One of the stumbling blocks that has repeatedly interfered with me getting help more reliably, is the stigma against mental illness, which I have been surprised, and troubled, to discover that I internalized despite many years of being a psychologist.
This stigmatization starts with society, in whatever forms you’ve meaningfully encountered it.
– Perhaps it’s movies or online articles, memes, jokes, or other depictions of people who are hurting as “crazy”, “messed up”, “damaged”, “fucked”, “weird”, “weak”, “whiny”, “lazy”, or some other such damning labels.
– Perhaps it’s your internalization of Toxic Religion, which gave you ideas like humans are tainted with sin right from birth, that only through the grace of God can you be ‘saved’, that only by confessing your terribleness and prostrating yourself in humble admission of your pathetic worm-ness, can you, you decrepit sinner, be redeemed.
– Perhaps it was your parents, family members, or peers, teaching you to “suck it up”, “don’t be weak”, “take responsibility for yourself”, etc. Or maybe they explicitly made fun of people who were struggling, or judged them as being weak, lazy, and all the rest. I can remember driving with certain adults who were supposed to take care of me as a child, hearing them judge the people who were on the lower-than-us end of the socio-economic spectrum. I heard about a million times how people with hard lives have chosen that path for themselves, or have been too lazy and undisciplined to do the work to change their future. (More on this whole “personal responsibility” thing below….)
– Perhaps it was the ubiquitous Toxic Positivity zeitgeist out there, all those messages about how your problems are your fault; it’s your mindset; it’s your negative thinking patterns; it’s your failure to take responsibility for yourself.
– Perhaps it’s even the motivation-boost-intending success stories out there, of all the people who’ve gone through terrible things and then turned themselves around, who found their courage or their calling or whatever, who started getting up earlier to meditate, who disciplined themselves to exercise, eat better, etc., and through doing so, changed their destiny. I mean, look at them, right? They did it; so what’s wrong with you? Loser….
One of the tricky parts of a lot of these messages is (like much of what Jordan Peterson has to say about taking personal responsibility over your life), they contain a great deal of truth. I mean, how could it be bad to tell people to take responsibility for themselves? Similarly with the “positivity movement”; how could it be bad to tell people to be optimistic, look on the bright side, cultivate positive emotions rather than focusing on things that are wrong? How could it be bad to praise children rather than criticize and “correct” them for their mistakes?
But as people are becoming increasingly aware, it IS harmful to focus so much on positivity, praise and positive emotions, that we turn away from the reality of the world and ourselves. The reality is that things very often are negative, too much praise leads children to be fragile, spoiled and entitled, and an overwhelming emphasis on positive feelings ends up pushing people to suppress, deny, hide and feel ashamed of the negative feelings that do arise. And like I have argued excessively with regards to Jordan Peterson’s excellent-up-to-a-point-but-otherwise-foolish advice, too much emphasis on individuals’ personal responsibility for their outcomes can lead to shaming people for their not-yet-worked-out flaws, can put people on a never-ending treadmill of trying to “self improve”, and ignores the profound influence of factors that interfere with people’s ability to tap into their inner strength and take responsibility for themselves in the first place.
This is what I think the Positivity Trumpeters far too commonly miss, so I’ll say it as clearly as I can.
1) The “personal responsibility” message IS true (up to a point). We DO have to take responsibility for our own behaviours. And IF we do so, IF we apply ourselves consistently to the challenges that lay before us, then we WILL, in general, improve our circumstances. Or at least we won’t be as badly off as we would’ve been if we merely turned away from those challenges, avoided doing the hard things, and sought to soothe or distract ourselves through sex, drugs & rock&roll, or whatever your own personal vices are.
2) BUT the very ability to do these things, to be disciplined, to set goals and follow through, to focus your attention, to cultivate optimism and “believe in yourself”, to clarify your values and figure out “who you really are”, AND especially, the inner-achievement of first of all believing that YOU deserve to succeed and grow and experience good things, are all “abilities” whose very development can be disrupted and interfered with by things like a childhood of trauma.
Once you believe, deep down inside, that you are a piece of garbage, once you feel huge waves of guilt whenever you attempt to do something good for yourself and you hear the internalized voice of your critical parents (or whoever) calling you selfish, or laughing at you and telling you that you don’t have what it takes and you’ll never amount to anything, then the seemingly simple “think positive” strategies and everything else that goes along with the personal responsibility mantra, can seem impossible, or even…terrible. It is not at all uncommon for people with deeply internalized shame and self-hate to react violently in their psyches when good things DO happen to them!
Therapists know this very well (or at least, they should). Helping clients who deeply hate themselves is a real struggle, and every step forward often results in even more steps backward. Or at least, that’s the way it seems. People make progress, and then it all unravels. That’s why people so often reject compliments, sabotage their successes JUST WHEN THINGS SEEM TO BE IMPROVING, and in a million-and-one ways, fuck things up for themselves. They believe, at some fundamental level in their psyche, that this is what they deserve, that they deserve to suffer. And so, they suffer.
The Inner Critic
When you find yourself struggling with mental illness, the “personal responsibility” mantra all-too-often reinforces the already-deeply-internalized sense that there is “something wrong with you”. Society’s stigmatization of those who struggle with mental health, coheres so seamlessly with that “inner critic” that it starts to seem accurate.
So, to be 100% clear, when I said I struggled with internalized stigmatization of mental illness, this is what I meant. One can, quite readily, understand the complex causes of mental illness in other people. But that is not at all the same as believing it for yourself. If you have been poisoned thoroughly enough with the critique that there is something wrong with, that you are stupid, pathetic, useless, disgusting, embarrassing, disappointing, worthless, filthy, ugly, weak, and that it is humiliating for your family to be seen in public with you (ahhhh, memories of childhood…), then healing can seem impossible, for you. Even if you believe it’s possible for other people, it ain’t for you. You don’t believe you are “ill” or “traumatized” or anything like that, deep, deep, deep down inside. No, you believe you are FUNDAMENTALLY…wrong. Defective. That there IS “something wrong with you”, at your essence. It’s like God made a mistake, allowing you to exist.
And if you take that belief far enough, it’s pretty easy to avoid taking responsibility for yourself (because it doesn’t matter, right? You’re too much of a useless loser to ever be able to do so enough to get you out of the shitty situation you are in, internally or externally.) It’s pretty easy to convince yourself NOT to reach out for help and open up about what you’re going through (because you’ll just be a burden, and nobody really wants to listen to you whine about your problems, when “in reality” they are all your fault anyway because, yep, you are such a useless loser….right?) It’s even remarkably easy to convince yourself that isolating yourself, withdrawing from the world, even committing suicide, would be the right thing to do (because after all, you’re such a terrible, flawed, mistake-of-a-human that you’d be doing the world a favour if you removed yourself from it).
For me, this is a pretty good description of what happened. Removing myself from the world seemed like the compassionate thing to do, taking the cup of poison that I believed I was, and drinking it myself so that I didn’t pollute the rest of the world with my awfulness. In this way, you can see how the larger, societal stigmatization of mental illness turns into one’s own internalized sense of shame around their mental illness, which then turns into the person not seeking help or taking the steps that WOULD actually help them feel better and get back to living their lives!
The Path(s) to Healing
So, what to do? If you find yourself in a life that sounds kinda like this, what do you do? Do you just soldier on, “move on”, “make the best of it”, and all that? Do you merely accept the idea that you will always be “damaged”, that you are in some way a sub-optimally-developed person, and that’s just the way it is? Do you cling to the belief that you have no real power, that if only you could find the right cocktail of psychoactive chemicals (prescribed or otherwise), or read the right self-help book, or find the right therapist, or fall in love with the right person, that this will all finally, finally end?
Or CAN you actually heal? Like, for realz?
In my next post, due out in about a week although I’m still working on it, this is the question we’ll start to examine, and answer. What steps can you take, and how can you take them, in order to begin getting out of the quagmire of inner shit and your stagnated life? What can you do? And how, exactly how, do you do it?
Thus begins a new ‘series’ on this blog. Stay tuned!
Dude, total cliff-hanger! I needs to heal, life fo-real. Great writing, Dan. I felt so much of what you’ve written, my friend.
I’ve also suffered from being the eternal-optimist. It’s a curse to have rose-coloured glasses on, like get me some laser pa-lease! What’s helped, in my life, is try to balance my thoughts and my energy surges when I’m feeling super optimistic. If I create in this type of extreme awesomeness, there must be it’s equal/opposite reaction as well, right? Duality exists and I am the creator. Take it easy, be the watcher, get neutral and sit back and relax to enjoy the show.
Thanks for sharing, amigo
Dude, totally awesome message! Thanks for sharing that this writing touched you; I really appreciate that. I like how you are accepting your dual-nature like you described. Does it help, then, when the “down time” inevitably comes? And if you don’t mind, what did you DO in order to access this way of being? Like, you mention being the watcher, etc. Is this something you encountered predominantly as an idea, and then strove to live by it? Or is this more of an experiential practice, like cultivating the ability to remain The Witness through a meditation/mindfulness type of approach? I’d be really interested in hearing more about this if you’re willing to share your process!
This was such a compelling read. I love that you mentioned the mental health stigma that we often feel internally. Some of the strongest mental health advocates I know have admitted to feeling shame around their own challenges. As a former student of yours at U of T, I’ve always admired both your unapologetic authenticity and your ability to relay these ideas that even when familiar, feel like a total shift in perspective – I always walked out of class having these aha! moments. I credit you as one of the people who sparked my passion for psychology, and inspired me to become a psychotherapist. One of my specializations in my practice is in fact self esteem. I think you hit the nail on the head on what it’s like supporting clients who struggle with it: in order to heal we must first believe we are worthy of healing – and helping someone get to that place is an ongoing sometimes tumultuous process. It’s one of the most challenging, and rewarding parts of the work.
One of the most impactful moments of my university career was in your Positive Psychology class when you took us through a self-compassion meditation, where at one point you had us envision someone we love in their childhood. I remember opening my eyes at the end of the exercise surrounded by my classmates wiping away tears as I did the same. This has always stuck with me and it really showcases just how much you’ve impacted so many individuals, not just as students but as people. As a student in an extremely competitive school who was drowning in expectations and feeling my worth had a numerical value to it (either 4.0 or 0) – being reminded that I was a human being first and foremost meant a lot to me. If the audio or script of this meditation is available anywhere, I would really appreciate to know where it can be found. I would love to share it with my clients in the hopes that it could be as valuable a part of their healing journey as it has been in mine.
Thank you so much for all that you do in deepening the conversation on mental health and for sharing your own experiences so openly. I was glad to read that you’ve been making progress on your own mental health journey and am hoping that you encounter continued resilience and moments of joy along the way.
Wow. Thank you so much for sharing all this. It is….beyond description….to realize that things I taught so long ago have affected people, like you, so deeply and had a lasting influence on their lives. That’s amazing. …. Thank you.
My next post to come (#104) is going to be about laying a foundation for healing, for clients like the ones you’re talking about. It’s not something I understood very well when I was teaching, and I guess it took some ‘experiential learning’, haha, to show me the necessity of FIRST working with things like self-compassion and grounding, before much of the rest of therapy or self-improvement will be effective. I would be deeply grateful to hear your thoughts on that as well when it’s posted, and I’m so glad to hear that you are working in this field and no doubt helping many people! That’s awesome.
Also, yes! That self-compassion exercise really is powerful eh? Of all the things former students have told me over the years that stuck with them from my classes, that exercise is far and away the #1. And for me too! I ran maybe 20 or so classes through that exercise, and every time had tear-filled eyes along with everyone else. It’s just so clear how, when we open fully to the truths of our lives, we have so much love and caring for ourselves; it’s just too often buried and we don’t know how to, or feel safe to, bring it out.
I often think about that, when I’m feeling particularly dark and pessimistic about humans, because it’s such a powerful reminder of the immense beauty and love we have inside. Even though the world often seems so terribly troubled, I know how near-to-the-surface people’s tenderness is, often laying in wait for the right catalyst to bring it out. If only we got better at communicating vulnerably with each other, I think humanity-at-large could evolve our civilization, and fast. It gives me hope. 🙂 Thanks for sharing that memory with me; it’s a real treasure.