What If the Emotionally Fragile Generation Is in Fact the Emotionally Honest Generation?
How different generations deal with negative emotions and mental health issues
Over the past year or two, conversations with my family have occasionally ended with one or more of my family members in tears. Since my sister and I moved out several years ago, these conversations have occurred over the holidays, when we have been visiting our parents. They often start with one family member making a comment which is interpreted as rude or unnecessary. Next, each of us tries to explain why we said what we said. Then, either my sister or I bring up a painful memory tied to the comment and attempt to unravel the thoughts and feelings related to it. Over the course of the conversation, we often end up discussing dreams, fears and life choices.
I can’t say these conversations have been easy, but they’ve opened my eyes to the differences between how our respective generations deal with difficult emotions, mental health issues and even day-to-day life. They’ve also helped me better understand why these differences exist and how they came to be.
Over the Christmas holidays, we had one of these eye-opening conversations. My parents and I were celebrating Christmas at the cottage and we were video calling my sister who lives in Zürich and had stayed there due to the pandemic. The conversation started out quite mundane, but at some point, I responded to a comment by saying that had I not started psychotherapy a few years ago, I’m not sure what would have happened to me. My mother responded that when she was young the times were different, people just had to find a way to deal with their issues. I repeated that I couldn’t imagine having been able to cope with my mental health issues on my own. To that my mother noted: “You would have found a way.”
That short sentence “You would have found a way” was stuck in my head. I began to wonder where all the negative emotions from earlier generations had gone.
That short sentence “You would have found a way” was stuck in my head. I began to wonder where all the negative emotions from earlier generations had gone. Having struggled with anxiety for over six years now and embarked upon my own journey to heal with the help of psychotherapy and meditation, I have learnt that feelings want to be seen, heard and, most importantly, felt. If they are ignored or pushed aside, they will eventually resurface, often a lot stronger or disguised as a different feeling, a physical symptom or a harmful behavior.
Varying levels and forms of anxiety have followed me throughout my childhood and adolescence. But only recently have I understood that that the physical symptoms I was experiencing were pointing at some underlying anxiety or stress. My body always knew before me. In elementary school, I remember going to the school nurse several times due to a fever that appeared during the school day only to disappear the moment I went home. There was a time when I began to compulsively observe my breath and felt like I had forgotten how to breathe naturally. During my final year of high school, I experienced heart palpitations almost on a daily basis. I even got an EKG test done which showed that my heart was fine. I have also always had a sensitive stomach that gets worse when I’m nervous.
During a preliminary final exam in high school, I experienced my first full-blown anxiety attack. I wanted to do really well on the exam which made me nervous. The nervousness initiated a series of bodily reactions: My heart started beating faster, my palms sweating and my stomach turning. At the same time, I felt like I couldn’t leave the exam room even if I needed to. The exam was to be finished in a specific time frame and leaving the room required asking permission from the teacher. Observing the unpleasant sensations in my body and the anxious thoughts in my head, I began to panic. I wanted to escape, but I felt like I couldn’t. The physical symptoms got increasingly worse and suddenly I was feeling claustrophobic in a room full of people silently hunched over their desks.
I left high school with a piece of paper stating that I had done excellently in all the subjects of my final exams. But instead of that paper, what came to affect my life most profoundly was the deeply humiliating memory of my anxiety attack during the final exams. The idea that I was somehow not capable of controlling my body when it mattered the most was etched into my mind. I began to experience strong physical symptoms in an increasing number of settings, not just exams. Over time, I taught myself a new dysfunctional way of reacting to situations with high expectations, silent rooms or other people. So basically anything in the real world.
I realized I needed to seek help when I started to think that if I continued like this, I would eventually stop leaving my apartment altogether.
Two years after my first anxiety attack, I called the university health care center crying. I told the nurse all the mundane things I was afraid of and how the anxiety was beginning to limit my life. I was often seriously thinking about skipping social situations. Going to university lectures felt like confronting my biggest fears, not to mention exams. I even began to dread trips to the grocery store. Worst of all, I had lost trust in my own body. Since my anxiety was almost entirely psychosomatic — which means tied to physiological symptoms — I became afraid of how my body would (or would not) cooperate in different situations instead of fearing the situations themselves. I realized I needed to seek help when I started to think that if I continued like this, I would eventually stop leaving my apartment altogether.
I’ve often wondered why I developed such strong and almost irrational anxiety despite having had a generally happy childhood. I haven’t experienced any specific trauma that would explain my mental health issues. And I’m not alone. Most people between the ages of 20 and 35 know at least one person who has gone to therapy. And many more are dealing with anxiety, depression or burnout on their own. But it seems like many of us don’t have specific experiences that could be viewed as traumatizing, at least not compared to what our grandparents have gone through.
On a recent car ride, I was asking my dad lots of questions about his family history. He told me that my grandfather’s father had died in 1935 before my grandfather was even born. He had been working, and some kind of a heavy load had fallen on him and killed him in an instant. When my grandfather was only a few years old, he was sent to Sweden as a war child where he spent several years separated from his family. He was only 21 when his mother died of brain cancer.
I’m fortunate to say that the most “traumatic” experiences in my life have been starting school in a foreign country which language I did not speak and preparing frozen fish fingers and French fries for dinner while my sister and I waited for our parents to get home from work. And yet, it appears that I’m a lot weaker in the face of adversity and challenge than my parents or grandparents. I sometimes feel like I represent an emotionally fragile generation. So how did the generations before us deal with difficult childhood experiences and mental health issues?
Instead of finding a way to heal, I believe that many people from past generations simply found a way to cope, unknowingly passing on the disregarded emotions to the next generation.
I believe that, for the most part, they didn’t. At least not in a functional way. On the surface it may have seemed like our parents and their parents “found a way” to deal with their emotional discomfort. But instead they pushed away or bottled their emotions thinking they had overcome them. Some may have transformed the original feelings into something more acceptable and manageable like indifference, irritability, impatience, anger or a constant cheerfulness. Others may have distracted themselves from their uncomfortable emotional state through worry, control, work or in more extreme cases alcohol or violence. Instead of finding a way to heal, I believe that many people from past generations simply found a way to cope, unknowingly passing on the disregarded emotions to the next generation.
Perhaps some people in the younger generations are entrenched in anxiety and depression, because they’ve inherited pain from their parents and grandparents. We have been like truck drivers accepted to carry a heavy load, without having any idea when and where we picked it up and where to put it. The origin of the pain has crept away from our reach. But that doesn’t mean that we can or should deny the existence of the pain. It’s still there.
I want to be clear that the purpose of this text is not to complain or blame. The generations before us did not have the opportunity, the resources or the time to confront their pain. They simply had to push through.
Fortunately, the times are shifting. Society is becoming increasingly aware and accepting of mental health issues. More and more people have access to mental health care. With the increasing acceptance and resources, many people from younger generations are choosing not to flee from their pain. We’re finally able to say that we’ve had enough. That we’re tired of holding on to our pain in dysfunctional ways. Both our own and the one passed on to us.
I sometimes think that decades of ignorance have made shame, sorrow and fear angry. They’ve had it up to their noses and now they’re knocking on young people’s doors to say that it’s time.
I sometimes think that decades of ignorance have made shame, sorrow and fear angry. They’ve had it up to their noses and now they’re knocking on young people’s doors to say that it’s time. Many of us now feel like we don’t have a choice but to welcome in the pain.
On the surface, we may seem like the emotionally fragile generation. But I believe that instead of fragility we’re choosing emotional honesty. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary honesty implies “a refusal to lie, steal, or deceive in any way”. Emotional honesty is a refusal to lie to ourselves about the feelings that emerge in our mind and body. When we’re honest, we can accept that pain exists. And with this acceptance comes the understanding that the only way to let go of the pain is to confront it. Emotional honesty also means acknowledging that the original pain is often disguised as an upset stomach, bursts of anger or workaholism. To find this original pain, we may first need to sit with its secondary forms. In some cases, by ourselves and in others with the help of another individual whom we can trust.
When we’ve had these emotional conversations in my family, it seems like my parents are afraid that the time my sister and I spend exploring our experiences, thoughts and emotions is making us unhappy. My dad once mentioned that when he was younger, he wasn’t thinking everything over all the time, he was just living his life. It’s certainly worth considering whether it makes sense to wallow in the negative aspects of life instead of just living it. But it’s also important to distinguish worry and complaint from actively and compassionately engaging with discomfort and past experiences.
Contrary to my parents’ fear, I feel like the effort to address negative thoughts and emotions is not making me unhappy. In fact, I often feel empowered when I see that the process is making me feel more like myself and less like something my childhood covertly molded me into.
Contrary to my parents’ fear, I feel like the effort to address negative thoughts and emotions is not making me unhappy. In fact, I often feel empowered when I see that the process is making me feel more like myself and less like something my childhood covertly molded me into. I also feel like I’m slowly able to let go off the unnecessary stories that bring me misery on a daily basis. Although I still experience anxiety, it’s considerably lower than four years ago. I can actually enjoy my life and take up new challenges instead of being stuck in a loop of feeling anxious and recovering from the exhaustion and stomach pain that I used to suffer from almost daily.
When writing this text, I remembered a small detail about a set of four little stools I have in my apartment. When I moved out to study in Helsinki, my parents fetched them from the attic and gave them to me. They’re practical little stools with a gap in the seat making them easier to move. They have legs painted white and a seat painted a warm brown. One day, when I was cleaning my apartment, I lifted one of the stools on the table legs pointing to the ceiling and noticed some text on the bottom of the seat. It said “Taina”, the name of my grandmother. I picked up the rest of the stools and discovered that they all had a name marked on them, one for each member of my great grandparents’ family: the mother, the father and the two daughters. Later, my mother told me that they had been the kitchen stools in my grandmother’s childhood home. Apparently, it had been important to mark who owned which stool.
Like these four stools I unknowingly inherited from my great grandmother, so are thought, behavior and emotional patterns passed on. Just like that, we spend years sitting on the most mundane little stools rarely acknowledging their presence. Although they now inhabit our home, they may have originated in an entirely different point in history.
We can free ourselves from our history without needing to deny it.
I truly believe that emotional honesty will heal us. It may sound like an ostentatious term, but basically it just means that we will heal ourselves by confronting our pain in all of its forms. If we can be present with our anxiety, depression and any emotions and physical sensations tied to them, they will guide us towards healing. We only need to give ourselves some space and some time. And in some cases, lots of space and lots of time. But day by day, we’ll be able to let more of our pain go. However, there’s no need to let go of the inherited little stools decorating our homes. We can hold on to them with a sense of appreciation and awareness. We can free ourselves from our history without needing to deny it.
Emotional honesty does not guarantee success or happiness. But it does guarantee freedom. The freedom to be our true self in its most authentic expression. As the psychologist and author Susan David has said “discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life”. And emotional honesty is the ticket seller at the gates.
You can listen to this text here: https://riikkaiivanainen.podbean.com/e/emotional-honesty/