On Being Private

– by Lee Smith, Ph.D.

Our culture does a pretty impressive job of teaching us to show each other that we’re, “Just fine, thanks”. The many ways in which our culture cultivates this kind of individual need to show that there are ‘no flies on us’ is an interesting subject in itself.

But if we’re all really OK, why are sales of psychopharmaceuticals powering through the roof? Why has the habitual use of substances, sex, food, gambling, consuming and shopping, and aggression in all its many forms become so widespread?

The suicides of nice guy-cum-hockey brute Wade Belak and others this past summer point to tragic truths beyond the confines of hockey today. They tell a story about our cultural imperative to be private, to rarely reveal and work with our fears and pain. Most of our private effort to not ‘burden’ other people with our problems derives from our own fear that the struggles that we have just shouldn’t even exist. All of us know the feeling of the social fear of being judged, criticized, ridiculed, dismissed, if we open up – the shame!

This privacy is conditioned by the messages from our ambient culture and intergenerational family history that teach that we shouldn’t be suffering; that, ironically, “There must be something wrong with me if there’s something wrong with me”. This may be one of the most insidious, cruel and pervasively damaging cultural perversions out there!

This privacy and shame arrests the very process that we need to encourage in order to grow and find contentment – it keeps us from dealing with life and our feelings effectively. If, like an enforcer in the NHL, we find ourselves in a career or some situation that causes us pain, and we don’t look at that pain and come to understand what it’s about, we’re trapped. To be trapped or powerless or defeated by life itself is to set up conditions that will often lead to depression.

Our individual and collective capacity to deal well with anything relies substantially on what we know about it. Consider that we need the World Health Organization and dedicated scientists to use all of the tools of science to look carefully in to any new disease threat. They investigate sources of new virus strains, learn about their nature and how they interact with hosts, and ultimately how we might deal with them so that pandemics are averted and lives are saved. Nothing useful can be done about something that we know too little about. And this research has to be done honestly, without contamination from business interests.

Swinging that logic over to our individual lives and mental health plainly indicates that our fears and anxieties must also be looked into, carefully and honestly, instead of ignored. Self-regulation requires self-engagement.

We each have some state of physical health, dental health and mental health, all of which benefit from preventive and remedial care. The products of neglected mental health include abusing our children (which feeds teen suicide), abusing ourselves in a zillion ways, physical illness, divorce, crime, greed.

Intellectual self-analysis is a withered pretender – your mental health most commonly relies on facing and knowing your feelings, learning how and why they arise and learning how to work with them. Just experimenting with lightly touching in to opening up with someone you trust, someone who’s healthy and accepting, starts us all in the right direction.

When we try to open up with a friend, a parent, a religious figure, a therapist, we’re taking an uncommonly big and brave step. Also, please remember the Golden Rule and watch your judgement, criticism, gossip and the other ways you keep this problem going.