Why do some people have poor mental health? It’s hard to know – there’s an entire profession centred on answering this question! – but I feel like a part of it has to do with doing things that sabotage oneself, without necessarily being aware of the fact that this is happening. Of course, the next question is inevitably why people even begin to do such things; surely if sabotaging yourself leads to bad mental health, people would just not do it, and therefore lead happier lives.
When you’ve had a history of things not going too well, it can often be difficult to accept that a situation is actually pretty great – because doing so involves accepting the idea that things might turn out to be not so great later on, which is painful, so doing so puts you in a vulnerable position. Some might argue this is silly, and you should just accept the risk and enjoy the benefits of the situation – but this all depends on how things have gone down in the past. If you’ve opened yourself up and had a bad time, you’re probably going to be inclined to avoid showing vulnerability in future.
Taking the avoidance of vulnerability to its extremes often involves a heavy degree of pessimism. If you judge everything to be terrible even when it isn’t, you can conveniently avoid feeling bad about stuff going wrong; you already mentally prepared yourself for this outcome anyway, so there’s no loss. And if it goes well, that’s a bonus! The events in the past that hurt you because you opened yourself up and showed vulnerability can’t any more; there’s a far smaller gap between your expectation and the reality if the reality does turn out to be bad.
As the title of this post says, this is a defence mechanism. I can definitely recall times when something hurt me, often to such an extent that I felt a need to burst out in tears (usually in some inopportune place, like on public transport) – but I didn’t; I clenched my teeth, and muttered something under my breath about the person who had hurt me being terrible all along, or the situation being doomed from the start, or some other overly-negative view that would manage to make the pain hurt less, somehow. Or, if it couldn’t do that, it would at least keep me from visibly crying in front of all the other commuters on the train.
Side note: what even happens if you cry on a train, just in front of people? Do people look at you like some sort of insane person and just let you get on with it in peace? Do complete strangers ask you if you’re alright? Maybe it isn’t actually too terrible – or maybe it’s really rude. Will I ever find out?
For one reason or another1, I grew up with the idea that showing weakness is bad. To this day, it’s something that I find very difficult to do, and I often criticize myself for having done it. We all need to show weakness eventually, though; sometimes things just get way too much to bear, and it all comes flooding out. Unfortunately, this can perpetuate a vicious cycle: the only occasions where you open yourself up are hysterical disasters where you end up paragraphing one of your friends about all of your problems at once, or having a lengthy phone call where you’re the only one talking for a solid hour. This seems like a really imposing and terrible thing to do to people, so you conclude that showing weakness is bad, so you don’t do it as much… meaning the outburst is even worse next time, because you can’t hold the feelings back forever.
But when you’re trapped in the above cycle, it’s incredibly tempting to just push the inevitable feelings outburst forward by a few days/weeks/months with the liberal application of some pessimism.
Apart from this train-crying-reduction purpose, the other thing pessimism is very good at is making the actual causes of things far more vague and nebulous. You can avoid thinking about why something went wrong if you chalk the whole thing up to it just being a bad situation; this is particularly useful when you’re actually the one doing things to make a situation worse. Here’s an example2: maybe you’re sad about getting out of contact with a friend you haven’t seen in a while. If you take a pessimistic angle, you can usefully assume this is because people just naturally drift apart given space, which is unfortunate but makes the whole thing seem rather impersonal: it’s just a thing which is happening to you which you have no control over.
This isn’t how it works, though – in the above situation, the reason why you don’t talk to the friend could actually be because you don’t make much of an effort any more with them, because of the pessimism (“we’re going to drift apart anyway”). Another example: maybe you’re upset about being fired, apply for a new job, and don’t get it. In a lot of situations, you do indeed have no control over whether or not the company will hire you – but if you thought you’d never get a job again after getting fired and didn’t bother to put in the effort for the application as a result, you’re actually sabotaging yourself here.
This ability of pessimism to confuse situations can start to ruin your life if you’re not careful. If everything is terrible, what’s the point in doing anything? Opportunities to make things better pass you by without you doing anything (because you refuse to be brave enough to actually take things into your own hands and maybe fail), and can then serve as further examples of why everything is terrible when you start feeling bad about what you’ve missed out on, reinforcing the cycle. Because it’s not always obvious that you were the one that made the situation bad, you’re left feeling like you can’t do anything about it. Even when it’s clear that you made a mistake, you might view yourself as incontrovertibly bad – sure, it was your fault, but you’re a terrible person, so you’d never have made the right decision anyway (!).
Thinking like this leads to viewing life as this third-person experience where stuff just happens to you and you have to just sit there and take it – that you have no control over events. (Some people call this “learned helplessness”.) And that’s, to put it mildly, not good; you can get very depressed3 this way!
I would have liked to finish this blog post with some inspiring call to action about how to get out of this cycle and make all the things better in 3 simple steps. Unfortunately, I’m not actually qualified enough to do that.
Knowing what a problem is is often half the battle, however, and it’s definitely possible to use this knowledge for good. The research on learned helplessness actually suggests that it’s not helplessness people learn, it’s actually helpfulness – the default opinion of the brain is (allegedly) that you can’t do things to change your situation, and you have to teach it that you do actually have some power after all.
So, do some things, and pay attention to their effect. I bet at least in some cases, you have more ability to change things than you think.
Is going to a academically selective, all-male private school a reason? No, that couldn’t possibly be related… ↩
Frequent readers of the blog will know that the “examples” are often sanitized versions of things that have recently happened. ↩
I think it’s actually a lot more dangerous when you hold this belief underneath, but otherwise have what seems to be a relatively okay life. Every so often, something will happen that makes you sad for a while, and then you’ll get over it and act like nothing happened without realizing what’s going on – thereby ensuring that you’ll continue to become occasionally sad in perpetuity! ↩