Why You’re Still Stuck in Mental 'Illness'
Do you remember being curled up under the covers of your childhood bed, eyeballs darting back + forth, praying that the monsters wouldn’t drag you into their dark lair—AKA your closet?
We laugh at how unrealistic those fears were, but as adults, our mindset is largely the same. Our monsters have simply become more tangible. Rather than the boogeyman, we fear intimacy, job interviews, debt collectors, talking to strangers at parties and so on.
We are as afraid of the dark as we ever were. But it’s not the outside that shakes us to the core, it’s the inside. Our bad memories, destructive traits, catastrophic mistakes and lack of motivation—these things are the boogeyman on steroids. We don’t even peer out from under the covers to greet these fears eye-to-eye. We just stay under.
Pain and Fear are Symptoms - Not Problems
As a collective, this is where we stand with fear—We fear the sensation of fear itself. We assume that we’re wrong for being afraid + having negative feelings in general. We (along with our families and our doctors) might refer to ourselves as ‘mentally ill’ if our fears happen to solidify into panic attacks or specific phobias.
In these instances, we are put on medication and encouraged to distract ourselves to avoid the pain: Imagine you’re on a beach. Don’t think about it. Or maybe we take the opposite route, endlessly ruminating on the past in a quest that leads to nothing but more things to ‘fix’ within ourselves.
As we often do in the Western world, we mistake the symptoms for the root issue. It goes over our heads that emotional pain + fear are merely symptoms of a much deeper problem.
Facing Your Shadow
So what is the problem, then? The problem is that we judge ourselves as inadequate instead of asking, “How can I support myself through fear? What steps forward can I take without forcing myself far beyond my comfort zone and nearly re-traumatizing myself?”
We are taught the concept of self-care, but so few of us can grasp what that would actually look like in our lives. It’s like learning a new skill from scratch with no user’s manual.
We rarely peek out from under the covers to look the monsters in the eye. Ultimately, we never face what we need to face—the fear, the self-hate, the anger, the crippling addiction to whatever and whomever. We don’t tell ourselves that it’s OK to feel this way. We don’t support ourselves through the presence of these negative emotions, because we simply don’t know how.
Our parents and teachers didn’t teach us, because they didn’t know how, either. So we turn to alcohol, other people, food, TV—we lean on anything but ourselves, convinced that if we lean on ourselves, we’ll just topple over.
Unfortunately, all of the coping mechanisms that help us feel a bit better in the moment simultaneously keep us ensnared. When we distract ourselves with the aim of momentary comfort, we keep the information fear has for us at bay.
The fact that we don’t face our fears is slyly hidden. Our culture adamantly touts slogans like, ‘Face your fears!’ ‘Just do it!’ ‘Take the leap!’ But these over-simplified phrases gloss over the reality of deep, paralyzing fear. They do us (and especially our kids) a disservice in teaching us that if we just ‘man up,’ we can beat fear.
We can’t force ourselves to get over it—we can only push ourselves through with willpower. However, this means we avoid processing fear. This oversight is critical, because if we’re not willing to sit with fear + actually feel it, we lose access to genuine healing. That’s why our fears tend to return again and again, as if to say, “I’m back. You haven’t dealt with me yet.”
Pull Back the Covers
In this sense, facing our biggest fears has nothing to do with taking one big leap of faith. We love the leap of faith concept, because it’s quick and dirty. It requires a few uncomfortable moments of courage, and then we’re scot-free.
But that is simply not how the human brain works—it doesn’t abandon its belief systems all in one shot. Healing is much more about the long haul than the quick sprint. It’s about pulling back the covers and slowly making that daunting trek toward the dark closet … the one you’re convinced is full of monsters … one step at a time. What this process looks like will be different for each of us.
Glossing over our fears and labeling those with depression and anxiety as ill and broken hasn’t served us well. We’re all still afraid. Instead, it’s time to take a new approach to fear.
We must strategically aim our self-care at it, rather than trying to plow through or avoid it. Seeing fear for the mechanism that it is—an ancient alert system that holds a wealth of useful information—will help us start to transform it.