How Chronic Illness Ruins Your Motivation (and what to do about it)

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If you’ve been ill for any period of time, you know that it’s more difficult to do things you need to do or even enjoy. Usually, when you get better, your energy and motivation levels improve also.

Chronic illness makes that equation slightly more complex.

Even when the pain leaves, the motivation levels may stay as low as they were when you were ill. If you’ve noticed this phenomenon, you may wonder why, beyond the clearest answer – “depression”.

How chronic illness ruins motivation

Robert Malenka of Stanford University and his colleagues studied chronic pain in mice. They showed that persistent pain resulted in mice being less and less likely to work for food in comparison to their pain-free friends.

Long-term pain (in this case, a week for the mice), resulted in nerve-cell changes in the nucleus accumbens which is important for processing reward and reinforcement.

When the pain was relieved, the mice were still less willing to work for food even if they were hungry.

The researchers asked if they did not work for food because…

  1. their pain was too severe?
  2. they no longer valued food as much?
  3. they lacked motivation?

More tests showed that they could walk fine and still valued food. Their pain was relieved. They lacked motivation.

Although Dr. Malenka’s study was valuable, it may not be best to directly translate these findings to humans. What we can take from this is that long-term pain seems to reduce motivation even after the pain has left.

There seems to be a slight edge taken off life when you’re in pain because you grow to expect the pain to continue. More tasks appear futile because they were difficult or unable to be completed in the past.

Moreover, we must also be aware of the complex intertwining with depression, fatigue and emotional tiredness that comes with living with an illness for a long period of time. Quite literally, it can change you physically and mentally.

What can we do about it?

Now we know that chronic pain can influence motivation even when the pain isn’t there, we can start with the first tip:

  1. Forgive yourself

There are days when pain isn’t as bad but we still don’t want to do anything. Now we know why.

To stop yourself from falling victim to the useless command of “just snap out of it!”, understand that it’s more important to be on your own team and to forgive yourself if things don’t always go to plan.

2. Start small…

…and stay small.

I’ve long been an advocate of making small, healthier changes that you can do every day. They are more sustainable, more enjoyable, easier to do and easier to fit into the day. Not everything needs to be a 100% effort – and they’re useless if you can rarely put in that effort.

For example:

  1. 5 minute daily walks
  2. 5 minute meditation
  3. 20 minutes of reading

The daily actions vary from person to person. Some people can manage 30 minutes of walking a day, other people find it difficult to walk to the kitchen sometimes. No need to feel ashamed or arrogant about whatever stage we’re at.

What does “stay small” mean?

It means, on pain-free days or simply days that you feel good, you may not want to take advantage of that and do everything you’ve hoped for. It feeds into the boom and bust cycle of pain management.

Pain ratings:

Day 1: 5/10 | Day 2: 6/10 | Day 3: 4/10 | Day 4: 1/10 NOW WE RUN A MARATHON WHILE COOKING FOR 100 PEOPLE

Day 5: 9/10 – We do nothing.

And repeat.

We want to have a reasonable amount of consistency in our days so that we can consistently feel rewarded for our efforts regardless of our pain levels. That is easier said than done but still possible to a degree.

If we feed into the boom and bust cycle, even those days where your body doesn’t feel like it’s on fire can result in us doing very little.

3. Take time to slow down

Some days, all the medication or tips in the world can’t really help us. But we can try our best to take some time to ourselves and slow down just a bit.

Whether that is through:

  • Taking a few deep breaths
  • Stroking our hands lightly
  • Eating and drinking mindfully
  • Hugging a teddy bear (or person… subject to availability, of course)

We can experiment with healthy ways to stop ourselves from getting lost in the self-hatred or anxiety that comes from a lack of motivation and depression.

Why bother?

Chronic pain often makes us ask ourselves – why bother? We can very easily build resentment towards our condition and ourselves. Who doesn’t want to have more control over their lives?

I won’t tell you that you should feel a certain way after reading this. I certainly won’t say that you should feel motivated. However, do take away that small, sustainable changes can be a healthy way to manage pain and our motivation levels.

To end, I quote Toni Bernhard…

May you make the best use of what is in your power and take the rest as it happens.


As always, thank you for reading!

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Further reading:

12 Ways to Cope with Chronic Pain and Depression

Decreased motivation during chronic pain requires long-term depression in the nucleus accumbens

Study reveals brain mechanism behind chronic pain’s sapping of motivation

How to Stay Calm and Present Regardless of What Life Throws At You

Photo by Robert Wnuk on Unsplash

Engaging life challenges us to be fully present and actively involved in our moment-to-moment experience, without clinging to joy and without resisting sorrow.

~ Toni Bernhard

Equanimity.

The act of greeting whatever confronts us with an even temper and steady reaction.

Cultivating this state is how we stay calm regardless of whatever confronts us rather than adding on top of our suffering with the emotions that come from clinging to joy and resisting sorrow.

When we face particularly difficult emotions or situations, without any training, it can be very easy to pile suffering on top of our experiences without realising it.

Toni Bernhard says:

Grasping at what is pleasant sets us up for impermanence dukkha because change is inevitable.

Resisting what is unpleasant serves only to add stress to what is already a difficult situation.


When I was first told by my doctor that there wasn’t much to do about my pain, I came home and was so angry I kicked a hole in my door.

During a summer, I had a few days when I didn’t experience any pain and it was so strange but I became extremely happy thinking that my pain had solved itself.

In both of these situations, I didn’t treat them with an evenness of temper. Rather, I allowed myself to become overly consumed with them which led to suffering later down the road.

 

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Photo by Jon Flobrant on Unsplash

 

Calm in the pleasant

Please don’t mistake what I’m saying to mean “evenness of temper means to kill hope”. It does not. As Martin Luther King Jr says:

We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.

Rather, it means that we allow ourselves to fully experience the good times but not to expect it to last forever. When we remember that pleasant moments don’t last forever and they’re simply one of the ten thousand joys we’ll experience, it gives us the opportunity to savour the present more!

If anything, it’s simply a reminder of the truth. However, it’s not a depressing one when we come to understand that when one joy ends, it means another will come again! If I worry that the happiness is leaving, then I’m only adding to the extra sadness that I’m going to experience. It’s a funny little paradox.

“I’ll enjoy this experience while it lasts, knowing that, like all phenomena, it will pass and another experience will take its place”

Calm in the unpleasant

Now, this is more difficult.

Tough emotions tend to bring out sadness, fear or anger. All of these emotions have the uncanny ability to pull us into the darkness they create and keep us there. While we remember that these emotions will change and leave, it still seems hard to keep ourselves out of its gravitational pull.

However, in order to explore your emotions, you will first need to have some kind of calm and the ability to look inwards.

The main thing to realize is that the emotion won’t going to last forever. It never does.

How to stay Calm during pleasant and unpleasant experiences

This is tough stuff. To start our practice, we can begin with meditation and a few personal sayings. (Click here if you want a short beginners guide to meditation.)

  1. Meditate

Sit down with some alertness. If it’s more comfortable, lie down.

Asking yourself “what emotions am I experiencing right now?”

Then describe it neutrally. If you’re angry, try saying “Anger is present”. If you’re sad, try saying “sadness is being experienced”. If you’re happy, try “Happiness is in the air”.

Whatever it is, your aim while meditating isn’t to solve anything.

While we meditate, we want to acknowledge how we’re feeling and simply experience it. If you find your mind running away again (because that’s what minds do), calmly bring yourself back to the moment and see what happens.

If we go in with no expectations, then it’s going to make the entire process smoother. If we go in with expectations that we’re going to screw up or that we’re going to come out an enlightened person, we’ll only be disappointed.

This releases us from the burden of trying to keep sadness from ever infiltrating our lives and from straining our best to keep happiness from leaving. They both leave. They’ll both return at some point.

2. Utilise Positive Self-talk

Meditation is like practising before kick-off. What about when we become angry or sad, what do we do then?

  1. Describe emotions neutrally.

Like mentioned above: Take yourself out of the equation and just describe the emotion. This removes the force that personal attachment has when thinking about how we feel.

“I am sad” -> “sadness is happening”

“I am in pain” -> “pain is present”

“I’m really happy” -> “happiness is in the air”

2. Acknowledge ups and downs come and go.

A common theme recently – emotions come and go. To remind us of this, we can say the following:

  • “May we accept with grace both our successes and disappointments”
  • “This is only one of the ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows”
  • “We can experience things without needing to fix them”
  • “Let’s not get lost in this moment but engage with it meaningfully”

Talking in terms of “we” rather than “I” helps reinforce the idea that I can talk to myself as though I am my friend. It’s worthwhile.

Equanimity is a small practice on the face of it but also remarkably difficult. It’s not something I have down completely but I can thank myself for the small times when I do manage to get it done because it helps me enjoy happier moments and not add suffering to the times I’m in a lot of pain or remarkably tired.


Some days it’ll go well, some days it’ll suck. Other days we’ll forget about it completely. We don’t hate ourselves for these fluctuations in progress. We treat these realizations with calm then move on. With time and practice, it becomes easier.

We’ll appreciate more that we’re simply a working draft with flaws, mistakes, sorrows, and joys.


As always, thank you for reading!

My question for you is:

How do you remain calm during difficult times? 

Comment down below :)

You can follow me on Twitter and Facebook for more updates!

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Will I be OK? – Accepting and running away

I’ve maintained a journal for over three years.

Every day I sit down and write something. Usually about my day, a topic that’s interested me or thinking about how I’m feeling. The main topic tends to be about pain because I tend to write these words late in the day when my energy is low and my pain is high.

A theme that continuously appears in my journal is this: Will I be OK?


I’ve noticed that being in continuous pain and face to face with my bodily limitations on a day to day basis feels like a personal failure.

I wasn’t the one who caused this pain nor was I the person who asked for it. Yet, being in pain and lying in bed for hours or struggling through work feels like I’m doing something wrong and it feels like I am staring failure right in the face when I think about how I am in the present moment.

I’m exhausted even though I’ve barely left my room. I’m sad even though there are many reasons to be happy. I’m disappointed even though I’ve reached difficult goals in the past (like completing a Masters degree).

So, when I’m in pain, I feel as though I am also experiencing failure however irrational that might be. Perhaps you feel the same way.

Despite the belief that I’m “failing”, why do I still believe I’ll be OK? How do I know I’ll be OK?

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Photo by Ihor Malytskyi on Unsplash

What does it mean to be OK?

Maybe a strange question but it deserves some attention. Generally, it’s defined as something that is simply acceptable. Perhaps not good but not bad either.

We say it to our friends all the time:

“Don’t worry, you’ll be OK, alright?”

“We’ll be fine, we’ll make it through”

“You’ll survive this tough patch”

Should a life of pain be “simply acceptable”? Is it simply acceptable?

There isn’t much to like about chronic pain. However, that doesn’t mean that living a “simply acceptable” or even good life is impossible despite the challenges.

Experiences in life and relationships with others are thankfully a bit more complicated than the following argument:

  1. Life with chronic pain is bad
  2. I have chronic pain
  3. Therefore, I have a bad life.

There are many other people, experiences, relationships, gifts and so on to find richness in. To “be OK” is a reasonably personal definition because only you know what you find acceptable or which areas of your life are worse than others.

We can be OK in some places, worse in others. Upon reflection, we build an overall idea of whether we’re OK.

Engaging with difficult emotions is simply that. Difficult.

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I don’t know

Let’s look at it differently.

Perhaps I don’t know at all. Perhaps any time I say to myself or to my friends “you’ll be OK” is simply a leap of faith.

Perhaps I won’t be OK.

When faced with uncertainty, could it be best to believe it because it’s the most helpful option? Admitting we don’t know if we’ll be OK doesn’t mean we should definitely believe we won’t be.

Instead we believe it anyway because it helps inspire action that will help us walk in the right direction.

It reminds us that engaging with difficult emotions is simply that. Difficult. It is unlikely to be life threatening and can help us in the long-term with a healthy approach to addressing emotions we usually avoid.

Reminding myself that I’ll be OK started off as a near meaningless chant that I simply really wanted to be true.

Only telling yourself that you’ll be OK isn’t how to begin to believe it. It comes from slowly working through emotions and trying to address them any time they come in.

Anger, frustration and sadness are akin to unwelcome visitors. It is best we welcome them in and let them leave on their own.

Otherwise they’ll pick the lock and let themselves in.

Will I be OK?

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This doesn’t have much to do with the post. But I like it. Photo by Ricky Kharawala on Unsplash

And we’re back to the main question and my answer is this: maybe I will be. Maybe I’ll be good or even brilliant!

But that starts with slowly and softly giving ourselves a way to address and accept our difficult emotions instead of running from them. This way, when they come up in the future, we have practiced and know how to handle them.

We can start with a few things:

  1. Give ourselves a place to be vulnerable

Sometimes, everything just becomes overwhelming. And you know what? That’s fine. Having a physical place we can relax and simply experience our emotions is useful.

For me, it’s lying in bed or the yoga mat. For others, it can be a park they know they’ll have privacy.

Whatever it is, it’s a place for honesty. Over time, it may even become a place of strength. A place where you can say to yourself “I’m not running from this”.

2. Let the fear pass

The fear of the negative emotions approaching can be just as bad as the experience you’re hoping to avoid.

It can be difficult to notice but with some mindfulness training, it becomes easier. You may find that your body becomes tense or you crave junk food (not personal experience…).

But the fear won’t bite. We just sit and focus on something small. With time, the fear will subside and we will have the focus to engage with the tough emotions.

Like many skills, emotional acceptance is one to be developed through practice. We may not know we’ll be OK (whatever that means to us) but sometimes it’s helpful to believe that we will be.

Then, with time and practice we can answer the question of “Will I be OK?” meaningfully. Maybe we’ll accept that we do not know the answer.

Will I be OK? Perhaps.

Will you be OK? I definitely hope so.

Whatever it is, let us appreciate that we’re developing the skills to help ourselves along when times are difficult.


As always, thank you for reading!

My question for you is:

Do you have a sacred place to be vulnerable? 

You can follow me on Twitter and Facebook for more updates!

If you liked this post, share it with others!

 

 

How Do I Stay Mindful When the Present Isn’t Pleasant?

“If you notice any uncomfortable feelings while you’re trying to meditate, just invite them in”

Now why on earth would I want to do that?! That’s stupid. 

“Inviting discomfort is one way to learn how to stop fighting against them and accept them”

Well I don’t want to accept this – that makes me feel like I’m giving up. Plus, it’s just shitty. 

That was my thought process while listening to a guided meditation during a group session. Thankfully all of these thoughts stayed in my head – otherwise I would have disturbed a lot of people… and insulted the teacher.

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Photo by Carmine De Fazio on Unsplash

Sometimes, the present just sucks.

My last post gave us four reasons why we should try to live in the present moment. I pushed against the idea that mindfulness always leads to a special kind of calm – especially if you only meditate once, for example.

The little dialogue above demonstrated the personal resistance I had towards living in the present when the present becomes difficult. It’s normal to mentally check out of difficulty when we come across it because it’s normal to want to do the easier thing.

However, it isn’t always better for us. It can quickly lead to more stressful thinking patterns that make us feel worse. If I feel sad, it might be easier to start thinking about why I feel sad and what could have caused it and dig our way down that rabbit hole. Or I may try to distract myself and never address the thinking that consistently causes me to feel bad about something.

For example, you may begin to feel bad at school or work because you’re unknowingly comparing yourself to others. Even though it rests on a mistake.

You may become angry because you feel that you should be able to control something but with a bit more thinking, you’d find that most of it was out of your control.

And it goes on. How do we manage this?

How to stay mindful when the present isn’t pleasant

  1. Acknowledge it’ll feel uncomfortable 

You can say this aloud if you want. Negative emotional or physical feelings suck but we often begin our resistance here by refusing to admit that sometimes you’ll just feel uncomfortable.

It’s not always fair nor does it always have a grand lesson at the end. Acknowledging the discomfort is the first step to prevent our mind from running away from the uncomfortable.

This does not mean you’re giving in. It’s like observing a fact that’s simply happening.

“I’m in pain, yes but this does not mean I want to be in pain”

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Photo by Nitish Meena on Unsplash

2. Remove yourself from the story and remove judgement – make everything neutral

Toni Bernhard in, How to Live with Chronic Illness, teaches a skill that I’ve found simple but useful.

Stop judging the moment and just describe it.

If you’re in pain try saying “pain is happening” rather than “I am in so much pain”.

If you’re sad, try “Sadness is present” rather than “I am in the darkness again”.

If you’ve experienced disappointment, try “Disappointment is present” rather than “I was really let down by my friend”.

I’ve found this takes away some of the bite from the negative emotions that arise and reduce the suffering that we can easily add-on top of ourselves. It gives us the opportunity to watch the emotion rather than feed it with more negativity.

This isn’t lying to yourself.

3. Ask yourself these four questions (and another one at the end): 

To help halt stressful thoughts, it may be worthwhile to asking yourself these questions offered by Byron Katie:

  1. Is the thought true?
  2. Am I absolutely sure it is true?
  3. How do I feel when I think the thought?
  4. Who would I be without the thought?
  5. Then turn it around – what if something else is the case?

This helps us respond skillfully to stressful thoughts that make the pleasant moment uncomfortable. Let’s go through this together with an example:

My thought here is that I am incapable of creating good work so I should never try.

  1. Is the thought true?

Yes, I’m writing this right now and it’s terrible – so many mistakes!

2. Am I absolutely sure it is true?

Perhaps not – I have a bad habit of being a harsh critic who refuses to see the good. 

3. How do I feel when I think the thought?

I feel disappointed and angry. I’m trying my best to create high quality work but my efforts don’t pay off. I become angry because I seem to be wasting my time. 

4. Who would I be without the thought?

A person who creates without expectation. A person who tries their best because they believe that is the most useful way to stick to their own values. 

5. The turnaround – how can the story be changed?

Here, we change the story slightly just to see what other possibilities are out there. Then think of reasons why it might be true.

Now, what if I’m a person who creates helpful work and has the ability to get better if he keeps trying? 

  • My blog posts have improved from a few years ago and I’m more comfortable in my own voice. 
  • If I never try, I’ll never have the opportunity to improve. 
  • My academic writing is better than it was when I started. 

Will you always believe this turnaround? No. Sometimes you’ll need someone else to tell you these things. But it’s a start – and a reminder that the negative thought you have now isn’t the only possibility in the world.

4. Remember, it takes practice. 

I’ve written these pointers in the hopes that you’ll be able to live in the present even when it’s difficult. With time will come acceptance and a clearer mindset to make useful change happen.

Yet, it doesn’t all come instantly. I try to remind myself of points like this regularly because negative thinking, when times get tough, is a difficult habit to break out of.

We all have positive and negative thinking habits. This does not mean our ways of thinking are permanently broken.

And finally… 

Breathe in.

Breathe out.

(and shake it all about)


As always, thank you for reading!

My question for you is:

How do you handle unpleasant feelings? 

You can follow me on Twitter and Facebook for more updates!

If you liked this post, share it with others!

 

 

The Ten Thousand Joys and Ten Thousand Sorrows

At some point, we will all experience one of the ten thousand joys, and ten thousand sorrows.

Hearing of the “ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows” was important to me. It brought me back to one of the biggest aims I have for myself.

To be whole.

To be with emotional experiences rather than avoid them. To appreciate that sometimes, I’ll be sad, other times I’ll be happy. Neither of them will last forever and that’s OK.

We all experience a large variety of emotions. Whether that’s sadness or happiness. Anger or grief. Disappointment or excitement. A lot of the time, we try to resist the negative ones and prolong the positive ones. Underneath these experiences, we might have a small story building in our heads about how “this must end because it’s not fair” or “I wish this will last forever”.

These stories demonstrate a resistance to our emotions rather than an acceptance of them. I’ll demonstrate:

If I’m happy because I’m out with friends, I may begin to think to the future about how this night will have to end or why I don’t do it more often. The effects of this might not be obvious in the moment, but it can easily hit us at the end. We wanted it to last longer.

If I’m sad because I’m in pain, I might begin to grow angry at life. Why must I hurt so much? Why must this happen to me? I want it to hurry up and end. Unfortunately, this eagerness to avoid the emotions I’m currently experiencing prolongs it. I’m adding emotional suffering on top of physical suffering.


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I’ve been forced to be a bit more introspective and live with my thoughts a bit more because pain can leave me bed ridden for hours on end. The world is presenting me a great opportunity to be sad. One that is near impossible to refuse. The door is open and I’m already halfway in.

This is the usual part of the story where one might say that you fight against it and become happy again. The constant desire to be happy makes us more likely to resist more negative emotions rather than accept that they are only one of the ten thousand sorrows. Thankfully, we will also have ten thousand joys.

The constant desire to be happy can result in significant disappointment when it doesn’t happen. Sadness becomes an enemy rather than just an emotions that comes and goes with time. Often, I found that I would miss moments of happiness in fear of it being taken away.

When people go on to say that their life goal is to be happy, I’ve realised that it isn’t something I want to aim for.

I want to be emotionally whole.

It means to accept and acknowledge the wide range of emotions that we have. We’re allowed to be sad, angry, happy, loving, all sorts of things. I do not believe that we should think of these emotions in reference to happiness (And how they’re either not happiness or just an extended form of it) but rather, we can just accept them.

Because we’re going to experience them anyway.

Placing yourself in the position of a fighter is a helpful story to tell yourself when you’re in a bad place. You’re fighting against the negativity with positivity and good vibes. But what happens when that fails? Does that mean the sadness is winning and you’re failing?

I’m not sure. So it’s worthwhile to think about the story you tell yourself in a bit more detail. Do you really want to spend your time fighting against negativity with positivity? Is that a positive thing to do?

Rather, we might want to adopt the metaphor that we let the sadness in, warm it up with acceptance then see calm embrace the room.

In some sense, we’re lucky to be able to feel such a large range of emotions. In many ways, it shows us that we’re capable of caring about things instead of feeling complete and utter apathy either towards ourselves or towards the things that we want to care about.

I’ve  disliked apathy for a very long time. Primarily because there have been pockets in my life where I’ve experienced it for so long. Accepting the wide range of emotions that we have, helps soothe the negative emotions away and appreciate the positive ones. We give these emotions our attention rather than being passively consumed by it.

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If you’re feeling sad, you can simply say “sadness is being experienced by me” or “sadness exists”.

If you’re feeling happy – “happiness exists… and I’m happy that it exists”

Separating yourself from the negative, even in your speech, can be the start no longer being overwhelmed by the emotion.

Separating yourself from the positive helps you acknowledge it and not let it pass without your attention.

Doing this really does help us move closer to the “goal” of appreciating the range of our ten thousand joys and ten thousand sorrows.

Striving to be happy is noble but I think, if taken too seriously, strips us from the richness other emotions can have.  To do this, we need to slow down and live our days with a bit more mindfulness.

So that is the quest for wholeness. It is difficult and does require practice – I’m certainly nowhere close. However simply reminding myself of this desire does have a calming effect on me. I hope it does for you too.

The quest for wholeness. It requires we pay a bit more attention to ourselves and how we’re feeling. We will be happy and we will be sad. We will be angry, and we will be excited. And that’s OK – they all pass and change with time.

Engaging life challenges us to be fully present and actively involved in our moment-to-moment experience, without clinging to joy and without resisting sorrow.

~ Toni Bernhard

As always, thank you for reading.


 

I will add – this certainly isn’t to say all negative emotions are good. Please do not misconstrue my message for that. I have nothing to say about the qualities of depression yet for I haven’t arranged my thoughts on it. I will some day and it’ll be here for you to read.

Follow me on Facebook and Twitter for more updates!

twitter and facebook mascots :D

 

Should I be so angry? – Dissertation pt. 4

Another one? I did say it would a six part series. I’ve shown (hopefully) that it can be appropriate to be angry at an impairment (for being disabling) and now move onto asking whether you should be angry.

I enjoyed writing this section. Interesting stuff. In fact, I’d say all of it is interesting but I’m not reliable since I wrote it.

Maybe my next essay will be “Can I be too humble?”.  Anyway, although it’s the longest section, enjoy the rest of the argument :)

The previous posts:

The Two Models of Disability (part 1)

Martha Nussbaum on Emotions and Flourishing (part 2)

Here’s What It Means to be Angry (part 3)


 

I have established an important premise in my argument. It can be appropriate to be angry at an impairment and its disabling nature. This emphasised with the knowledge that disabling factors cannot always or completely be attributed to the poor design of society. However, because of this, if we accept the social model of disability, it does not regard these emotions as legitimate because impairments cannot cause these problems. One move left to be made is for the social model proponent to argue that you should not be angry because it is counter-productive or useless.

If it is established that you should not be angry at your impairment, then it matters much less whether it is appropriate to be so. The social model theorist could claim to only be concerned with the times you should be angry rather than trying to accommodate for ‘appropriate’ ones. I will now explain the objections to being angry.

“Anger is harmful and offers no new knowledge”

Opposition to anger has a long history going back to ancient philosophers such as Seneca and the tradition has come in more modern forms. Seneca had this to say about anger:

The other emotions have in them some element of peace and calm, while this one is wholly violent and has its being in an onrush of resentment, raging with a most inhuman lust for weapons, blood, and punishment, giving no thought to itself if only it can hurt another, hurling itself upon the very point of dagger, and eager for revenge though it may drag down the avenger along with it (1928, Essay 1-107)

Although our modern conceptions of anger do not need to be encoded with the desire to have revenge, this is still an important idea. Anger is said to harm the person who is angry and “Anger embodies nothing useful” (ibid. Essay 1-129). This is quite damning because it makes anger seem like the most useless of emotions and we definitely should not experience. In the context of a disability, anger would be an emotion which makes the experience of disability worse by intensifying the limitations one experiences.

Glen Pettigrove and Koji Tanaka (2014) helpfully point out some more opposition to anger in the Buddhist tradition. Santideva argues a few interesting points.

  • Anger is pointless (Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life vi. 10)
  • Anger presupposes a confused, unduly partial perspective, which gives exaggerated weight to my perceived interests and insufficient weight to the interests of others (vi. 4-5).

Here, again, the discussion of anger is agent centred but the objection can still hold if we do not consider the insufficient weight to the interests of others. Rather it can be interpreted as not taking enough consideration of:

  • Our own interests (to not feel worse because of our disability).
  • How we think our bodies and lives ought to be.

With this, we should not be angry because we have a misguided perspective on what the actual significance of the effect disability has on our lives. This will be important for the future discussion but I will explain briefly a more modern form of opposition to anger.

Pettigrove and Tanaka (2014), in one of their many points, argue that anger is not particularly epistemically useful. They argue and present evidence for the fact that anger is regularly misleading with respect to its proper object and unrelated objects which may follow (p.281). They present the case that anger often leads people to participate in biased, heuristic-reasoning and become less likely to accept evidence which is contrary to their view (p.280)[1]. Moreover, they cite Randolph Nesse (2005) in saying that anger works on the smoke detector principle – meaning it generates more false alarms than true ones. In place of anger in political contexts, Pettigrove promotes meekness as a virtue (Pettigrove, 2012).

This counter-productivity critique is arguably more potent with respect to disability than related discussions about anger towards other agents or political systems. When discussing other people and public policy, we have a greater ability to control the object (people, public policy, etc.) and direct it to productive change. If I am angry that a building does not accommodate for people with mobility concerns, then I can demand that the building managers make appropriate changes where they can. As I mentioned earlier, the social model snuggly fits into the notion of agent-centred anger. In contrast to disability and impairment, it is more difficult to see how anger might lead to productive change. It may force to me to demand a cure but that involves making claims against others. What this says is that anger might be so counter-productive because it is futile. It is directed towards an almost inert object and that fact alone might exaggerate the anger even further.

There are more different forms of oppositions to anger but they usually take a politicised form which Srinivasan (2015) discusses in great detail. However, I wish to focus only on the idea that one should not be angry because it is counter-productive, does not contain useful information and it harms you.

I will tackle the first two arguments together. In response to these criticisms of anger, I argue that the experience of anger can be very epistemically productive. It gives us knowledge which might have been hidden to us before. In the context of agent-centred anger, one might become angry at an injustice which you did not realise was a problem.

In the context of disability, I will aim to demonstrate the epistemic productivity of anger by showing its productivity parallels well with realising injustice in political situations. In the 1950s and 60s,  Malcom X was seen as a very angry figure who was too radical not only in his aims but approaches to achieving them, especially when contrasted with his calmer contemporary, Martin Luther King Jr. His anger came from the historical and continued racial injustice committed by White Americans against Black Americans spanning hundreds of years. With this, we can see that the experience of an injustice or unfairness can cause anger. As a result, the experience of anger led to the knowledge they are experiencing injustice.

The knowledge granted by emotions in the previous example can be had with impairments. If someone suffers from chronic pain, they might come to realise that the reason why they are angry with their progression is because pain is very limiting. Then the anger is epistemically productive because it grants the knowledge that pain is disabling (rather than just not trying hard enough for example). Our bodies and knowledge of impairments are intimately tied to one another even though we can get things wrong about our own bodies. Being limited by your body, can be a very obvious experience for we are always experiencing what it feels like to use our bodies. We can have simple knowledge of it (i.e. ‘I cannot hear’ or ‘I am in continuous pain’) but that alone does not always signify a limitation because some do not view impairments as necessarily limiting[2]. When an impairment becomes disabling, then it might trigger anger and cause us to say “this impairment is harming me and places a significant limit on me”.

Therefore, anger contains useful information about impairments and the fact they can be disabling when we realise that it limits us from achieving significant life projects. A few points need to be emphasised. First, the notion of unfairness is important and must be remembered otherwise there is the risk of saying anything which prevents you from getting what you want can be appropriately responded to with anger. Secondly, the idea of significant life projects will be clarified. This notion is connected to the concept of Eudaimonia and personal flourishing. Meaning if personal flourishing is significantly limited by the impairment, this is usually regarded as disabling. Moreover, this might reflect things that nearly all humans desire for themselves (such as not being in pain or being able to recognise faces). Generally, this limitation will be long-term and have a near continuous presence in their everyday lives. Of course, people can dramatically change their goals and no longer view their impairment as a limit but as a reason for their flourishing. This is consistent with my argument.

I want to emphasise the focus on non-agent-centred anger versus agent-centred anger. Problems such as structural racism and sexism have a root cause in other people causing oppression by placing limits on others and causing harms. In this sense, society is disabling. However, with impairments being disabling, while society can be the cause of disability, it is not sufficient. An impairment can cause disability by placing limits on the person and causing harm without involving other people.

This is an important move for a few reasons. First, it means that disabilities which have no clear social remedies (this does not include curing the impairment) can be understood through the emotional experience of it. Perhaps another claim which follows is that emotions can contain valuable epistemic information. Disabilities such as chronic pain and fatigue often prevent people from achieving significant life projects, even if those projects are to not be in consistent pain or simply live a life without this general reduction in well-being.

A brief counter to whether one should or should not be angry might take the following form:

If one is learning how to walk, and they become angry because they find it very difficult, it might be responded that they should not be harsh on themselves.

However, while it may have good intentions, it can be misguided. They might respond by saying they are not angry at themselves because they are at no fault. They are angry that their impairment is preventing them from walking.

It might also be argued “do not be angry at things you cannot control.” If we cannot control the state of our disability, then we should not be angry at all. I ask that you recall the condition of significance and Eudaimonia in the discussion of emotions earlier. I could be angry because it is something I cannot control and feel I ought to be able to. For example, I myself cannot directly control whether systematic racism continues to exist or not and the fact it does exist, makes me angry. On the other hand, I cannot control whether the buses are on time (or show up at all) but the promptness of buses is much less significant to my life projects than experiencing racism is. Here it can be seen that the significance of the event can help us understand whether one should or should not be angry. If the event ends up being insignificant on a bigger picture, then there may be no need. On the other hand, if it remains significant to your life, then it is easier to deflect the criticism that you should not be angry.

Secondly, given the information that anger does contain, it prevents the social model theorist from attempting to explain away the emotional experience towards their body by explaining everything in terms of societal oppression. If a person is blind and is angry they cannot see anymore, it would be irresponsible to dismiss it by attempting to explain it solely in terms of what society has not done for them. It is true that society could do much more to help them navigate the world properly. It is not true that their projects are to simply being able to navigate the world nor should that be their only project or desire. They can be much more complex and personal. A blind person may want to see their child and their body prevents that from happening.

The third objection – anger is harmful – stands up better in face of criticism. It is plausible to believe that anger does make the experience of disability worse. Largely because it brings a negative section of your life to centre stage and makes you engage with it intensely. When one is angry, it is rarely a passive engagement between you and the object and thus can decrease well-being quite substantially. If something harms you, you wish not to be harmed then you ought not to be angry. Yet, I do not think this is enough to establish that one should not be angry. This is strengthened by the above points on the epistemic productivity of anger and leads to a different argument – does it matter if one should not be angry?

There is something to be said about whether someone ‘should’ be angry at an impairment or anything at all. Here, the separation between the ‘can’ and the ‘should’ becomes important. Anger (and other emotions) do not need to be justified solely in terms of their productivity or in terms of how they influence your well-being. If one is angry at a moral violation then that explains and justifies their anger. Remarking they should not be angry does not address the reason for their anger but says their reaction to it is mistaken. This is a problematic response because ignoring the reason for the anger is a perfect way to undermine personal testimony. This is undermined without reference to their reasons for being angry but the thought that one should not be angry for the reasons discussed above. It is enough that it is apt even if we have a case of apt counter-productive anger (Srinivasan, 2015, p.20).

So far I have argued that the criticisms of whether we should be angry fail. One last qualification needs to be made. I am not arguing that there is an obligation to be angry at an impairment even if it would be appropriate to be. Rather, if a person is angry, it not easily dismissed as counter-productive or being too harmful to be useful. With this, the social model of disability excludes anger as an appropriate emotional response to impairment which is an important mistake.


[1] Interestingly enough, they also argue (as Seneca does) that anger characteristically contains the desire to lash out at whatever has wronged you. This is a mistaken addition for a two main reasons. 1) Modern conceptions of anger do not need to contain that condition and you especially would not be justified in doing so simply because you are also justified in being angry. See Myles Burnyeat’s rejection of this (2002) and 2) given the earlier establishment that you can be angry at an impairment, there is no person to be angry at in this case.

[2] It is worthwhile to note the idea that impairment can also be socially determined. If this is true, then people might not find impairments limiting because society has not caused whatever biological factor in question to be a limitation. See Shakespeare (2006).


 

If you’ve made it this far, thanks. I hope you enjoyed the argument.

Do you think anger is useful? 

For long time readers of the blog (and people with the memories of the-opposite-of-a-goldfish) you might recall me writing this about anger. Do you think I’ve contradicted myself?

Thanks for reading!

 

 

 

Here’s What it Means to be Angry – Dissertation pt. 3

And we’ve reached the midway point, the longest section and the most interesting so far. A lot of milestones!

In the previous parts I discussed:

The Two Models of Disability (part 1)

Martha Nussbaum on Emotions and Flourishing (part 2)

Part three is the beginning of my argument. Can you be angry at an impairment? I discuss and attempt to expand one of my favourite papers The Aptness of Anger by Amia Srinivasan.


Can I be angry?

Recall the definition of disability offered by the social model. Society disables people with impairments. In order to figure out where the social model goes wrong with regards to the justification of emotional responses to disability, I will assume it is true. From this, I will go on to analyse two things – can you have a rational emotional response to an impairment? If you can, does it mean you should? I will test two emotions – anger and sadness.

First, what does it mean for a model of disability to ‘allow’ an emotional response to something? It is definitely possible to be angry at a disability because you can express any emotion you want at any time. I can be angry at a pillow for simply being blue if I want to. However, establishing this is trivial. When discussing whether you can be angry at an impairment, it is really a discussion of whether it is appropriate to do so. Does it make sense, given the situation, to be angry? If not, the social model is simply disallowing an emotion that is inappropriate any way. If that were correct, I do not believe the social model of disability would be making a mistake.

I will now focus on anger and its expression towards other people in regular contexts which might make it easier to appreciate in the context of disability. When I say ‘I am angry that you ruined my shoes’ I am expressing a few things (Srinivasan, 2015, p.8). First, I have stated what I am angry about – you ruined my shoes. Second, this fact is also the reason for my anger and most importantly, I feel that is what also justifies my anger. Perhaps it is best understood in terms of unfairly setting back my interests (having good shoes). This can be contrasted with merely explaining my anger but not being justified in being angry or being irrationally angry. If an Olympic sprinter loses a race, they might be angry at the fact they lost but their anger, arguably, is not appropriate because their interests were not set back unfairly.

Let us unpack the justification of anger. Amia Srinivasan (2015) argues that genuine anger involves a normative violation against the way things ought to have been or more specifically, when a moral violation has occurred or will occur (p.10). This is different from what might be construed as disappointment – a violation against the way things you wish would have been. A much weaker violation. When we say ‘this should have been a different way’ and do so genuinely (by not conflating wishes with demands) we are making a powerful statement. There is a version of the world you are rightfully entitled to and because that version has not been realised, you have been harmed. And thus, your anger is genuine.

Before I continue, I am pausing briefly to highlight how well the social model of disability fits in here. Having the basic assumption that people deserve to be treated fairly and justly, the proper treatment of the disabled is a right they are entitled to. In order to participate in life as fully as non-impaired individuals, society needs to be arranged in a much better way to remove the oppression that is disability. The examples mentioned earlier show quite powerfully the discrimination disabled people have faced in the past up to the present day and here, their anger is justified. Proper participation in society is a right which is has been denied. Their anger is directed towards a clear object – the arrangement of society – and it has a great significance towards their own life projects.

Returning to the topic, while helpful, the current definition of anger presents a problem for my argument. This concept of anger generally tends to be agent focused. An injustice is generally thought of being committed by someone (or people) against another person (or persons). If this is true, then one could plausibly argue that it does not make any sense to be angry that one is impaired because that does not involve another person. If someone caused it, I would be angry at the person rather than the impairment itself. Not being impaired not how one ought to have been. Rather, it is how one wishes they would have been. I am simply conflating anger with disappointment.

I will admit that this objection has some valuable force but I maintain that Srinivasan’s definition of genuine anger is helpful because it gives us the chance to explore non-moral violations or non-agent centred moral violations.

Let us begin from the perspective of harms where there is no agent that is morally responsible. It is important we do this because being angry at a harm and being angry at the person who caused it are different things. Is it possible to get angry in a genuine way? Yes. These will tend to be anger at facts of the world. For example, can you get angry at the fact a flash monsoon has destroyed your home? Plausibly, yes. However, this anger’s object would be at the fact that it has ruined your home and unfairness stems from the fact that it was undeserved. The object (or proposition)[1] is the fact that it has harmed you (quite significantly). Perhaps then, following from Amia’s idea of moral violations, we are entitled to say “this monsoon should not have happened because it was unfair”[2] and it has significantly reduced well-being and upended your personal projects (i.e. having shelter). Before I make much needed clarifications for my argument, take the following example:

Can you be angry at the fact you are in poverty? There are a few possible statements I would be making when I say ‘I am angry I am in poverty’.

  • I am angry that I am in poverty and starving because it is harming me
  • I am angry that I have been put into poverty by other people.[3]
  • I am angry that I am in poverty and the people who can change it are not.

It is reasonable to think that all three statements can be true independent of or in conjunction with one another. Statements 2) and 3) are agent centred. They are directed towards the way the world ought to have been and making a claim against other people to change it. Moreover, changing it does not then alleviate the anger towards the fact that it happened (Srinivasan, 2015, p.12). We can see parallels with this and disability. Disabled people are permitted to make claims 2) and 3) about their own disabilities and perhaps they even should do so. However, statement 1) seems more contentious if we view such harms through the lens of the social model of disability. We cannot be angry at impairment for harming us and being a disabling factor in itself because it cannot do so – only society can. Yet, we can see that it is possible to be angry at a non-agent-centred harm for causing life to go worse in some way.[4] Especially when it is as significant as being limited by your own body or mental capacities. It does not matter whether the harm can be alleviated in this case because the justification for the anger is not based in the fact it has not been alleviated by another person. It can be justified simply because the harm is existing.

This argument becomes particularly potent when we consider impairments – which are seen as disabling because they limit our life projects – that cannot eliminated by societal change. Under the social model of disability, anger towards these impairments, even though they can be very disabling, cannot be classed as such because it was not caused by society. This shows quite explicitly the problem with ignoring impairment because it must class appropriate emotional responses towards them as inappropriate.

However, is my argument only applicable to disabilities which do not seem to be alleviated by social change? As mentioned above, it is has a case to be more powerful but it is not limited to this context. People with disabilities may not have goals which are achievable by simply changing society’s arrangement. Often, the goals of the social model of disability are surrounded on making sure every individual can participate in society as other non-impaired individual does.

However, we can see why this may not be satisfactory. If an avid runner loses the use of their legs after an earthquake, one might think that being able to get around society in a wheelchair properly is enough. Yet, we definitely can still attempt to appreciate the anger expressed by her if she simply wants to run and cannot. From Nussbaum’s framework of emotions explained earlier, they are often linked to Eudaimonia or personal flourishing and if running was helping her live a flourishing life, then the unfairness in losing that ability factors into why she might be angry.  Of course, her life aims and relationship with the impairment might change over time meaning she is no longer angry at the impairment but directs her attention externally. Disability involves a very active relationship with the person and their body in part because we cannot separate the two. However we define disability, it must allow for these reactions to be appreciated as appropriate and the social model does not do so.

A point to be emphasised is this: the fact that our claim of unfairness cannot be claimed against another person does not diminish the existence of unfairness. Being unable to say that someone else must fix the unfairness does not prevent the appropriateness of the anger but makes it a practical problem of experiencing anger with something you cannot change. The objection that this anger does not make sense because it cannot be attributed to another person is better suited for whether you should be angry rather than whether it is appropriate to be.

This is open to an objection I wish to address briefly but will go into more detail in the next section. It means there can be genuine anger at many things. If a small gust of wind ruins your umbrella just as you walk out of the door, it looks like you can be angry at that fact even if it ends up being quite inconsequential. I am inclined to agree that it is possible genuine anger might exists in these situations. This is mainly a problem for whether we should be angry at a reasonably small thing versus something which can be disabling.


[1] It’s difficult to assess anger at a ‘proposition’. The anger expressed is towards the object in the world which leads to the proposition ‘a flash monsoon ruined my home’.

[2] This brute bad luck is also seen as unfairness in discussions of Luck Egalitarianism. See Dworkin (1981) for one of many examples.

[3] This is along the lines of Thomas Pogge’s (2008) argument that affluent countries are the cause of global poverty.

[4] Unless we want to admit genuine anger for life going better than expected.


A few questions:

Do you agree with Amia’s definition of anger? 

Do you think anger at an impairment makes sense? 

Let me know what you think. As always, thanks for reading!