Is there something wrong with me?
If you're considering therapy or reaching out for help, this question may have come up for you. Here is what's behind it and how we refocus the problem.
As a society, we have learned that we should not have problems, and if we do, it is up to us to fix them. If we can’t fix them or we can’t pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, society tells us that there must be something wrong with us.
The beginnings of psychology also didn’t do us any favors. Until recently, the field of psychology has taken a “disease” approach to mental health that has erroneously persisted over time. From this point of view, if you experience any mental or emotional, well, anything besides happiness, this means that there is something wrong with you. Therefore, something needs to be cured or fixed within you. We see this reflected in the stigma around mental health and therapy: if you go to therapy because you are depressed, anxious, fill-in-the-blank, there is something wrong with you.
This view of mental health could not be more wrong.
If we approach mental health from a disease perspective, it doesn’t fix the real problem and it might actually make it worse! For example, let’s say that every year you feel anxious and depressed after having to spend time with your hyper-critical, super negative family member who judges your every life decision. From a disease perspective, the problem isn’t that you were treated badly by your aunt Becky, but rather that you can’t take her “emotional punches” and now you feel anxious and depressed. However, this doesn’t change the fact that at the end of the day, you still had to spend time in a toxic environment (which is actually the problem) and you will still feel like crap. What’s more, a disease perspective will make you feel like crap for feeling like crap.
Well, that’s crap.
Instead, the metaphor that I like to use is an allergic reaction, where the problem is in the environment rather than within you. If you are allergic to pollen and you have to work outside in your yard, by the end of the day your eyes will be watery and on fire, your nose will be runny, and your throat will be itchy. These symptoms are there to alert you to the dangers in your environment. In fact, these reactions, the snot, the watery eyes—they are your body’s way of trying to keep that pollen out of your body, which is actually a pretty adaptive response.
Mental health is similar. If you have to spend the day in an environment or situation that is unhealthy for you, your mind and body will have a reaction to warn you. Just as your nose will run due to the pollen, you may feel anxious or depressed after spending time with a toxic family member over the holidays. To feel bad when someone treats you badly, that’s not a weakness, that’s an appropriate and adaptive human response that alerts you that it might be time to change your environment. As a therapist, I would be more worried if you didn’t feel bad after someone treated you badly, just as if you didn't have an allergic reaction to something that is harmful to you.
I also recognize that it may be uncomfortable to feel these things. So what do we do about it?
In therapy, I work with my clients to uncover exactly what it is about your environment that you are “allergic” to by learning to recognize when you are having difficult feelings (like anger, fear, sadness). We learn what those feelings are trying to tell you and what you can do about your situation. We explore how to change your environment and learn how to better cope with it if you have to be in it. So next time you are in that situation, you can better navigate conversations with that relative, you can stop blaming yourself for your reactions, and you can engage in healthy self-care strategies to help you minimize the harm from those interactions.
Ultimately, we undo the disease model ideas that you were taught because there is nothing wrong with you for feeling the way that you do. Those feelings are, in fact, adaptive responses, not something that needs to be fixed or cured.
This blog post from Restorative Counseling & Wellness, LLC is for informational purposes only. It does not constitute medical or psychological advice, and it is not a substitute for professional advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have.