Maybe I’m supposed to feel bad right now.
Today is my last day in Paris, right now my last night and my immediate feeling is why don’t I feel more joyful. The last time I came to Paris, I felt like I processed a bunch of social, emotional shit, ate about two-three crepe Nutella and really felt like I grew a lot as a person, learning to forgive myself for moments in my life where I felt ashamed, like that year or so that I said my ex-girlfriend’s name at wistful moments (pretty shameful).
So my immediate feeling now is: why don’t I feel great?
It’s beautiful outside, if slightly rainy. The Paris streets are just as gorgeous as I remember. I don’t have to worry much about money right now and nothing terrible has happened to me, like getting mugged or shit stolen. Why am I not exuberant to be in Paris, to be on vacation. To get this time that so many have told me they envied?
I could analyze it and find blame and find reason why: I’m lonely, too much caffeine, too much or not enough alcohol, too little sleep, missing my girlfriend.
But the real thing that hit me as I walked down the Paris streets is something that I see come up a lot now. A question that popped in my head?
Why is it shameful to feel bad?
I could only really talk about myself but as a society, I’d observe that we are a group of reassurers. To cheer someone up is cool. “Don’t get down on yourself”, “cheer up”, “don’t be sad”, “look on the bright side”, “make the best of it” are phrases I hear often.
The one intent is helpful, to try to aid someone who is experiencing difficult emotions, but I think something present in it as well are these various messages:
"Hey, you’re bumming us out."
“You’re ungrateful for what you have or else you wouldn’t feel bad.”
“What right do you have to feel bad when others have it so much worse?”
“I’m ashamed of you/you should be ashamed of yourself.”
And that last one really gets at it for me. I think often times when I feel bad, feel depressed or down, *the pain of the depression itself is much less bad than the inherent shame of feeling depressed*.
We hate people who are depressed. They don’t want to go anywhere, they shit all over people’s plans, they act irrationally or in self-destructive manners and they are resistant to reasoning, which is often the way that we as humans feel empowered (see: any salesman interaction, one person reasoning another into a decision).
However I think there is another more frightening reason we hate depressed people, which could be applied much more broadly than just that category:
Seeing other people act depressed invites us to feel depressed as well.
As human animals we are observers of social behavior in order to understand normality. If everyone tips a dollar in a bar in New York and I see that, I will probably also tip a dollar unless I have some firmly held conviction about tipping more or less, which I will probably briefly question given the circumstance.
Observing behavior in others forces us to feel empathy and to contemplate our own lives. The primate response, the other monkey is depressed, am I depressed too?
And I know for me the answer is: yes, at least somewhat and I don’t want to think about it! Life is hard enough without reminding me of my own depression.
But as anyone who has either studied psychology (which I have not) or been in a lot of therapy (which I have) can tell you, the suppression of emotion is often much more harmful than the experience of it, in ways that are too difficult to go in to detail about here.
Suffice it to say that by expressing my wish not to be reminded of my depression, I both make it more powerful and make my dislike of depressed people more acute. Thus creating the experience of “shame”.
All very well Nick, you might be asking, but what the hell do you want us to do about it and what does this have to do with France or anything?
There is no societal answer to the shame associated with depression. No one is going to start acting differently because of my dumb blog post, or at least I don’t hold that expectation.
But there is awareness, self-knowledge, the ability to understand one’s self and to sort out experiences.
For instance, the experience of a caffeine crash often feels to me like emotional pain. My mind, confused by the surging and receding chemicals, ascribes purpose to the chemicals and tells me I am depressed because of circumstantial things in my life, which I might believe and then in turn be ashamed of, because it’s bad to be depressed.
But, if I understand the caffeine crash to be chemical as opposed to emotional, it doesn’t remove the feeling of depression, but both helps me to understand that:
A. The feeling will pass.
B. I need not be “ashamed” of my depression because it is a chemical normality rather than a loss of emotional control.
(ASIDE: VERY BRIEFLY, though this topic deserves further exploration, the loss of control element is very important because our perception that we have control or mastery of a sort in our lives, especially over our own emotional states is one of the key illusions/sentiments that I believe keeps people “content”)
So, by being able to process and understand the temporary chemical depression of a caffeine crash, I am able to reduce my shane of it and thus my pain.
So if I can understand and recognize that in my firmly held conviction to oppose that primate instinct, that depression is not inherently shameful, then I can feel “better” without having to “feel better” if that makes sense. as I’d only be experiencing the pain of the depression and not the pain of the shame.
In conclusion, maybe I feel bad in Paris because this is where I needed to feel bad. Where I had enough distance from the people who loved me to feel my own emotions without fear of shaming myself or feeling I was a burden on them. That’s pretty valuable, too.
NONE OF THIS is to say that I have in any way figured out the answers to the big questions of my life like what I’m going to do when I get back in September from Europe or how to pursue comedy or any of that stuff.
But, to unfortunately leave you with the sort of happy ending I dislike, writing this while walking up the Rue Montmartre in the soft Paris night might have incidentally cheered me up.
Cheerio and I’ll write again from Amsterdam.
Le petit Nicolas