We need to stop pathologising uncomfortable feelings
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It felt like much of the world breathed a sigh of relief when Donald and Melania Trump boarded Air Force One for the final time last month. But for some, apparently, this involved more than mere relief: it marked the end of four years of severe trauma and emotional distress.
In a podcast recorded shortly after Joe Biden’s inauguration as US president, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg said she had been in “an acute state of psychological crisis since the election of 2016”. She said Trump’s win had made her feel like she was “walking into a personal prison”, and that she would not “really fully be alive again” until his presidency ended. Journalist Heidi Moore tweeted it would take “years for people to fully recover from the Trump presidency, and that’s with good therapy”; Vox published a piece on “how to start recovering from the trauma of the Trump administration” — one of many such articles.
This all feels a little melodramatic. Of course, I cannot know the precise emotions that Trump engendered in individuals, though I’m aware he provoked negative emotions in many. I felt pretty anxious about his election myself, and over the past four years often watched what was going on in the White House in horror and alarm. My friends and family across the Atlantic felt this much more acutely. So I don’t want to minimise the real impact that Trump’s presidency had on people’s lives.
I do worry, though, that we live in a world that increasingly pathologises normal — even necessary — human emotions like stress, mild anxiety or discomfort, and that this devalues the experiences of those who suffer from truly debilitating mental illness, trauma or psychological abuse.
“If you make too big of a deal out of smaller traumas, it cheapens the emphasis placed on larger ones,” says Jean Twenge, a psychologist and author of iGen: Why Today's Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy — and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood. Twenge says “iGen”, or Generation Z — which she defines as those born between 1995 and 2012 — have been driving a dramatic shift in emphasis towards “emotional safety” that is now starting to “bleed up” through older cohorts.
In their book The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt use the term “safetyism” to describe this trend, referring to “a culture that allows the concept of ‘safety’ to creep so far that it equates emotional discomfort with physical danger”. Lukianoff and Haidt say this cultural shift originated in college campuses. And they argue that it ends up “encouraging people to protect one another from the very experiences embedded in daily life that they need in order to become strong and healthy”. Young people are thus entering the adult world ill-equipped for its often harsh and uncomfortable realities.
What troubles me most about “safetyism” is the way it is weaponised. I have witnessed the chilling effect on a discussion when a person says they are being emotionally “triggered” by someone else’s words. It effectively creates an uneven playing field, giving the moral and emotional high-ground to the person claiming victimhood, and anyone who persists in the conversation can be accused of being an “aggressor”. So nobody does.
“What we’re dealing with right now is a hot moral absolutism, which comes from the idea of making the world better, but which is pretty ruthless in its application,” says Lukianoff in a phone call. “From a tactical standpoint, the more you can show that you can eliminate other people — especially people more senior than you — the more power you have.”
As we start — hopefully — to emerge from the pandemic, those of us who haven’t had so much as a sniffle over the past 11 months must find a way of readjusting our attitudes to risk. Being a human is an inherently perilous business, and we cannot thrive or even survive if we expend all our energy on trying to keep ourselves safe, whether physically or emotionally. And if we want to rebuild bridges after the polarised politics of Brexit and Trump, we need to deliberately expose ourselves to — rather than run away from — views that make us feel uncomfortable.