A while back, a post about choosing to be positive came up in my WP Reader feed. The blogger mentioned that “our mind is something we do and can have control over.” While they weren’t making reference to mental illness at all, I don’t think control over one’s own mind is quite so cut and dried, particularly when mental illness is in the picture.
I’ve got issues with toxic positivity, but for this post I’ll skip over that angle and consider the extent to which we do, or do not, have the ability to wrestle our minds into submission.
Thoughts/emotions & metacognition/meta-emotions
Emotions are a response to what’s going on in our environment. They’ll leap up and bite you, whether you want them to or not. Similarly, thoughts can jump up and bit you in the nose. You can try all you want to get control over those emotions and thoughts, but you probably won’t have much luck if you approach them head-on. They simply aren’t interested in being controlled. If you try to suppress them, they’ll get in your face even more. If I tell you not to think of Casper the guinea pig with the luscious thick creamy hair, how well is that likely to work?
Have you thought of Casper yet?
Meta-emotions are the emotions that see the initial emotion and decided to join the party. Similarly, metacognition is thinking about your thoughts. This meta territory is more malleable. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, but it’s a possibility.
Even less easy is digging down to core beliefs, the foundations that are feeding into those automatic thoughts; that’s what therapy is for. Sometimes a whole buttload of therapy.
What’s different in mental illness
Mental illness appears to arise from mix of biological (including genetic) and environmental factors. Science still has a ways to go in refining this, but a diathesis-stress view would be that the more biologically vulnerable someone is, the less that’s required environmentally to trigger the onset of illness. Even if biology isn’t the major causative factor, environmental factors can produce functional changes in the brain, as happens with PTSD.
Surprise surprise, mental illness isn’t wave-your-magic-wand controllable. There are medical and psychotherapeutic treatments, but they may only be able to do so much. While someone may have some control over whether they get treatment (as long as the mental health care system isn’t screwing them over), they can’t control whether treatment will be effective.
Is there a better way?
I’m a very left-brained kind of person, and quite self-reflective. I like to think, and I like to poke around my inner environment and figure out what it’s doing and why. I’ve gotten to know that environment pretty well, and while I can’t control things, I can often recognize them for what they are.
I like the idea of acceptance as an alternative stance to control. Not as in laying out the welcome mat for the mentally wild and wonky, but letting it do its strut and then walking out of the room of its own accord. Probably part of why I’m pro-acceptance is that I don’t have the mental energy to attempt control, even if it was possible. Trying to control sounds extremely exhausting, and mental illness on its own is enough to deal with.
While messaging that you can/should control your mind is common, that may be, at least in part, because people are trying to sell you things. And really, if controlling the mind was fully doable, why are there still so many of us crazy folk? Wouldn’t someone have found the magic wand by now? Until some does find it, maybe attempts at control aren’t the most efficient use of resources, and a little acceptance could make things a little easier.
To what extent do you think you have control over your mind, and how much do you try to control it?