“So What Does It Mean To Be Emotionally Well?”

I was working a health fair last weekend.  Standing there at my table with my big ol’ sign behind me announcing myself as a “Partner in the Pursuit of Emotional Wellness” was interesting to say the least.  Being a shrink is an odd job.  I am more used to talking to people about their deepest and most difficult issues than I am talking to them about mundane niceties.  What I have learned over the years is that EVERYONE has their deepest and most difficult issues.  It comes with being human.  Most people spend a good part of their time trying to avoid these issues, though.  Nothing drives that home more than standing at a health fair between a chiropractor with a massage chair and a financial analyst.  I did have my share of visitors to my table, and was able to turn them on to the services that my company offers.  But as people came past,  I also  got quite a few looks out of the corner of people’s eyes . . . the “I know what this guy does but don’t want to go too close” look.

One gentleman in particular caught my eye.  It was clear from his body language that this was not his first choice of Saturday morning activities.  He mostly held to the periphery of the gymnasium, aloof from the tables in my vicinity at least. But not totally disinterested.  He was obviously observing the scene and the comings and goings of the health fair participants.  Since my table was near the door to the exit, he was often near to my table, but conspicuously avoidant of me and my table.  Even the oft’ replenished pile of chocolates did not bring him over.  So I finally went over to him . . .

“I can tell this is not your first choice for a Saturday morning!” I quipped.  He smiled and said “no . . . not really”.  Then he looked me full in the face and asked . . . “so what does it mean to be emotionally well?”

What a great question.

Too often, the difficult times and the difficult emotions of our lives fall into diagnostic categories.  These attempts to classify and categorize are not meant to be judgmental by those of us in the mental health care field.  We are just trying to understand where someone is at so we know how to help them.  What is emotional wellness?  It certainly includes the ability to feel profound sadness at times.  Profound euphoria at times.  Anger . . . irritability . . . anxiety . . . panic . . . the full experience of human existence.  While these emotions can be disturbing to ourselves and to those around us, sometimes they are the “normal” for the moment.  A sign of “emotional wellness”.  In discussing this with him, he clearly became more at ease.  I think he was waiting for me to speak and act like the “psychiatrist” he thought I was. Instead . . . I think I convinced him of my humanity and (perhaps) the humanity behind those of us working in the mental health field.  He was able to talk about himself a bit.  The difficulty he had reading when his mother (the English teacher) made that a priority.  How he spent his life reading the words, but not reading the paragraph . . . not reading the story.  His difficulty in reading was balanced by his high proficiency in math that eventually led to his attendance of a prestigious university and a successful career as an engineer.  He had an easy smile and was pleasant to talk to.  He had a long marriage and good kids.  He seemed like a guy I’d share a beer and a ballgame with.

Did he have a diagnosis?

Probably some reading-something-or-other disorder.

Was he emotionally well?  Hard to say with one brief conversation.  Overall, he seemed as emotionally well as the rest of us at the health fair.  He had obviously had his share of ups and downs.  His share of struggles.  He seemed to be centered and content. I got from him that his aloofness was not based on a fear of me and what my table represented, but a sense of being “OK” with who he was.  An interesting paradox of life is that our emotional health can increase as our bodies age and breakdown.  As we become less able to do the things of our youth, we can become wiser . . . more contemplative, more contented and more grounded.   We gain a perspective of life that would have suited us well when we were young.  Truly, youth is wasted on the young.  We all know people who age well . . . who gain that sense of emotional wellness even as their physical health wanes.  People who can weather the difficulties that life has to offer and still have a positive sense of themselves.  Not as emotionally perfect . . . but as emotionally well.

So what does it mean to be emotionally well?

I’m not sure I can define it, but, in the words of Justice Stewart . . . “I know it when I see it”

–Dan Hartman, MD

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