We are so steeped in our own culture that we have no idea how high the decay is rising, the amount of loneliness, gaslighting, overworking, and medicalizing we are living with and calling normal. The idea that “you can’t care for other people unless you first take care of yourself” is becoming more and more popular. It seems like people interpret it as meaning that taking care of yourself is equivalent to caring for others, rather than self-care being one necessary but not sufficient ingredient.
Our culture has construed “maturity” on social media as shallow, air-brushed depictions of our lives. Honesty, sincerity, and raw emotions are seen as attention seeking, rude or otherwise an improper use of what we are all told is a tool for connection. If you’re too honest about being in a dark space, you are more likely to be met with a wellness check from an officer with a gun than true compassion from one of those friends or family members you log on to stay in touch with.
We’ve gotten to the point in our culture where mainstream psychology and self-help definitions of health include not needing other people, always being able to walk away, and speaking your truth whatever the cost to others. These are not markers of psychological or any other kind of health; these are gaslighting statements of the highest order. To actually live this way, you would have to be truly cut off from your own and others’ emotions as well as an understanding of your limitations, which is to say your humanness.
Our culture does not like humanness. Humanness can be fragile, weak, needy, inconsistent. This is why it’s not just a saying that we need each other: we really cannot do very much on our own and it is emotionally abusive to expect that we can and label us disordered in some way when we cannot.
Our culture has so thoroughly annihilated any accurate understanding of human being and what thriving and health look like that when I had a friend proofread this draft, she suggested I delete all references to lack of self-sufficiency as entirely a bad thing for “inaccuracy.” She is a well-educated, self-aware Millennial and she still thinks that self-sufficiency is the ultimate goal (maybe the reason she thinks this is because she’s so “well-educated”), unable to sufficiently nuance her understanding of self-sufficiency to include the problematic aspects of it.
But look around. Is our society doing well? Even before the pandemic (can you remember such a time?), loneliness was on the rise, the economy couldn’t provide for everyone’s basic needs, and deaths of despair were reaching such high levels that the overall lifespan of Americans was decreasing to the point where some speculate that my generation, the Millennials, are by some estimates the last generation expected to live longer than their parents do.
Of course, certain people are affected more by deaths of despair than others: wealthy people’s life expectancy has actually been increasing while poor people, especially poor people of color, are expected by some estimates to live up to ten years less long than their rich, white counterparts. The main reason? Economic hardship—that is, not being able to afford basic life necessities; forget about healthcare.
Since people who are on antipsychotics live 15 to 20 years fewer than those who are not, I would imagine the rampant use of these chemicals is contributing to the decrease in estimated lifespan among the poor and people of color as well, since those populations are target markets for new diagnoses and the drugs those diagnoses are designed to “require” (for life).
Our culture works so hard to deny humanness because humanness interferes with commerce and disrupts profit flow to the owning class. Humanness entails seeking connection with others rather than relying on distant overlords who have an interest in you and your wellbeing only insofar as you remain productive.
Humanness calls for attention. To develop properly and sustain a healthy life, humans need attention. Our culture fully supports attention shaming and actively withholding attention from people who need it; it’s called “attention seeking” and we are all taught to resist or ignore people who engage in it. Humanness involves seeking what we need, and humans need attention. It is such a betrayal by our culture that it shames human beings for making their needs known—even as the self-help industry is all about teaching people to ask for what they need clearly and directly (one of many double standards our culture upholds).
Our culture gives lip service to needing each other while the actual expectation is total independence, painting lone wolves and rugged individuals as the model for health. The correct orientation to other people and relationships, our culture says, is that you should be self-sufficient enough to view them as optional. You shouldn’t need anything from anyone; whatever you feel about other people and what they can add to your life should be something you are free to choose or reject.
This is not the pinnacle of emotional or relational health at all. This is the epitome of denial: we just simply are not creatures that can reach full potential on our own. There is no “self-made” human; we cannot physically make ourselves, and we do not develop properly or stay healthy without regular interaction and closeness with other people, both those who are similar to us (we all need reassurance and validation) and those who are different (we all need our opinions and thinking challenged if we want to avoid philosophical myopia and solipsism).
Humanness is not satisfied with productivity alone; it needs to find or make meaning. Yet, we are told so often in so many ways that wanting meaningful work is unreasonable. Notice that it’s not just “wrong” or “incorrect” to want work that matters. Our culture doesn’t frame it as a mere misunderstanding. No. Those who want their work to be in some way an expression of themselves or to make a positive impact on the world in ways they care about are unreasonable for wanting meaningful work.
We will return to this preoccupation with reason and rationality later on. I realize that for most of human history, people didn’t expect to derive meaning from their work; that doesn’t convince me that it isn’t in some way damaging to spend so much of one’s life doing something that does not matter to them. Work is not the only place meaning can be found, of course; but a culture that expects so much from its workers and continues to expect more and more while offering less and less while telling workers that they are wrong or high maintenance for wanting at least some meaningful connection with their work is abusive.
Even meaningless work is harder and harder to find, though. The deaths of despair mentioned above are largely driven by economic hardship, which is compounded by a culture of atomized individualism that shames people for needing help and makes forming connections that we should be able to count on for that help damn near impossible. More and more people are having to choose between their roots and better employment, and it’s really a false choice, since it’s less and less likely that your employer will take care of you in any meaningful way if it poses even the slightest burden on them to do so.
Another way to measure the health of a culture is by how it conceptualizes power and how people who have power handle it. Power in our culture is all too often extractive rather than protective, rash rather than wise, associated with brute force and strength rather than measured judgment that takes the holistic wellbeing of those said power affects into account.
A healthy relationship to power can be described with that common saying, “With great power comes great responsibility.” In today’s neoliberal, late-stage capitalistic society, the opposite is true more often than not: great power is a way of avoiding responsibility. The more power one has in this culture, the easier it is to ignore problems, complaints or things you don’t like.
If you’re a psychiatrist, you have the power to diagnose any problem away, making either your failure or systemic failure the individual’s problem. It’s the ultimate externalization; the fact that one client could get a different diagnosis for each mental health professional they see makes it seem like the diagnosis an individual receives says more about the professional who made the diagnosis than the individual who now has the label.
But saying things like that, challenging the system in any way, is always construed as “part of the illness.” This is a common show of power in this culture: the ability to silence someone you have harmed by dismissing their truth with no repercussions. It only ensures your ability to continue to perpetuate harm.
One of the most prominent and yet most subtle ways our culture is abusive is the inconsistent expectation of reason and rationality. Nearly every message we get is that it is good to be reasonable; it is superior and evolved to be rational. Broadly, in our culture, reason and rationality are void of emotion, and feelings are always illogical and not to be trusted.
Psychologists may throw a client a bone and say that emotions may have, at one point, made sense, but in those cases, they are hang-ups from the past and should still be eliminated or cognitively processed into submission. Emotions are dangerous liars in this culture, and those who express them in a way that makes people in power uncomfortable are diagnosed as ill.
Similar to labeling challenges to power as symptoms of a mental illness, labeling emotions as evidence of illness is a way to ensure that those in power stay in power and the current structures stay firmly in place. It’s not even that we just expect people not to show emotion or even act on emotion—we expect people not to feel emotion if they want to be rational.
And yet, we make key exceptions to this expectation: one of the diagnostic criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder is a lack of empathy (where “empathy” is, functionally, lack of affective empathy). So, basically, you’re not allowed to feel emotions or you’re diagnosably sick except in certain cases where you’re sick if you don’t show emotions.
When the main goal of power is to perpetuate itself, this is the signal that the culture isn’t interested in health and has already begun redefining health as its opposites. This is how it supports oppressive structures like the mental health industry that blames the individual for their environment that they don’t have the power to control. It’s much harder to challenge culture than it is to challenge institutions. Where is the origin of culture located? Who is/are the keeper/s of culture? Institutions, while still powerful in this culture, are concrete and thus more easily targetable.
We’ve also been living in an emotionally abusive culture for so long that we don’t even conceptualize power as possibly being good at this point. We call for the end of power, for people in power to step down, sooner than we advocate for good forms of power. It’s easier to rattle off lists of reasons why power is bad than to think of genuine ways power can be good.
We also don’t register that our culture is so emotionally abusive because we have been trained either to rank emotional abuse as less serious than physical abuse or we don’t think emotional abuse is even a real or valid thing. Of course we don’t register depriving people of their emotional needs: we are not supposed to feel emotions.
This is something we automatically perpetuate onto our children. My parents are truly wonderful people; I am honored to be their daughter and yet, even they—really, really good parents who were not perfect but authentically desired to do right by their children—could not help perpetuating the idea that emotions are to be forsaken: I inflexibly believed until I was over 30 that I would know I was an adult when I no longer had feelings. The damage one can do to one’s life by continuing to see themselves as a child in general, but especially when the reason they can’t see themselves as an adult is because they still have feelings, takes a long, long time to repair. Ask me how I know.
We need an overhaul of the emotional-treatment/mental-health industrial complex, but that doesn’t mean better interventions and expanded access. If we want this rapacious, greedy system to change or die altogether, we have to start talking about and modeling healthy, solid forms of power. Otherwise, those who have power currently will use said power in large part, to ensure they will always have it.
I don’t know how to change a culture, but it has to start with seeing it clearly for what it is: ours is deeply and unapologetically emotionally and mentally abusive.
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.