The value of emotional insight
It might seem weird: how, you might wonder, does a person not know they have emotional problems? Especially someone like me, who’s trained in mental healthcare.
There’s several ways to answer that question, but for now let’s just say it’s sort of like how kids don’t necessarily know they have poor eyesight. They just assume how they see is how everyone else sees. (I couldn’t believe it myself, the first time I tried on glasses as a teen; this was how everyone else was seeing?!)
And just like with glasses, my first inkling of emotional problems was the moment I become aware that people just like me were processing life not just differently (I already know that), but better.
The technical psychology term for that realisation, I would later learn during my psychiatry training, is insight, and it has two layers: intellectual and emotional.
Emotional insight is when a person comes to this realisation with a sense of pain, a mourning for what could have been, for what has been instead. It’s, as the name says, emotional.
Intellectual insight, on the other hand, is when a person comes to this realisation as a mere matter of information.
It’s the difference between knowing there’s traffic on the road and knowing that means I’ll be late for my wedding. (Yes, there was traffic. No, I wasn’t late.) The knowledge is the same, but the experience, the meaning of it, is wildly different. What may be merely information for one person is life and death to the other.
Intellectual insight is useful: it’s admitting there is a problem. And that’s a necessary step to personal change. But until there was emotional insight, until I learned, not only to accept it when there was a problem, but also to determine not to leave it unresolved, change was still a good way off.
To put it even more plainly…
It takes pain to take change seriously.
It’s not because I love pain. Hardly anyone does. The reason why it takes pain to change is that change itself is painful. More often than I’ve liked to admit, I’ve decided the pain I lived with (and found familiar) was preferable to the pain of change. I’ve seen several clients I’ve worked with do the exact same thing.
The problem is, to do this is to compare apples to oranges. It’s to compare two points on two roads, instead of comparing the two roads themselves.
The real trade-off isn’t between the present pain versus the pain of change. The trade-off is between where the present pain leads to and where the pain of change leads to. The choice is between two paths, not two points on the paths.
The question is never really, “Which pain do I prefer?” The question is…
Which path do I prefer?
This might seem a no-brainer, considering the two paths lead very different places. But while the pain I decide to ignore is often a pointer that I’m on a path to somewhere I really don’t want to go, the pain of change is that of leaving the familiar for the unknown. And even when the familiar is painful, it’s easy to tell myself that I at least know it — what if the unknown is worse?
This is where insight comes in: emotional insight dawns at the moment of deciding I’ve had enough of my present pain, familiar as it is, and am ready to strike out on another path. It’s the moment when I say, not just, “I see where I’ve been wrong,” but “I see where I’ve been wrong and it’s hurting me enough that I’m ready to do whatever it takes to change it.”
And yes, none of this is easy to admit: who wants to admit it will take pain to change stuff that needs changing? Or admit to being afraid to do what it might take to change? Or worst of all: that it might not work?
But here’s the thing: the very act of admitting the first level — of admitting that, left to me, I probably won’t make significant changes without significant pain or threat of danger — is itself a key emotional insight. And it’s called insight precisely because it’s the dawn of a new way of looking at things.