Jonathan Hoffman, PhD, ABPP
“Don’t tell me how you feel. Tell me how you function.”
This is one of many celebrated quotes from Dr. Abraham Low, the psychiatrist who in 1937 founded Recovery, a still active self-help movement for people with mental health challenges.
However, this may be an idea that is still ahead of its time. Indeed, the social message trending today often appears reversed, more like: “Don’t tell me how you function. Tell me how you feel.”
Let us be clear. Nobody’s feelings are invalid, not real, or unimportant. Quite the opposite, in fact. Feelings are valid, authentic experiences and important to acknowledge.
But when it comes to navigating mental health treatment, being on ‘Team Feelings’ is not recommended:
People who are depressed need to engage in life and focus on the positive. But depressed feelings often chart a path toward withdrawing to a lonely island, as well as looking at life in the most negatively skewed ways possible.
Anxious feelings put one’s body and mind on the road to avoidance and responding to ‘false alarms” of danger. Yet, treating anxiety and OCD psychologically calls for taking opposite actions to fears – like speaking in public or not engaging in excessive checking, reassurance-seeking, or handwashing.
It often feels right for parents and other family members of people with mental health conditions to focus more on supporting how a loved one is feeling than on how they are functioning. However, since feelings are completely subjective, using them for ‘treatment GPS’ can make patients and their loved ones believe they are going in the right direction when they are way off course.
If you are someone impacted by mental health challenges that somehow has wound up on 'Team Feelings,' it is never too soon or too late to change direction and join ‘Team Functioning.’ There is an excellent chance that one day your feelings will thank you for making this decision!