How are we supposed to know what mental illness looks like?

Photo by DDP on Unsplash

Physical health problems are relatively easy to spot. We recognize symptoms of physical illness because we have seen healthy-looking bodies. I know when I am bleeding because I see bright red and my skin is punctured — a deviation from my normal unbroken skin.

Mental health is a different story. We may not even realize that the way we talk to ourselves is unhealthy or hurting us, that it deviates from a baseline of wholeness. Where would we see a depiction of vibrant mental health?

Where are all the models for emotionally healthy human behavior?

First, I will tell you where they are not.

TV bombards us with overly dramatic and ill-advised behavior. Stories use conflict to entertain. If everyone communicated clearly, kindly, and responsibly in movies, we might find it tedious or boring (but I would complain at the screen less). News stories and documentaries often focus on the sensational, the worst of human nature, the serial killers or abusers hidden behind facades of kindness or normalcy.

In our political system, people don’t listen to each other or try to cooperate. Instead, people try to “win,” try to force their preferences to fruition, usually over the objections of about 50% of the population thanks to a two-party political system. This isn’t a sustainable approach, and it points very clearly to nervous system dysregulation (feeling threatened, fearful, triggered) that makes calm, direct dialogue an impossibility.

Many of us grew up in homes where conflict was either avoided or ignored, or explosive/emotional and hurtful. Many are so emotion-avoidant that suppressing our own desires is lauded as healthy and appropriate if it leads to less crying and conflict.

Our society as a whole presents as fractured and deeply unwell, so there’s not much of a role model to be had in the collective and certainly not much to emulate in the behavior or character of our recent leaders. Presidential candidates tell each other to shut up on national television and it feels warranted, even as it seems shameful.

What about parents?

Modern-day parenting or caregiving often brings out the worst in people by isolating and judging them, expecting them to live balanced, fulfilling lives while doing things like managing their children’s emotions. Add in the unrealistic standards parents face and children’s developmentally appropriate outbursts and annoying behavior and it’s a perfect recipe for repeating cycles of abuse or at least unconscious patterns.

Our primary caregivers set the standard for what’s normal and possible for us as children. We download it directly into our brains, unfiltered, and we don’t deviate from that standard until or unless the pain of upholding it becomes too great.

I’m sure some parents are amazing and model great mental health. This is so important for society. But my gratitude for them doesn’t negate the sadly common story of unconscious, abusive or neglectful parents (many of whom would never be tallied on any survey because their children don’t know any better — how would they?).

During my final revision of this article, I happened to come across another article about how abuse victims may assume that abusive behavior is normal if they were raised in an abusive home. Speaking of one of her clients, the author writes, “First, Cara had to become aware of what verbal, emotional, and mental abuse were. It is not okay for her father, her husband, or anyone to criticize or blame her.”

She goes on to explain, “Not recognizing abuse is common in people with CPTSD, and PTSD. They either think that every family works the way theirs does, or that their situations could be worse. I, like Cara, thought every man angered easily. I thought it was normal to walk around on eggshells.”

Even people who “suffered horrific abuse at the hands of their parents… had trouble seeing that their parents were abusive. It took many sessions before they knew that their upbringing was not loving or nurturing, as they had been programmed to believe.”

Many of the people around us are mentally ill without awareness or acknowledgement (from them or us) of their own disordered state. People shame and criticize us, go off on us at our customer service jobs (I’ve been told “fuck you” as a library worker when I handed someone back her 25 cents change she claimed the machine had eaten), without so much as an apology. This isn’t even to mention the behavior of internet trolls who say the cruelest things for seemingly no reason.

The “normal” modern lifestyle is nothing to emulate

ADHD symptoms are on the rise in our notification-ridden world in which virtually everyone is effectively tethered to devices specially designed to interrupt and demand attention multiple times an hour. A firehose of information blasts us at every website we visit or social media app we use. It’s more words, images, and videos than we could see in multiple lifetimes. Our collective ability to focus has probably never been worse.

But this is happening to almost everyone. I’ve heard that if <20% of a population has a trait, it can no longer be considered a disorder. I’ve heard we’ve crossed that threshold for depression and anxiety (symptoms, not necessarily diagnoses).

Working 12-hour days and collapsing at night in front of the television is normalized and often celebrated (if society approves of the work in question). Eating fast food, spending most of our waking hours on a smartphone or computer, spending 95+% of our time indoors, “beating ourselves up” for mistakes or lying about how we really feel in order to avoid conflict — all normalized. A mother putting her children so far ahead of herself that she never spends time or money on her pleasure — beyond normalized: expected.

Lashing out at those around us, being over-responsible for the emotions of others, doing (or not doing) things so we won’t make Mommy or Daddy or Grandma or a husband or friend sad or mad… all normalized. As though we can control or even influence others’ emotions; as though that’s our job; as though we answer to them for our personal choices. As though it’s appropriate to sit an adult down and give them a talking-to.

So, seriously, where are those models?

Unfortunately, it seems that in our modern world, unless we are extremely lucky in who we have for family, many of us first see healthy boundaries and overall mental health in adulthood from trained professionals. Therapists and coaches are humans learning on a journey as well, but at least in theory they go to great lengths to model and encourage healthy behaviors while in session. Most of them have spent years and hours deprogramming from our sick society and are eager to show their clients there’s another way.

I’m not saying your therapists and coaches are necessarily all paragons of mental health, only that good ones can often at least spot what may be unconscious to you and help themselves and you do better (if you want).

Many “normal” behaviors we see in society and relationships are toxic or at least unhealthy. This post has a somber tone, but I wrote it to encourage you. If you feel like you’re swimming upstream, if you are changing and people around you are trying to get you to sit down and shut up, if you are setting boundaries and feeling guilt — you may just be the sane, healthy one. If you look around and don’t fit in at all, it could be that you’re no longer compatible with a sick system. To quote a therapist: “It’s the unhealthy family systems that will kick out the healthy person.”

If you feel alone or out-of-step: congratulations! It would be more problematic if you felt totally comfortable.

When I reached adulthood, I had a backpack full of unhealthy patterns. I thought emotions were for ignoring and there was something wrong with me for not being able to consistently transcend mine. I was about 25 before my first therapist got through to me that emotions serve a purpose and there wasn’t anything wrong with me deep down. It changed my whole life.

Do you have relationships in your life that allow you to be yourself with no (overt or covert) agenda for you? Where do you look to see a baseline of mental health? Are you in relationships with mentally healthy people? If the answer is “no,” you’re not alone. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

In my work as a life coach, I love to help people connect with their true, whole, essential selves. It requires divesting from society’s harmful (if “normal”) patterns and habits. It takes bravery, but it’s always worth it to be your true self. We need you. It’s better to be known for who you really are than loved for the mask you wear for others.

If you feel resonance with this post and are ready to break unhelpful patterns in your life and relationships, I would love to support you in this process and I welcome your comment or DM to explore if we’d be a fit for 1:1 coaching.

If you’re looking for a step you can take on your own, I’ve created a mini-guide to jump-start the process of building a healthy relationship with yourself, your life, and your desires. You can pick up this “Star Guide” here.



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Karin Wildheart

Karin Wildheart

Life coach passionate about transformative conversations. Deep people are my people. ❤