Today’s psychology-based article digs into why I act the way I do in social situations. It was an eye-opener for me to write (and rewrite), and I hope it inspires you to think about your own social coping strategies as well!
Recently, I read an informative article on Forbes.com called “Mentally Strong People: The 13 Things They Avoid.” I did like the points it made about breaking out of fear and learning how to be patient…but I have to admit, part of the article irked me, too. According to this article, I am mentally weak in at least 10 different ways, and have been since childhood. Coincidentally, I have also suffered multiple lapses of depression and anxiety attacks since at least the age of 8.
Striving toward the goals on this list of mental strengths IS a task worth doing; however, this article casts some forms of “mental weakness” as a completely controllable, chosen way of life. I know better.
What Mentally Strong People Don’t Do, According to This Article
- Waste time feeling sorry for themselves
- Give away their power
- Shy away from change
- Waste energy on things they can’t control
- Worry about pleasing others
- Fear taking calculated risks
- Dwell on the past
- Make the same mistakes over and over
- Resent other people’s success
- Give up after failure
- Fear alone time
- Feel the world owes them anything
- Expect immediate results
My Big Problems with This List
Most of these points are valid, and can be adopted by changing your perspective and outlook to match; that’s perfectly fine. Unfortunately, there are a few points on this list that people may not be enduring by choice; I am speaking primarily of depression and anxiety. This article, I feel, goes a little too close to shaming/blaming people who have depressed or anxious thought patterns, such as the following:
- “Mentally strong people don’t waste time feeling sorry for themselves.” Unfortunately, when you’re depressed, your life is one big cesspool of “sorry.” Life feels pointless; you find yourself pondering the question “Why am I even here? Why do I exist? Everyone would be better off if I just died so I wasn’t taking up space.” And when depression has argued you into a logical corner like this, sometimes you have to spend half an hour mentally talking yourself into taking a shower, let alone getting out of the house and being “useful.” It’s very difficult NOT to feel sorry for yourself when you see other people being normal and having a good life, and you feel like your ability to live is broken.
- “Mentally strong people don’t give away their power.” When you’re depressed or anxious, you don’t HAVE any power anymore–that’s the whole problem. These mental conditions encroach on you like a garbage compactor, slowly compressing your thoughts until they tangle and crunch in on themselves. Other people’s opinions simply pile in on top of these already-twisted thoughts, adding more noise and more confusion to the mess of your life. And God help you if others are judging you harshly for going through this mess, as if you CHOSE this punishing way of life, as if you “could change if you really wanted to.” How INSULTING, and utterly unhelpful–comments like that just make the thought compactor move faster, and you’re even more powerless to change it.
- “Mentally strong people don’t waste energy on things they can’t control.” Yeah, except anxiety takes that choice away from you, completely. It doesn’t matter if what you’re anxious about is in your control or not–your brain is going to lock on to it and hang on like a hermit crab. The song of worry plays on and on, endlessly, drowning out most other thoughts, diminishing your appetite, and keeping sleep just barely at bay; it’s like trying to walk against a strong wind.
- “Mentally strong people don’t dwell on the past.” Fine and dandy, except when it’s 4 am and your brain has decided to play you a never-ending newsreel of all the horrible things you’ve done or thought about in your life. Depression brings up guilt, which in turn regurgitates your past–except that these memories always cast you as the villain, the outcast, the one who should be hated or destroyed for all the failures and mistakes, all the hurt you’ve caused. Mentally “strong” folks, how would you deal with this, when your own brain turns against you? When you’re depressed, you are mentally drowning in this, every moment, and you can’t just “think positive” or “quit thinking about the past” to fix it.
- “Mentally strong people don’t give up after failure.” Failure causes a certain degree of anxiety–that’s a given for just about anyone. In normal folks, that anxiety can propel them to greater achievement later. But in folks like me, who already hate and fear failure as if it means certain death, failure binds up our brains in sticky spiderwebs of anxiety, and depression plays the role of the approaching spider. A failure is one more way you’re weak; it’s one more thing to be guilty about, and depression feeds on guilt as spiders feed on bugs, sapping the will to try again–why bother, when you’re just going to fail again and prove what a waste of space you are?
- “Mentally strong people don’t fear alone time.” Alone time? Oh, you mean “Incessant Internal Guilt-Trip” time. Or maybe you meant “Wonder-What-Everyone-Else-Is-Doing-Without-Me” time. Perhaps even “Reasons-I-Should-Kill-Myself” time. My alone time, historically speaking, has been full of this kind of overwhelming negativity, and I’m not the only one to experience it this way–depression wraps your brain in this kind of foggy thinking. Even when you are with others, you feel pretty alone mentally, and when you are alone in reality, the negative feelings double in size, because you don’t have other people helping to drown it all out. Every thought process takes a negative turn whether you want it to or not–it’s like they’re all on railroads headed toward the pit.
My Point: “Mental Strength” May Require Professional Help for Some Folks
If you find yourself able to turn your thoughts around by reading helpful/inspiring articles, then that’s awesome. But for people like me who suffer clinical depression and/or anxiety, some of these points may just be too tough to tackle on our own. I think the Forbes article ignores that, as if all people can just fix these skewed mental mindsets on their own. (I tried fixing my depression on my own, and I ended up worse off than before.)
Think of it this way: we would not ask a cancer patient to administer his or her own chemotherapy, nor we would expect a person to perform his or her own surgery in the hospital. Why, then, does society believe that depressed or anxious people can somehow heal themselves–or that they chose to be sick in the first place? Mental strength is a wonderful goal, but for some, it may require more than just a self-help book to achieve. It may require various forms of therapy, friend/family support, medications, etc. And that’s nothing to be ashamed of.
A few months ago, on a whim, I checked out a book titled They Say You’re Crazy: How the World’s Most Powerful Psychiatrists Decide Who’s Normal, by Dr. Paula Caplan. The title sounded interesting, especially to a person like me who had made some forays into the study of psychology during undergrad and graduate studies. But I had no real idea of the epiphanies that I was about to read.
This book, published in 1996, covered how the APA (American Psychological Association) makes its handbook of mental disorders, called the DSM (short for Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). Caplan had worked with the mostly-male committees who made the DSM in the first place–her recountings were an insider’s perspective, and she told of the arbitrary, biased decision-making and filibustering of “unfavorable” ideas that formed this so-called “scientific” manual.
At first it was hard to believe that men of psychology could allow the process to be so political and biased. After all, they’re supposed to be held to the scientific method just like every other scientist, right? They’re supposed to form a hypothesis, test it repeatedly, and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt whether the hypothesis is true or not. But all throughout Caplan’s book, she documented experiences of exactly the opposite: mental “disorders” which were seemingly invented to marginalize the valid emotional experiences of women and minority groups.
For instance, the APA was going to outline a supposedly “new disorder” called “Self-Defeating Personality Disorder,” in which the sufferer actually invites someone else to abuse them and acts in overly submissive ways toward the other person. Um, excuse me, but when someone is being abused, the abuser is the one who chooses to actively hurt that person. And not only that, but when one is being abused, one tends to try to minimize and avoid abuse as much as possible–usually by acting submissively, trying to vanish as much as possible.
The only reason this disorder was even suggested in the first place was because all the committee members (mostly old white guys) deemed this behavior “pathological.” They could not fathom someone acting in this way, because they had never acted in that way themselves–thus, this was a “disorder.” Not really scientific reasoning at work here, even to an untrained eye like mine. And SDPD wasn’t the only “disorder” to make it into the DSM without proper testing. They Say You’re Crazy also details other cases of wrongheaded disorders being legitimized, much to the detriment of patients who were diagnosed and medicated for these ultimately nonexistent problems.
Does This Problem With the DSM Still Exist? YOU BET!
After I finished the book, I was disturbed about the huge problem Dr. Caplan had presented. “But this book was published back in ’96,” I thought. “Surely the field of psychology has matured past all this junk.” Still, I wanted to see whether Dr. Caplan had written any more books.
So, I Googled her name…and was astounded at the sheer amount of information–RECENT blog articles, petitions, Websites, and the like–which were still talking about this problem. And the most troubling part? It seemed that the APA was no closer to listening to Dr. Caplan and her allies than they were back in ’96, either.
For instance, this 2012 article by Dr. Caplan chronicles another case of harm done by misdiagnosing and overmedicating, in which a young, overworked mother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, forcibly committed to a psych ward, and given psychiatric drugs. The woman lost friends and husband because of this misdiagnosis, ended up on permanent disability, and the drugs they gave her gave her an eye condition that could end up leaving her blind. And This WordPress.com blog archives quite a number of other informational (and eye-opening) posts about Dr. Caplan’s recent work on this issue, including a video series called “The Stories of Harm the APA Refused to Hear.”
Stories of individuals’ struggle with being misdiagnosed abound all around the Web. It’s not just average everyday people, either–military veterans have suffered with misdiagnoses too, often being given drugs that only exacerbate the problem or keep them drugged to avoid real emotional healing. Even some members of the APA have gone on record admitting that the DSM series has serious problems which must be addressed.
Yet the APA has apparently closed its ears and eyes to all of this. In a painfully honest article in May of this year, Dr. Caplan admits that even her stalwart resolve to keep talking about this problem has wavered in the face of such stony rejection and determined dismissal. But she continues to write about this in objective yet passionate tones, striving toward the goal of changing bad diagnoses and really using psychology to help people rather than just slapping on a label.
My Conclusion: This Needs Attention, Yesterday
I’m not a psychological or psychiatric expert, by far. But I have been exposed to some mental health services, especially in middle and high school, and I have experienced how a label, whether right or wrong, can have such a powerful effect on a person’s life. (I was 12 when I discovered that the “counselor” I’d been seeing in school actually worked for my county’s mental health services. I remember the hysterical question I flung at her: “So y’all all think I’m crazy?!” It was like my stories of being mercilessly teased and physically abused at school had meant nothing; I had been labeled as a “troubled child,” as if I myself were “the problem,” instead of the mean kids I had the misfortune of going to school with.)
Even just seeking therapy these days carries a social stigma, after all; imagine how a wrong mental diagnosis could wreck your career, marriage, social life, etc. How do you fight back against doctors who are telling you that you’re permanently screwed up and you’re always going to need drugs? How do you insist that you’re screwed up because of the things that have happened to you, not because of some inborn defect, when they are telling you exactly the reverse?
I for one applaud Dr. Caplan’s work, which draws attention to the need for more research and sheer SCIENCE to be applied to such a delicate problem as the human mind. We aren’t just talking about using the right medication at the right time–we’re talking about actually alleviating emotional pain rather than staving it off and avoiding it. (We in America tend to want, as Dr. Caplan says, “a quick fix and a pill for everything,” but our minds must be treated with more care.)
One last troubling thought: if the APA is more concerned with handing out drugs rather than actively treating mental illness as the serious, life-altering group of conditions that it is, then we as a society ought to be concerned that maybe their interests don’t lie in helping hurting people anymore. After all, if psychiatry has become a “science” of “diagnose somebody in 5 minutes and shove pills at them,” is it worth our money and time anymore?
Calls to Action/Petitions
Find They Say You’re Crazy Online
- Google Books: They Say You’re Crazy: How the World’s Most Powerful Psychiatrists Decide Who’s Normal
- Amazon.com: They Say You’re Crazy: How the World’s Most Powerful Psychiatrists Decide Who’s Normal
Online Articles About or By Dr. Caplan
- When Psychiatric Diagnosis Does More Harm
- Psychiatry’s Grand Confession
- The APA Refuses to Listen to Voices of People Harmed by Diagnosis…And Refuses and Refuses and Refuses
Profiles and Archives of Dr. Caplan’s Online Work
- Paula Caplan Article Archive @ Knowledge Is Power
- PsychologyToday.com Profile
- “Silence Isn’t Golden” Article Archive @ PsychologyToday.com
- FeministVoices.com Profile
Selected Bibliography for Dr. Caplan, from FeministVoices.com
- Caplan, P. J. (1985). The myth of women’s masochism. New York, NY: New American Library.
- Caplan, P. J. (1991). How do they decide who is normal? The bizarre, but true, tale of the DSM process. Canadian Psychology, 32, 162-170.
- Caplan, P. J. (1992). Gender issues in the diagnosis of mental disorder. Women & Therapy, 12, 71-82.
- Caplan, P.J. (1995). They say you’re crazy: How the world’s most powerful psychiatrists decide who’s normal. Jackson, MI: De Capo.
- Caplan, P. J. (2000). Don’t blame mother: Mending the mother-daughter relationship. New York: Routledge.
- Caplan, P. J. (2004). The debate about PMDD and Sarafem: Suggestions for therapists. Women & Therapy, 27, 55-67.
- Caplan, P. J. & Caplan, J. (1998). Thinking critically about research on sex and gender, 2nd edition. New York: Addison-Wesley Longman.
- Caplan, P. J. & Cosgrove, L. (Eds.).(2004). Bias in psychiatric diagnosis. Lanham, MD: Jason Aronson.
This is not a melodramatic title. This is truth. I sincerely believe that if I had not joined choir in 7th grade, I would not be here today.
My (Pitiful) School Life Before Choir
Before I joined the middle school choir in 7th grade, I was a complete nobody in school. I was generally ignored or teased–treated with either indifference or malice–by the people I went to school with. I had no place in my grade’s social structure, not even the dubious grace of a “label” to slap on myself. If anybody called me anything, it was all based on negatives–there was nothing that I positively contributed to my grade level’s society, nothing I did that was particular to me.
As a result, I felt completely alienated from the rest of my classmates, and life was emotionally very stressful. When school mornings came, sometimes I would lay in bed worrying about the horrible school day I was going to face, and end up making myself sick, ending up in the bathroom all day. (Now, I know I was likely having anxiety attacks, but back then I thought I was just sick with stomach flu all the time.)
This behavior, both on my part and the part of my classmates, peaked in 6th grade, and by the time I turned 12 I had had it with my life; I thought about death every day, because death seemed like a blissful nothing in comparison to the shouted insults and often physically painful teasing. Not only that, I didn’t think I was DOING anything good with my life–it seemed like I didn’t mean anything to anybody anymore, not even myself. Depression had me fast in its grip, and in that dimness I saw nothing of the people who indeed did love me during that time.
A (Supposedly) Throwaway Decision
When it came time to sign up for 7th grade classes, I didn’t much care what I did–I was gunning more for the end of the year and a well-deserved summer away from all the mean kids I went to school with. But the musical category of classes caught my eye, and in particular 7th-grade Chorus. Both my older cousins had been in Band most of their school years and had enjoyed it, but I wanted to try out Chorus–“just for a year,” I explained to my parents. “Then, if I don’t like it, I can always switch to Band.”
My other motivation for choosing Chorus was that I had been in my elementary school’s choir for a year, and I had enjoyed singing, though I didn’t think I had much of an instrument to work with. My voice always came out kind of breathy and soft, though everyone who listened to me said the pitch was true. I figured I had nothing to lose by joining Chorus, and if it turned out I didn’t have anything to work with after all, I could switch to something else musical instead. I already played the piano, and thought that if my voice wasn’t enough, I could potentially learn another instrument.
So, after discussing it with my parents, both of whom encouraged me to join the chorus, I signed up to start in the fall of my 7th-grade year.
This one decision changed my entire life within months of joining the chorus. As I’ve noted in my blog post Joining My Voice with Others, I discovered the strength of my voice, and began to thoroughly enjoy singing in choirs. Not only that, it is a creative outlet I have continued even into the present.
But WHY did it affect me this way, at 13?
Part of it lies in the psychological effect of being part of a big group doing something larger than any individual could do. I had a social place in my school, at last–I had a reason to go to school, a positive label to put on myself. I could point to the choir and say “I’m part of that;” I was no longer just “the ugly girl” or the “fat girl,” but “the girl who sings.” And my voice was no longer breathy and soft, but strong and powerful. I had a gift which was finally being recognized by the kids I went to school with. 7th grade was still stressful for me in places, but it was a watershed year; I could bloom, at last.
The other part of why choir saved my life was how it interacted with my personality. I like to be able to help other people, to do things that other people find valuable. (This blog is an example–I write six posts every week, hoping that someone else finds as much value in them as I do.) 7th-grade chorus allowed me, for the first time, to do something others considered valuable without them running away from me in horror. (When I’d tried to be nice to my classmates before, that was their typical reaction…I still have no idea why.) Now, the kindnesses I could do for others were appreciated and returned to me, not discarded, and I felt a lot more positive about my life as a result.
Death suddenly had very little attraction for me; I had something to go to school for, something to live for. Other people began to talk to me in more positive tones, about my music and my voice, and I could finally hear them, after years of having to shut them out because they were making fun of me. Chorus changed the social topography of my life, utterly, and most definitely for the better.
How Does This Link to Creativity?
This is a story not just of coming back from depression and suicidal thoughts, but of creativity, too. Not only did I feel more comfortable living my life, but I felt more comfortable doing creative things in my life, as well. My works were beginning to be valued, and at 13, it was exactly the kind of boost I needed for my self-esteem. Working with other singers, all striving for a great performance, gave me purpose, and gave me fuel for my own works–my writing and my music.
This is why I’m such a proponent of music education, and indeed all fine arts education, in schools. If fine arts had been taken out of my school before I had a chance to be in it, there is a very good chance I would not have seen my 14th birthday; my life would have had no hope in it, and I would have likely turned my thoughts of death into a reality. If fine arts and creativity can soothe the savage beast of depression and anxiety, which our modern schoolchildren are indeed suffering from in droves, then more of it, not less of it, should be incorporated.
I know, I know, we should be training our future workforce in “useful skills,” which is why fine arts education has been cut or eliminated in many schools. Many people who have never experienced the power of art on their lives may wonder, “Why waste money on teaching them skills that won’t help them in the real world?” But here is the flip side: we do want our future workforce to actually reach adulthood, don’t we?
As I well know from my teaching days, a life without creativity, without beauty and devoid of passion, is a life nearly not worth living. A life with creativity, on the other hand, with the capacity for beauty and passion, is a life that sings with our souls.
We all cope with society in various ways. Some of us use our smartphones to avoid conversations with strangers; some of us prefer the Internet to face-to-face communications. We are individuals roaming through a sea of more individuals, and most of us actively try to avoid threats and pass the time as peacefully as possible.
I’m certainly one of those who avoids conflict and threats as much as possible. I don’t like to be in or near fights; conflict makes me VERY uncomfortable. Thus, I find myself using certain coping strategies to make myself a non-threatening individual, to dissuade people from trying to harm me, and to maintain friendships. These are not entirely selfless strategies; I often do these things to keep my own sanity (or what I have left of it) more than anything.
Below are the social strategies I find myself using all the time, to maintain my social role as a “helper” and a non-threat.
#1: Saying “sorry” all the time
I’ve done this for so long that it’s become an instinct. Any time anything happens, whether it’s really my fault or not, I end up saying “sorry,” either to express regret or to express compassion. The slightly twisted reasoning behind it: if I say “sorry” enough, people might understand that I commiserate with them, and thus are more inclined to see me in a positive light later on.
#2: Being helpful
If I help someone, I boost them up–as well as boosting my own feelings of self-worth. Helping that person may also lead to them having a positive memory of me, making them less likely to harm me or act against me in the future.
#3: Being emotional
Though it seems counter-intuitive, this is also a coping strategy. I had to dig a while in my consciousness for this reasoning, but from what I’ve been able to gather, becoming overly emotional means that others are moved to help me calm down, forgetting for a moment their own gripes with each other. (I have actually done this quite often in situations where a group needs to pull together to make it through–I somehow express the stress of the rest of the group, and we end up becoming a more solid unit as a result.)
#4: Forgiving quickly (or at least saying that I have)
If I forgive quickly, I am perceived as somehow a “better” person–though I confess sometimes that I can’t forgive as easily as the words spring to my mouth. (That’s a hard thing to realize about myself.)
#5: Staying quiet when I have a minor complaint
I don’t like to make a “big scene” and will stay quiet rather than being assertive. Reason: I don’t want to be seen as a nag or as a bothersome person.
What I’ve Learned from Exploring My Coping Strategies
All of the above strategies focus around others seeing me as someone they want to be around, someone they want to help, and someone that they look on with favor. This is related heavily to my experience of severe loneliness early in my school life, which shaped me more than I wish to admit. My way of dealing with threats, usually in the form of another person who is more aggressive, is to make sure they do not perceive me as a similar threat. Only then can I have some semblance of peace, since I have maintained harmonious relationships with them.
Coping strategies are the unconscious tricks we all use to maneuver in society, but sometimes they don’t always function the way we intend. One reason I posted this is because I have to dig into why I act the way I do in order to change the malfunctioning strategies–for certain, I can’t go around the workplace crying every time I feel threatened!
Learning about our inner emotional workings is a freeing and somewhat disturbing experience, one that has helped me get a better handle on who I am and who I am becoming. Try it for yourself–what’s really making you act the way you do in certain social situations? You might just learn something really interesting about yourself in the process!
When we hear of torture that makes people reveal secrets they would never have revealed otherwise, some people might say “Well, they’re just weaklings. Why couldn’t they last through the pain and just keep their mouths shut?” But the prevalence of pain relievers in pharmacies across the country and around the world seems to say that we humans actually don’t have a lot of pain resistance.
This LiveScience article, The Pain Truth, calls pain a “silent epidemic,” and it certainly is–it’s an epidemic that is downplayed and even trivialized by those who do not suffer pain as often. Pain is not merely a physical symptom of illness; it also has an emotional component of suffering, which in long-term cases leads to personality changes and life changes. I have experienced these firsthand.
My Personal Experience with Chronic Pain
Pain has been a constant companion of mine for several years, with old lower-body injuries galore, headaches and migraines, and random shooting pains that seem to have nothing to do with any injury at all. I didn’t realize how much my personality had shifted to deal with these various pains, however, until we discovered and began to treat some of the pain sources.
Getting rid of my constant burning headaches with chiropractic therapy opened my eyes first. For the first time in MONTHS, if not YEARS, I was able to go about my day without having to spend at least part of it lying in bed trying to tame a headache. How liberating! And how surprising! I could finally live without having to constantly endure the “ice pick” in my temple. Some of my friends and family commented on this change, saying that they were glad to see me smiling again–I had been suffering such pain for so long that I didn’t even realize I wasn’t smiling much anymore.
Other effects of pain on my personality were subtler, but only just. I was much more irritable and more easily frustrated–after all, my life was being controlled by a force I couldn’t stop, so anything else that slipped out of my control was that much more infuriating. Plus, with the lower-body pain, I had had to shape my life’s day-to-day rhythms carefully so that my ankles and knees would not get aggravated with too much activity/standing per day. (Usually, standing in line for 10 minutes = ankles are DONE for the day.)
Pain had, in essence, transformed me into a cranky, isolated, less active version of myself. I hated this change, but I literally could not do anything about it until at least some of the sources of pain were treated. And that, I think, is universal for all pain sufferers.
Why Pain and Its Personality Effects are Not Well-Understood
Unfortunately, pain is a feeling and not an observable condition; even scans of your body cannot see the sensation of pain, only can see potential causes of it. And others cannot feel your pain as you do–thus, they cannot truly have empathy unless they have suffered the exact same condition.
Some folks, however, don’t even make any attempt at empathy, telling chronic pain sufferers to “suck it up, take an Advil and quit complaining,” etc., not understanding or caring how insensitive and insulting they’re being. (These kinds of people are just about as infuriating as my chronic pain itself.) This dismissive attitude only adds to the mystery and confusion around pain, since some people just don’t experience it as much and therefore cannot understand why it affects us so strongly.
That’s why I’ve written this article and added my own personal experiences; pain can have a huge effect on your personality and indeed your whole life, especially if it goes a long time without being treated (as mine did). Pain is not something that only weak people feel or talk about–it’s a human condition which causes suffering (both emotional and physical), and so it must be treated seriously.