Stuck, Not Broken: Understanding Mental Illness

Stressed Black Woman

Picture a young Black girl named Lauren growing up in the suburb of a major city with her family. Her parents are married and she is the middle of 3 children. From the outside their family looks “perfect.” A two-parent household where both parents are working and the family has enough money to cover necessities and some luxury items. However, if you looked inside and observed the family dynamic you might notice something different. Lauren’s parents do not get along well and the conflict between them is frequent. They are never physically violent with each other but they pick on each other’s mistakes and have a very low tolerance for each other’s quirks. Lauren’s parents are also very critical of her and her siblings. They push them hard to succeed and are harsh when their kids do not live up to their expectations. The parents even withhold love and affection from Lauren and her siblings when they make a mistake. In order to survive in this environment, when it felt like Lauren could be critiqued an any moment, when the love from her parents did not feel consistent or stable, Lauren became a perfectionist. She agonized over everything, spending extra hours to make sure that things were perfect. She began to be self-critical to preempt the harsh criticism from her parents if she made a mistake. She has trouble falling asleep at night because she worries about her parents not loving her, about doing something that might cause them to reject her permanently. In Lauren’s efforts to adapt to a difficult home environment, she developed symptoms of anxiety. While her efforts to be perfect may have been adaptive as a child, as an adult these strategies are no longer working for her.

As an adult, Lauren struggles to do things in a timely manner because her perfectionism makes it difficult to get things done. She has internalized her parent’s critical voices and even though she lives 1000s of miles away from them she hears them in her head whenever she is about to do something new or challenging. Lauren has a hard time accepting love and affirmation from other people, romantic partners in particular, because she fears that they will leave her as soon as they find out that she’s not perfect. Lauren feels stressed and on edge all of the time; she has headaches, difficulty sleeping, and an almost constant tightness in her chest. Lauren struggles to accept feedback because she can’t tolerate looking at her mistakes in a constructive way. Lauren is struggling with generalized anxiety disorder. There is so much stigma around mental illness and I think one of the reasons is because people don’t understand where it comes from. Additionally, when we struggle with our own mental illness we may feel shame because we think something is significantly wrong with us, we feel broken. In order to help develop compassion for ourselves and others struggling with mental illness it can be helpful to think of mental illness as a sign that we are stuck, not that we are broken.

We have genetic predispositions for mental illness, which means that if our family members experience mental illness we may be more likely to experience that same mental illness. In addition to genetic predisposition, mental illness can develop in response to traumatic and generally challenging situations and experiences. As highlighted in the story about Lauren, it is common for us to experience mental illness when the behaviors and strategies we used to survive a difficult situation are no longer adaptive when we are in a new environment. It’s not that something is wrong with us or that we were crazy to have adopted these strategies, it’s that we did the best thing we knew how to do when we were young or in unthinkable situations.

As we work to get ourselves unstuck it can be helpful to examine what situations we were attempting to adapt to in the first place and what strategies have become unhelpful over time. Therapy can be a great place to explore these things. If you are not in therapy currently and don’t plan on going anytime soon, I encourage you to walk yourself through the following steps to help you understand how you got stuck.

Reflect on the aspects of your childhood that were most difficult for you

Spend some time when you feel relaxed and safe to reflect on aspects of your childhood and teenage years (and beyond if relevant) that were difficult for you. This reflection is not about placing blame on yourself or others (e.g. acknowledging that your relationship with your mother was hurtful does not mean that you are saying she was a bad mom) but about getting a sense of what your experience was like. Also, your childhood experiences don’t have to be traumatic to have an effect on you so acknowledge even small moments of pain and rejection that you might have experienced.

Identify your survival strategies 

Think about what you did to survive, to make it through, the difficult experiences you identified. Did you learn to check out emotionally whenever you engaged with a difficult or abusive family member? Did you get angry and aggressive with your older siblings in order to defend yourself? Did you shut down your thoughts and opinions to feel accepted by your parents? Did you hide something about yourself (e.g. your sexual orientation, career interests, gender identity) to receive love?

Reflect on how your survival strategies are impacting your life now

Take some time to think about how your survival strategies are working for you in your life today. In what ways do your survival strategies continue to be helpful for you? In what ways are your survival strategies unhelpful? For example, do you preemptively reject romantic partners because your dad never showed up for your visits with him growing up and that experience became too much to tolerate? Is this getting in the way of you developing romantic relationships? Without judgment, see if you can identify the ways that these old survival strategies are keeping you stuck now.

Offer yourself some compassion

It is frustrating to feel stuck and to keep reverting to old habits even when we know they are no longer helpful. I encourage you to offer yourself some compassion related to this. To remember that your younger self did the best she could to make it through hard situations. I encourage you to thank your younger self for getting you through and to give yourself some patience as you work to grow up your survival strategies.

If you’re ready to start making changes and get yourself unstuck check out my post on making lasting change: New Year New You: How to make Lasting Change

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