The Stiff Upper Lip?

This week, Prince Harry has spoken movingly about his emotional struggle following the sudden and tragic death of his mum, Princess Diana in  1997. Following on from  that, today, Prince William has called for an end to the “stiff upper lip” culture so that people will learn to talk about their emotional and mental health struggles a bit more.

It is encouraging to hear the Princes talking about these things but I wonder how helpful and relevant it is to talk about stiff upper lips.  When I hear that phrase I associate it with a bygone era with an older generation and with the upper classes.  For many people,  the idea that you simply carry on stoically is a long gone attitude. We may not quite have the American counselling culture but:

1. We have our fair share of self help books, TV shows, etc.

2.  We have a significant problem with many people unable to work and receiving benefits  because of emotional and mental health issues.

And yet at the same time, are we really talking properly and helpfully about emotional and mental health?  I want to suggest four reasons why we are not.

1. We have a heavy reliance on drugs to suppress emotional pain leaving many people subdued and unable to fully engage in life. People who struggle with emotional pain are still effectively left on the scrap heap and treated as useless (See our articles on The Bruised Reed).

2.  The dominant entertainment culture with its race to the bottom of morality treats mess, pain and shame as something to put on the stage in front of baying crowds and on our TV screens for our enjoyment. This is intended to have the added effect of encouraging me to deal with my problems by relativisting them. I may have troubles but I am not like the guests on Jeremy Kyle. It is the TV producers who should hang their heads I  shame.

3. I don’t think think that working class men have a problem with stiff upper lips. No, you don’t talk about inner, emotional pain but this is not out of stoicism.  It’s not about showing that you are, together, cultured and above the fight. Rather, it is about strength. If I show that I am suffering then I am weak and lack masculinity. And so emotional pain is responded to not with stoicism but with anger and even violence. Again, drugs are used to suppress pain but instead of one prescription, it’s alcohol and street drugs.

4. The biggest problem of all is that our society has turned to the wrong people for answers.  Psychology with its roots in Freud, Jung and Rogers simply cannot truly and fully heal. It cannot get to the root cause of our pain. Only forgiveness for sin, the healing and reconciliation that the Cross brings and a right relationship with God can  do that. That’s not to say that counselling doesn’t have a place, that we shouldn’t be encouraging people to talk but I treat physical health seriously by saying “We need to do more than talk about or medicate for your symptoms  we need to find the root cause of your symptoms and treat them,  Unless psychology recognises that the root problem is sin and the only cure is The Cross, then it cannot help.

When  I talk about sin in the fourth point, I am talking about two aspects to this. First of all, for  a lot of people, their emotional pain is due to sin committed against them. This may include

–  The cruelty of physical, verbal, sexual or spiritual abuse against them

– Crime and /or Negligence leading to the physical harm of others close to them (this is part of the problem  for the princes)

– Neglect where someone that should love and care for you is simply absent/unavailable

-Poor/wrong advice. This may include intentionally leading someone into a drug or alcohol habit.

However, sin also includes our own thoughts, actions and decisions because emotional pain  comes when:

– I act in a way that leads to guilt and shame. I then have to live with that guilt and it eats away at  me.

– I invest my love, hope, worship in someone or something instead of God and then am crushed and devastated when I am let down.

– I hold onto my hurt and anger against those who have sinned against me. Like my own guilt and shame, this bitterness eats away at me from the inside. I learn to see the whole of Creation  and even God himself through the distorted image of my abuser.

What we see here is that sometimes it is about the things I have done myself but sometimes it is about wrong responses to the wrong done to  me. You can read more about this in Larry Crabb, Changing from  the Inside Out and in Paul David Tripp, How people change.

Loving Christian counseling will gently and patiently, using God’s Word and depending ding on the Holy Spirit, bring these truths to bear on the problem. This is the good news. Real healing is possible when.

1. We discover that there is a Saviour who loves us and who doesn’t pretend that shame and guilt don’t exist but takes away our guilt and covers our shame.

2. We find peace and hope in him alone, keep knowing that he can take us safely through suffering and persecution.

3. We find our identity and security in him, not in our past. We are justified,  we have a new name and status meaning that we can talk openly without fear or shame.