I have two main fears in my job. The first is that I won’t be open to changing my beliefs.
“An ideology is a closed system of beliefs and values that shapes the understanding and behavior of those who believe in it. Its assumptions are fixed and strong and not open to questioning. To their believers, who may be called ideologues, ideologies offer absolute certainty and are immune to contradictory evidence.”
To me that seemed like a clearly undesirable way of thinking. I recognized that many of my religious beliefs were parts of an ideology so I began questioning them, not wanting to be guilty of being an ideologue. This led me, eventually, to change many of the beliefs that had been very important to me before. It was painful and scary!
As I’ve worked in the system in a peer support role I’ve become aware that I’m at risk of being ideological in another way. This became really clear to me at a MindFreedom conference this summer when a friend and I joked that at these kinds of events we often will swap conversion stories, fine-tune the doctrine of new converts, and discuss evangelism strategies. In some ways, being involved in the c/s/x movement has felt like joining a new church. I don’t actually think there’s anything wrong with this; as was the case in my religious community, we are united around something that we believe in strongly and feel a responsibility to bring to the world. Being part of a group like this is empowering, inspiring, and hopeful.
But it also scares me. It scares me because when I talk to other people in the movement about my job I hear things like, “be careful you don’t sell out” or “it’s hard in that setting not to let your values slip” or “how are you being in the system but not of the system?” It feels a little bit analogous to the message I got from Christian communities that, if someone spent too much time with unbelievers and around a lifestyle we didn’t agree with, the person’s faith would be vulnerable to weakening, whereas if a person stayed connected to regular Christian teaching and surrounded by others living that kind of lifestyle, his/her faith would be stronger and safer.
The open-minded, non-ideologic part of me does not want my beliefs to be safe—I want them to be challenged. For that reason I’m very glad to be working in a setting where this is happening all the time. I want to be exposed to other ways of thinking — even ways of thinking that I find offensive or dangerous — because my reaction to some of the things I hear tells me a lot about myself.
The second fear I have is that my beliefs will change.
By far the biggest concern I had when I started working in the system was that I would be “co-opted” or “sell out.” By that I mean I was afraid I would start believing in the idea of mental illness again, that I would become comfortable with locked up forks and cigarettes, that I would not respect people’s right and ability to self-direct their lives, that I would do harm, that I would become more aligned with the clinical staff I work with than with my fellow activists and peer supporters. I have, in some moments and to varying degrees, done all of these things. My beliefs are changing somewhat.
I think it’s important to look closely at why this would be scary. For me, it comes down to identity and belonging. Identity comes into play because, besides just wanting to be someone who is helpful and not harmful, I saw myself primarily as a psychiatric survivor and part of the consumer/survivor/ex-patient movement. This identity was (and to a lesser extent, still is) very important to me because it replaced my previous identity of being a chronically mentally ill person. I found being angry and on a mission to be much more preferable. This identity piece is loosening quite a bit as, while being a psychiatric survivor is definitely still a part of how I frame my life experience, it’s becoming less and less central to my identity.
The need for belonging is a stronger piece of why I still have a lot of anxiety around compromising or changing some beliefs. I want to be respected and accepted by other people in the movement. Being open-minded and questioning things sometimes leads me to worry that I won’t be included or that I’ll be judged as somehow defecting.
It’s easy to see how the first fear serves me well but I actually think this second fear is also very useful; it keeps me vigilant. If I wasn’t concerned about belonging with this larger group of activists I’d really only worry about belonging with my coworkers, and I’d be less inclined to take risks and challenge the status quo.
Sometimes it seems as if I’m running away from one of these fears only to bump into the other. These two fears generally seem to keep me contained to this uncomfortable-but-productive gray zone where I doubt myself, recognize when my reaction is more emotional than rational, use non-definitive language, and pay a lot of attention to when I speak up and when I don’t. The challenge is to be open-minded (willing to change my beliefs) and at the same time true to my convictions (refusing to change my beliefs just because others want me to). I find this challenging.
My struggle with this is representative of the fact that we, as a society (or species?), appear to have a hard time embodying both open-mindedness and conviction simultaneously. It would make sense to me — whether it’s true or not — that this might be even harder for a survivor movement like ours. As patients, many of us had our needs and perspectives dismissed by providers in power. As activists, we sometimes see this dynamic play out again — we’re dismissed as bitter ex-patients out of touch with reality. Harsh rhetoric and unwillingness to compromise seem like natural responses to this treatment. Despite this challenge, many survivor-activists manage to find a way to be true to their convictions while remaining open-minded (and thus credible) through self-awareness and intellectual humility.
Our common goal, I imagine, is revolutionary cultural change — an overhaul of the way we think and act in response to madness. I personally think that this is going to happen (and is happening!) slowly over time and will take more patience and tolerance than I always have. Those of us who have experienced first-hand the dire need for this change absolutely must be speaking up — and we have to do it in a way that will be heard. We all have different ideas how to make that happen. In my view, being heard as a member of an oppressed group requires exceeding the usual expectations of maturity, self-control, and critical thought. It might mean tolerating ignorant comments for the sake of the conversation, forging genuine relationships with people whose actions we find oppressive, or acknowledging the limitations or flaws in our own perspectives. It also means knowing where you draw the line and taking a principled stand in a thoughtful way at times. If we fall to either side — being either ideologic or too passive in sharing our convictions — I’m concerned that we may not get the responses that we’re hoping for.
What approaches do you find helpful in the struggle to create change? What beliefs of yours are being challenged? Do you have beliefs you are not open to questioning? How do you balance (or not) open-mindedness with conviction?