Why do we blame ourselves for our mental illness?
Mental illness is just that, an illness, so why is it that the majority of us point the finger inward at ourselves?
Those suffering from mental health issues often find themselves coming up with phrases like ‘If I weren’t so weak then maybe I could cope like everyone else’ or ‘If I weren’t so lazy then maybe my depression/anxiety/eating disorder would go away.’
I’ve had several conversations with myself over the last few months along these same lines. I’ve criticised my inability to ‘just get over’ my mental illness struggles and I’ve compared myself to others who are seemingly coping very well with life. Why can’t I be like them? Why am I so useless that I can’t even function enough to do X-Y-Z?
‘Snap out of it You’re a big girl and need to learn to cope’ is the commonly used mantra of my life. But why is this the case? Is it just a design flaw in my system, is due to the stigma surrounding mental health or is there something more?
Where does this self-blame come from?
“Money doesn’t buy happiness, but I’d rather cry in a Ferrari.”
For some reason, this phrase always comes to mind when I talk about mental illness and having everything we could want in life. I’m not suggesting that money and fast cars are everything, but given the chance, I would rather not be depressed at all than cry in a flashy BMW. Personally speaking.
Yet mental illness is cruel and our minds have a sick way of making us feel at our worst, even if everything around us is going smoothly. Ultimately we think the blame should stop with us for not being happy. It’s our fault that we can’t just smile and get on with it. What right have we to be sad when we live in such privileged times? Thus begins the spiral of blame, guilt, and mental illness.
“You are so childish, you need to grow up and control yourself!”
Due to the symptoms that present alongside many mental illnesses, we often tend to isolate ourselves from others around us. Speaking regarding my own mental illnesses, I become easily agitated which causes me to snap at people regularly. I am also prone to intense feelings of anxiety, which often results in overwhelming panic attacks and more tears than I ever thought possible for a human to cry. The embarrassment and guilt from both situations often leave me apologising profusely and harshly belittling myself. Therefore, to avoid those intense feelings of shame, I try to avoid people as much as possible or only tolerate them in small doses.
Anorexia nervosa is not an excuse for me to be horrible to people. I still need to own up to it and apologise. But I also need to learn to self-soothe and be more compassionate with myself in the aftermath.
“Why can’t I just snap out of it?”
I’ve heard this phrase come out of my mouth, as well as the mouth of others, on an almost constant basis. Why can’t we just will ourselves to stop being so depressed!? We tell ourselves it’s because we’re weak or because we simply aren’t working hard enough to get better, even if we’re doing our absolute best.
The reality is that recovering from a mental illness isn’t like fixing a tummy bug or a broken bone. A lot of what we have to do is take medication consistently, go to therapy and practice self-help from the inside out. It’s so easy to blame ourselves for not being able to snap out of it because, although the foundations are laid by professionals, the blocks are being cemented together by our perseverance. Essentially you are the contractor, subcontractor, and architect. The professionals are only there to guide you along the way.
“I don’t deserve help, others have it so much worse.”
A lot of the time we don’t feel that we’re worthy of the help simply because the illness isn’t ‘physical’ or because others have it much worse than us. Unlike a broken bone which needs set and time to heal, mental illness is all in our minds. It’s internal and therefore can’t be seen physically, making it harder for ourselves and others to make allowances for it.
Yes, others may ‘have it worse‘, but that doesn’t make your feelings any less valid. That doesn’t make your depression or anxiety suddenly shrivel up and disappear. Talking to yourself like that only fuels the guilt and shame that accompanies mental illness, and prevents you from seeking further help.
“They’ll think I’m being attention-seeking.”
Stigma is certainly one of the biggest factors that influence self-blame. I’ve been told so many times that I’m deserving of help and that mental illness isn’t my fault, but I’m still painfully aware of what people think about others in my situation. They think that they’re ‘trying it on’, they’re ‘lazy’, they’re ‘a failure’ or they’re ‘crazy’. No one has said these things to me directly, but many have done about others in the past, so what makes me any different? In the end, I take those bigoted phrases and I internalise them. I write them on all the little bricks that I have built and end up ruining the walls of progress.
Stigma is dangerous. It stopped me from seeking help for longer than I should have done for fear of seeming ‘attention seeking’. Stigma makes you feel like less of a human being just because you are feeling depressed, overwhelmed, or practising self-destruction as a coping mechanism. It causes you to take all of those feelings and store them securely in the ‘self-blame’ drawer of your mind’s filing cabinet to be used as a reminder whenever you’re at your worst.
How can we overcome these feelings of self-blame?
If you take nothing else away from this post please remember this one phrase; You are human.
Humans, by nature, are not perfect and we all make mistakes. Mental illness can make our mistakes and supposed ‘failures’ seem like mountains. When we think about it, they may only be bumps in the road. They make us internalise all of the bad feelings and ultimately add fuel to the fire.
We need to learn to forgive ourselves! We need to be compassionate and understanding as we would be with a child, and although we need to take some responsibility never mistake this for blame. Once we have mastered the art of taking responsibility and self-forgiveness, we need to apologise and ask for forgiveness from others. Don’t dwell on it. Once you’ve completed the above steps move on. Lock the door and throw away the key.
Talk about it.
It becomes so normal for us to blame ourselves that sometimes we don’t even know that we’re doing it. It’s almost like an instant reaction. The belittling voice in our head is just like an internal monologue that has always been there, and asking it to leave can be a daunting thought.
Talking it out with a friend, family member or mental health professional can help rationalise these thoughts and get an outside perspective. It can help us to pinpoint unhelpful thinking patterns and begin to break them apart bit by bit. By identifying the blame in our own minds we can work towards evicting it forever from our lives. We can finally begin to accept that we are not the ones to blame for our mental illness.