There is always more to say about what not to say, it seems. In Part 4 last month, I discussed, among other things, the useless and damaging “I didn’t mean to” phrase. I just want to highlight that again because it seems to be deeply ingrained in our society that not intending to do something means you have no responsibility for the impact of your actions or that not intending to do something should somehow erase that thing from having been done.
I do things I don’t mean to do all the time; some of them have happy outcomes and some of them don’t. But I don’t fancy myself having so much power and awareness that only what I intend comes to pass—I’m one, tiny human. I can’t see into the future, I can’t even know all of my own heart and mind a lot of the time. “I didn’t mean to” is a given for me (and, I would argue, every other person on the planet, since I haven’t met anyone who can accurately predict the future or who is aware of 100% of their thoughts and feelings – and I run away from anyone who claims to), but it doesn’t have any bearing on my responsibility in relation to the outcomes of my actions.
I think it should be banned from therapists’ and other “mental-health professionals’” lips and I routinely remind my friends that I don’t appreciate hearing it as a) I assume they didn’t mean to do something harmful (if I did think they intentionally hurt me, what would be the point in talking to them about it (or, more importantly, remaining friends with them)? and b) it does not relate to the responsibility for cleanup at all.
All right, let’s move along to this month’s phrases I wish we could banish from the therapist’s office.
You can choose how you feel
Related to what I discussed in Part 1 about the various gaslighting ways therapists and other professionals address feelings, “you can choose how you feel” is yet one more way “helping” professionals completely miss the mark. First of all, telling someone they can choose how they feel is really ableist. People with chronic pain or who are managing chronic conditions cannot predict the amount of pain they will be in from one day to the next. They are not making poor choices such that, if they were to simply choose to not be in pain, their pain would go away.
Telling someone with chronic pain or a broken leg or cancer that they can choose how they feel physically is not only ableist and blaming the victim, it’s also just not true. At least not without a lot of mind-over-matter or mind-body integration practices. In general, it’s an unfair expectation that doesn’t do anything to relieve suffering.
Mental and emotional distress, while not to be conflated with physical illnesses, are affected by and affect physiological states. This is only one reason why you cannot choose your emotional state, either. Interoception, the sense of the internal state of the body, is a largely unconscious process, but the conclusions of it are thoughts, decisions, and conclusions.
We are not aware of and are not in control of everything our body does, especially internally; the conscious part of us is not aware of all of these internal goings on at every moment—to say nothing of our ability to control or manipulate them—yet these states are often the root of many of our conclusions about ourselves and what our feelings mean.
In a similar way, our external environment is both out of our control and a major player in how we feel. This is how the human body operates. Our bodies and our brains form, respond to and be in relationship with our environments. As we interact with those and the world around us, we form conclusions, which then contribute to the next set of conclusions we draw about a particular experience and so on. Sensory input and, increasingly, previous experiences and conclusions we may not have even known we drew form new thoughts and conclusions, largely outside of our conscious awareness.
This is why two people can witness the same event and have radically different conclusions about what happened; they may have shared an experience, but their thoughts and narratives about the world were formed by their individual experiences (which differed from each other’s) as well as the compounding of thoughts and conclusions about prior experiences (which also differed from each other’s).
Our current external situation is that society’s expectations of consistent productivity and sky-high standards are badges of honor. Rather than seeing all of that as being completely unreasonable and a source of a lot of our dis-ease, we are training therapists and coaches to blame the victim by setting it up so that, if you’re unable to keep up with unreasonable standards, you’re the failure. This is really hard to see because of how steeped we are in the lie that both capitalism and individualism rely on: competition is human nature. But what if that’s wrong? What if humans are intended to live, heal, function collectively and it is through connection with others and to the lifebeat of this planet that we can thrive as individuals? Then, it would actually be unhealthy to be successful in the current system we have. And those that are allegedly “choosing” despair, confusion, overwhelm, disorientation, high arousal would actually be having the healthy response.
For argument’s sake, let’s say you can choose how you feel. Sometimes, anger, fear, despair or any other “negative” emotions is the healthy response. Who gets to say what the “healthy” or “right” choice is? Toxic positivity is a thing. As J. Krishnamurti has been quoted ad infinitum for saying, “it is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a sick society.”
More and more alternative medicine practitioners, researchers and “radical” therapists are starting to conclude that if you wanted to intentionally design a society to make and keep humans sick, you couldn’t do much better than the one we have now (this was just as true pre-COVID as it is today). In late-stage, unbridled capitalism, who gets to choose what’s “right” to feel and what’s “wrong,” and therefore available to be monetized, is the owning class.
The most important reason to retire this phrase from use is that it enables people in power to abdicate accountability and responsibility. “You can choose how you feel” can be and is used when the therapist doesn’t want to take responsibility for their mistakes. If clients can choose how they feel, then therapists (and others) can behave however they want because the client always has the option of choosing to feel good or safe or happy no matter how they are treated—how convenient for therapists! How convenient for abusers! This way of thinking comes from hundreds of years of rabid individualism, not true care.
I’m imagining a therapist might argue, “Maybe you can’t choose how you feel, but you can choose what you do about it.” I would say that that isn’t always true, either, and is just as ableist as saying “you can choose how you feel.” Also, whether you can choose what to do about how you feel or not, focusing on performance is unhelpful and dismissive. Counseling someone to behave well even when they feel like shit—which sounds a lot like “fake it till you make it” (which I address right after this)—is not “therapy,” it’s teaching them to be codependent and put everyone else before themselves: behaving well despite feeling bad is about other people and, while it can be useful in moments for interrupting a pattern or trying to forge new pathways, the message still is that other people’s comfort and needs are more important than yours.
Fake it till you make it
First of all, raise your hand if this has ever worked for you? For me, all this has led to is burnout, losing trust in myself and forcing my way through life in a way that eclipsed happiness, joy, or even calmness. So many people repeat this infuriating piece of advice that I even got sucked into believing it—familiarity = truth for the human brain, unfortunately—so strongly that I actually felt guilty for not faking hard enough when I wasn’t getting the results I wanted. That is incredibly messed up. I felt guilty when I was being myself. I felt shame when I wasn’t being fake. Read those last two sentences again.
But what would have happened if I did get the results I wanted? I actually think it would have been worse for me. Largely “failing” to get the results I wanted after trying so hard to fake it eventually caused me to question what I was doing. If faking it had worked—if I had gotten what I was aiming to get by being false, acting “as if,” which was really just performing, and erecting and then struggling to maintain a façade—I would have had to continue being untrue to myself, suppressing and shunning myself and damaging my mind and body by inefficiently and inappropriately using my energy in order to keep the things I got that way.
The few things I did get by faking it, I no longer wanted after I got them and I couldn’t figure out why for the longest time. I interrogated myself—maybe I really didn’t know what I wanted and needed to dig deeper or torture my subconscious into revealing what it is I “really” wanted, thereby playing into the pathologization of natural desire society inflicts on us (mostly those who identify as female) so it can insert its own objects of desire in order to make a profit. I tried to stop wanting anything in general—maybe wanting itself was the problem, and I needed to rip out any hope or desire for anything at all. This, you can imagine, only led to more guilt and shame.
Finally, I realized that the reason I didn’t want the things I had and didn’t have the things I wanted was because I had been faking it. The person I had created and subsequently performed in order to get what I wanted had actually “made it.” That person had gotten what that person wanted. But that person was not me. Now, I might have done this a bit too literally (I have a tendency to do such things), but the overall philosophy of “fake it till you make it” is still very specious to me. Why are therapists promoting inauthenticity in the name of acquisition?
No one is responsible for your life but you
In the first place, this is patently false. There are various beliefs about your soul/spirit/higher self “choosing” to be here; what we can see in the world is that babies come into the world without initiating that process at all. I don’t remember choosing to wake up on planet earth at any point. My parents did want children, but it doesn’t make sense to me to say that they wanted me. How could they have known who they wanted? All they knew was they wanted children; thus, I and my two siblings exist.
I don’t personally believe my soul chose to incarnate here; on a good day, I might be able to believe that God created me for a purpose and God doesn’t make junk, but that is still not me willing myself into existence. Since we don’t have definitive proof either way, there isn’t any point in debating it. The point is that, in order for new people to come into this world, other people have to do something; no one can will themselves into existence entirely on their own. So the way life starts, at least physically at the observable level, already proves “no one is responsible for your life but you” false.
But, more importantly, “no one is responsible for your life but you” gets translated in practice to “I’m only responsible for getting my needs met” and a withdrawal from community. Do we want to live in a world that isolates every single one of us into providing 100% of our own needs despite not actually being able—because we’re human—to do so? Where we don’t take responsibility for the collective good and building a world where everyone gets their needs met, not only because we’ve been conditioned to believe that we’re the only one we should care about, but also because we are too exhausted by providing for 100% of our own needs, including the ones that only are met in community rather than isolation, 100% of the time that we have no energy left for others?
Until we have a world that meets everyone’s basic needs (which includes human connection and belonging, Mr. Maslow), humanity will be addicted to having an enemy. And believing that we the only ones responsible for our lives disconnects us to the point of disabling us from building such a world.
Also, similar to the first phrase I discussed, “no one is responsible for your life but you” has a dismissive “I’m not responsible for how any of my actions impact you” air to it and has been used that way by a therapist against me when I was stuck in an abusive marriage. While it was true that no one could actually leave that situation but me, and only I could respect myself enough to say “enough” to the harm being done to me, it also felt deeply isolating and overwhelming. When people in power say “no one is responsible for your life but you,” it is dismissive and frustrating. There is a reason someone is seeking help from a professional; it’s likely they think they need help navigating a challenging circumstance or longstanding pattern and have tried to do it on their own for far too long.
To be clear, I have said this phrase, but not as a therapist. I have said it as a friend—as in, to someone I am in an equal relationship with. I have said it and I have received it in this context and it has been empowering. The main reason it’s been so empowering is because the friend who said it to me made it clear that, while I was the one who had to do the work—I was the one who had to pack the boxes and change bank accounts and get myself out of the apartment I was sharing with my then husband—she was going to be with me as my need and her ability overlapped.
Therapists might want to use this phrase as a way of setting a boundary but stating something that isn’t true as if it were true is not the way to do so. If a client is struggling with taking responsibility, telling them to do so isn’t going to magically give them the skills or desire to do so. For a human being to take as much responsibility as it is appropriate for one person to take, they need a consistent, supportive environment with others who believe in them and have resources. A timebound session they have to pay for is not going to facilitate healthy responsibility taking.
Being expected to be 100% in control of how we feel, being responsible for all the human needs we have, including the ones that can only be met in connection with others, faking our way to achievement—this is not a path to health. It’s too great a burden for us human beings: we need each other, and there’s no faking our way out of that.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.