Full Text of How to Practice Emotional Hygiene by Guy Winch at TEDxLinnaeusUniversity
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Guy Winch – Psychologist, Author
I grew up with my identical twin, who was an incredibly loving brother. Now, one thing about being a twin is that it makes you an expert at spotting favoritism. If his cookie was even slightly bigger than my cookie, I had questions. And clearly, I wasn’t starving.
When I became a psychologist, I began to notice favoritism of a different kind, and that is how much more we value the body than we do the mind. I spent nine years at university earning my doctorate in psychology, and I can’t tell you how many people look at my business card and say, “Oh, a psychologist. So not a real doctor,” as if it should say that on my card. This favoritism we show the body over the mind, I see it everywhere.
I recently was at a friend’s house, and their five-year-old was getting ready for bed. He was standing on a stool by the sink brushing his teeth, when he slipped, and scratched his leg on the stool when he fell. He cried for a minute, but then he got back up, got back on the stool, and reached out for a box of band-aids to put one on his cut.
Now, this kid could barely tie his shoelaces, but he knew you have to cover a cut, so it doesn’t become infected, and you have to care for your teeth by brushing twice a day. We all know how to maintain our physical health and how to practice dental hygiene, right? We’ve known it since we were five years old.
But what do we know about maintaining our psychological health? Well, nothing. What do we teach our children about emotional hygiene? Nothing. How is it that we spend more time taking care of our teeth than we do our minds? Why is it that our physical health is so much more important to us than our psychological health?
We sustain psychological injuries even more often than we do physical ones, injuries like failure or rejection or loneliness. And they can also get worse if we ignore them, and they can impact our lives in dramatic ways. And yet, even though there are scientifically proven techniques we could use to treat these kinds of psychological injuries, we don’t. It doesn’t even occur to us that we should. “Oh, you’re feeling depressed? Just shake it off; it’s all in your head.” Can you imagine saying that to somebody with a broken leg: “Oh, just walk it off; it’s all in your leg.” It is time we closed the gap between our physical and our psychological health. It’s time we made them more equal, more like twins.
Speaking of which, my brother is also a psychologist. So he’s not a real doctor, either. We didn’t study together, though. In fact, the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life is move across the Atlantic to New York City to get my doctorate in psychology. We were apart then for the first time in our lives, and the separation was brutal for both of us. But while he remained among family and friends, I was alone in a new country. We missed each other terribly, but international phone calls were really expensive then and we could only afford to speak for five minutes a week.
When our birthday rolled around, it was the first we wouldn’t be spending together. We decided to splurge, and that week we would talk for 10 minutes. I spent the morning pacing around my room, waiting for him to call — and waiting and waiting, but the phone didn’t ring. Given the time difference, I assumed, “Okay, he’s out with friends, he will call later.” There were no cell phones then. But he didn’t. And I began to realize that after being away for over 10 months, he no longer missed me the way I missed him. I knew he would call in the morning, but that night was one of the saddest and longest nights of my life.
I woke up the next morning. I glanced down at the phone, and I realized I had kicked it off the hook when pacing the day before. I stumbled out of bed, I put the phone back on the receiver, and it rang a second later, and it was my brother, and, boy, was he pissed. It was the saddest and longest night of his life as well. Now I tried to explain what happened, but he said, “I don’t understand. If you saw I wasn’t calling you, why didn’t you just pick up the phone and call me?” He was right. Why didn’t I call him? I didn’t have an answer then, but I do today, and it’s a simple one: loneliness.
Loneliness creates a deep psychological wound, one that distorts our perceptions and scrambles our thinking. It makes us believe that those around us care much less than they actually do. It make us really afraid to reach out, because why set yourself up for rejection and heartache when your heart is already aching more than you can stand? I was in the grips of real loneliness back then, but I was surrounded by people all day, so it never occurred to me. But loneliness is defined purely subjectively. It depends solely on whether you feel emotionally or socially disconnected from those around you. And I did.
There is a lot of research on loneliness, and all of it is horrifying. Loneliness won’t just make you miserable, it will kill you. I’m not kidding. Chronic loneliness increases your likelihood of an early death by 14%. Loneliness causes high blood pressure, high cholesterol. It even suppresses the functioning of your immune system, making you vulnerable to all kinds of illnesses and diseases. In fact, scientists have concluded that taken together, chronic loneliness poses as significant a risk for your long term health and longevity as cigarette smoking.
Now cigarette packs come with warnings saying, “This could kill you.” But loneliness doesn’t. And that’s why it’s so important that we prioritize our psychological health, that we practice emotional hygiene. Because you can’t treat a psychological wound if you don’t even know you’re injured. Loneliness isn’t the only psychological wound that distorts our perceptions and misleads us.
Failure does that as well. I once visited a day care center, where I saw three toddlers play with identical plastic toys. You had to slide the red button, and a cute doggie would pop out. One little girl tried pulling the purple button, then pushing it, and then she just sat back and looked at the box, with her lower lip trembling. The little boy next to her watched this happen, then turned to his box and burst into tears without even touching it.
Meanwhile, another little girl tried everything she could think of until she slid the red button, the cute doggie popped out, and she squealed with delight. So three toddlers with identical plastic toys, but with very different reactions to failure. The first two toddlers were perfectly capable of sliding a red button. The only thing that prevented them from succeeding was their mind tricked them into believing they could not. Now, adults get tricked this way as well all the time. In fact, we all have a default set of feelings and beliefs that gets triggered whenever we encounter frustrations and setbacks.