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!