Today, I want to focus on something Fred Rogers said during his testimony to congress in 1969 about the importance of funding public broadcasting. If you haven't seen this video, you really should:
This is where Mr. Rogers talks about the essential reasons for what he does. At about 3:57, he sums it up thusly:
"I feel that if we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health."
Make no mistake: when Fred Rogers said this, he was talking about all feelings. Any feelings. Every kind of feeling. The song he mentions in this video, "What Do You Do With The Mad That You Feel?" was often repeated and revisited on his show in the years and decades after 1969. Fear, helplessness, worry, grief, jealousy, confusion, neediness...they were all mentionable, and they were all mentioned very regularly, always with the kind of warmth and care necessary to teach children that these frightening feelings were manageable.
What happens to those of us who have a very different experience as children? What happens when, instead of being taught how to manage negative emotions, we're told that we're not supposed to have them at all? What happens when we not only routinely hear things, as children and adults, like this:
"Don't be angry."
"It's not that bad."
"You have no right to feel that way."
"You're too needy."
"You should understand this by now."
"Quit being so dramatic."
"There's no reason to be scared."
"It's not healthy to feel that way."
"Normal people don't feel that way."
And what's worse...how many of these statements come to us in the guise of someone being "helpful"?
A good deal of children's programming engages in this kind of cultural emotional invalidation. Most children's TV hosts stick resolutely to the realm of happy-go-lucky, cheerful, funny and enthusiastic and stay away from the darker side of the human psyche. In these ways, we train children at a very young age to stifle both the awareness and display of unacceptable emotions - ignoring the very important fact that all emotions serve a purpose in our lives, all emotions come from somewhere and have something real to tell us about our experiences.
For Fred Rogers to buck this trend was, in many ways, a product of the psychological training he absorbed. In studying mental health and theories of the mind, I myself have come to learn a great deal about the critical damage that emotional invalidation plays in nearly every type of mental disorder on the books.
The damage that comes from emotional invalidation is twofold: not only are you denied the comfort and guidance that you need in order to learn to bear and manage those unpleasant feelings, but you are made to feel ashamed for having them in the first place, when it's not your choice and certainly not your fault. And of course, the matter is cyclical; parents who learned to repress and feel shame for their own emotions will most naturally pass this shame and repression on to their children. Parents must work very hard to make any progress at all in breaking or improving this cycle, but few will have the self-knowledge necessary for doing so.
So what DO we do with the mad that we feel? Or the fear, the confusion, the insecurity, the jealousy? Those feelings all have a way of going somewhere, being shunted into what we feel to be safe or socially-acceptable outlets. Picking on those who are weaker than us, or different, or those who see the world in a very different way, these are all methods that most of use as a means of giving our negative feelings an outlet. Many of us engage in escapism, or turn our bad feelings inward and tear ourselves apart.
This is why the lessons of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood aren't just for children. This is why the service that Fred Rogers did wasn't just to children, but to all of our society. This is why it's possible to find profound meaning in what he said even as grown-ups; the lessons we learn as children - or fail to learn - about what to do with our emotions are lessons that profoundly shape who we are as adults.
The good news is, as Mr. Rogers often reminded us, it's never too late to learn something new.