In our culture, there’s this drive to always look and feel your best. To flash your best smile when you go out into the world. On social media, we often often only post what makes us look good, smiling with friends or celebrating a wedding.
We’re convinced the world only wants to see these parts of us, so that’s what we show. It makes us feel good to read “you’re so beautiful” or “congratulations” comments from Facebook friends. We like hearing we’ve done something right. We want that pat on the back because it feels good.
In job interviews or in general, we tout our successes. We highlight what we’re good at and make up an answer to the “what is your weakness” question that doesn’t sound too bad. This weakness is supposed to be something we can fix, something we’ll work on to become the epitome of a super-employee.
We’re afraid to share our deepest selves, our most difficult struggles, and our insurmountable flaws. Everything needs to be fixable, when in reality, this isn’t always true. We can work to make our lives better, to live with who we are, but we can’t in an instant become a completely different person. And we can never be perfect.
The drive to appear a certain way affects our inner dialogue, creating a track that plays on repeat. Trying to be perfect and keep up apperances is utterly exhausting, which might be why people are always running around with coffee cup in hand, looking like they might pass out any minute.
This idea that only success are worth sharing is an incredibly detrimental idea. Here’s why:
When we only show our successes, we miss out on an incredibly raw form of human connection. What we struggle with helps define who we are. For example, I might not be a mental health advocate if I hadn’t experience mental illness in myself and in others.
We are united by what makes us human, not what makes us more like robots. No one wants to hear that you are so good at everything. They really want to hear what you’ve struggled with and how you’ve dealt with it. Thoughtful and understanding conversations: these things forge a true connection. We’re inadvertently isolating ourselves in our quest for perfection.
Yes, discussing what is hard to discuss is important, but society only seems to tolerate a certain amount of struggle. At some point, you’re just expected to get over it and be better. The success stories, the “failure eventually leads to success” adage, these all contribute to this idea that struggle is momentary, that people might suffer, but it’s possible to one day overcome all.
“Struggle makes you stronger.” It goes away and uncovers this beautiful world where everything is perfect. Well, this isn’t exactly true. Sorry, but there’s no magical fairy-land where everything always works out. So, what are we left with? How do we make sense of struggle?
What does this all have to do with mental illness?
As an advocate, I feel the urge to act like I am a different person now than I was at the peak of my mental illness, to act like my struggles are all in the past instead of constantly lurking behind me.
In a way, I am a very different person than I was, but I still struggle. I’m not cured. I still have moments where I want to reach out, but am stopped by a desired to appear “cured.”
Admitting you have a mental illness is extremely difficult. Well-known celebrities who admit they struggled with mental illness in the past, whether it’s postpartum depression, anixety, or an eating disorder, are helping to break the stigma.
It’s even more difficult to admit you still struggle every single day and to share some of the most difficult and raw moments. There are many great advocates who do this. They are incredibly strong. By sharing these struggles, they are reminded that they’re not alone, that just because they speak about mental illness in the past tense doesn’t mean they always have to.
The truth is, mental illness doesn’t just go away one day. It’s not a story of being cured. It doesn’t work like that. “Mental illness is not just a moment,” as Kristin Burgess wrote on her blog INFJ.D. She’s right. It’s an accumulation of moments, the good and the bad. Because of this, we can’t encapsulate the experience in one shout of success. Doing this presents an inaccurate view and can fuel future stigma.
For the most part, recovery is not a one-time thing. Recovery is a journey. You can’t just snap your fingers and get better, as the general population may believe.
Of course, you can get better. You can learn to manage symptoms and live a good life, as I am doing. There is always hope. But if we focus only on the successes, we miss the struggle that connects us and that makes those deep in the trenches not feel so alone.
It’s hard to overcome the perfectionist norm, but it’s worth it. I challenge everyone, especially mental health advocates: share your fears, your weaknesses, your daily struggles. I’ll try to do the same.