first process of making this decision (like many other "first steps") always seems like the most important, the most critical. It can feel like a lot of pressure for adolescents, and our society does put a lot of emphasis on the importance of that decision (as many societies do). It's really the first "adult" decision an adolescent has to make.

So, feeling overwhelmed (usually), adolescents are looking for ways to cope with those feelings, and as always, they model the adults in society. So, what do we teaching them about coping with stress and other negative emotions. Well, as a society, we seem deadset focused on ESCAPING these feelings; we go to bars, we got to restaurants, we treat ourselves with chocolate, we try to take control by going to the gym, or we turn on the tv to escape our spinning thoughts. We also escape into the imagined world of reading fiction.

None of these things, in small doses, are intrinsically bad. In fact, reducing stress in the short term can help free up the mind so new lateral thoughts can develop about how to cope with the stress. Chocolate has lots of benefits (dark chocolate in moderation that is), so does red wine. Food is essential for life and health and so is exercise.

However, it's when these things take over our lives and become obsessions which negatively affect our ability to function in life without them at level which affect our ability to live balanced lives.

The thing is, the line between functioning and not functioning is fairly thin, and when people go from functioning to not functioning, it tends to happen all at once because the ability to "hold it together" get stretched and stretched until it finally collapses dramatically in a heap.

And permanent damage has usually be done LONG before the person ceases to function.

My grandfather was a highly functioning alcoholic for much of his life - even to the end of his days he took care of himself, despite not holding a steady job. However, long before he no longer could work reliably, he was already doing damage to his liver.

People who reach 250kg and can no longer support their own weight for more than a few short minutes at a time, were already doing permanent damage to their joints and heart at just 120kg, at that stage they were already at a heightened risk of diabetes, heart failure, and so on.

At the other end of the scale, you don't need to be a 35kg anorexic in hospital before you "have a life threatening problem". In fact, at 45-50kg, you're already at risk of osteoporosis. You've already put pressure on your heart and eaten away at your muscles.

Even reading can be detrimental to your health. If all you do is sit at home and read (I had an uncle who did this), you may have a fantastic imaginary life, or you may know a phenomena amount about the world outside your house... But you may have no social life at all, be extremely sedentary, and be emotionally shut off from yourself, you family, and the outside world.

Anyway, what adults choose to do that does not affect others in society is fine.

The thing is, if we teach our children, and the adolescents in our society, to subdue their feelings, rather than experience them, work through them, acknowledge them and embrace them, are we doing right by those children and adolescents.

This is not even getting into the health dangers of compulsive behaviours, which are many and varied.

And the fact that our society seems to abhor any feelings of sadness, anger, anxiety, depression, and encourages us in subtle and far less subtle ways to just dismiss these feelings is a whole other blog...

I've personally developed some entrenched escapist habits, and this also leads me to think that waiting to "deal" with feelings until later, actually makes it harder. I believe it's important to FIRST teach our children and adolescents to recognise their emotions and the skills to work through them - without trying to simply escape them - and THEN they can experiment with forms of short term escapism, when they know the various risks of trying to escape emotions rather than deal with them.

It is short changing our children to teach them escapism before they've fully matured physically and hormonally...


Unknown said...

Sif, that's a really good post, very interesting. ITA with your points.

Here's something a bit OT...What do you think of the idea that intellectualising is a form of escapism? Particularly in our culture where we try to intellectualise 'difficult' emotions (sadness, angryness, etc) rather than experience them.

I believe some of this in our culture is a result of the lack of ritual that give people space to experience the emotion of particular events (like 40 days of grieving when someone dies, X days of babymooning, etc). People can't just exist with their emotions, there is no space for them to do so, or even knowing how to do it...I can see why you like some of Aletha Solter's work :)

Sif Dal said...

Clel, first off thanks for replying - I can see this being another one of my ignored intellectual romps, rofl...

Yes, absolutely - intellectualising is the attempt to objectively distance oneself from an experience, in this case an emotion. I know I do this ALL the time! By looking at an emotional objectively (or as close to that as one can get), a person puts the emotion on a table and looks at it, effectively seperating themselves from the emotion.

We certainly like to do that in our society. And then we watch movies, or listen to music, or read books to RECONNECT with the emotions we've set aside because they were too intense for us, and it's easier to feel them when we're simply empathising with someone else, especially someone we don't know personally.

Anonymous said...

Gosh what a fantastic post. I agree with everything you said. I think we also confuse escapism with interests and hobbies (although some of course are good). People are applauded for being 'strong' and 'independant'whilst those who express emotions even in an acceptable way are used as the yardstick for 'needy'.

We live in an electronic age that has dulled our need to communicate with other humans effectively. Instead of talking to our neighbours and teaching our children social norms we now play games with thousands of others across the internet whilst we sit alone in our lounge rooms. Our children are losing the ability to communicate because we are not teaching them.

We dull our senses, hide them and bury them under mountains of fast food, drugs and alcohol. We don't get out and just enjoy what is there any more.

I could go on but I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed what you wrote :-()

Good Job!