It is a tendency of human nature to like things to be recognizable and predictable. We want to slot people into neatly filed pigeonholes, and keep them there. The ones among us who really don’t do that are few and far between – I know that I do it myself, although less now than I used to. It’s really not a helpful habit though, and it’s one worth working hard to shake off. Nobody likes being labelled, or expected to fit other people’s expectations. After all, we are all works in progress. Who is the exact same type of person at 50 as they were at 20? Life shapes us, squeezes us, breaks us, rebuilds us, and just a few years can work a substantial transformation in who we are.
In many ways, society has made great strides in recognising and accepting mental illness, as well as other illnesses and disorders that weren’t recognised in generations past – chronic fatigue syndrome, learning difficulties, for example. But still, misunderstandings and stigma cling to them. I’ve spoken before about the misconceptions and stigmas surrounding clinical depression, but they are even stronger about some other illnesses and disorders. Talk to anyone who has been diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (or ME) and they will tell you of friends, family, sometimes (sadly) even doctors, who refuse to believe their symptoms, tell them ‘it’s all in your head’, suggest that if they just got out of bed and did some exercise they would be fine, and so on.
It’s sad, but it’s not too difficult to understand. Up until the latter few decades of the 20th Century, all mental illnesses were labelled as madness or insanity. Even epileptics were usually diagnosed as being either demon possessed, or mentally retarded. We’re talking centuries of belief here. Your parents, or your grandparents, grew up in a world where people who were mentally ill (from depression to schizophrenia) were feared and shunned, and possibly destined for an asylum. Society and the medical profession has made immense strides in understanding, diagnosing, and treating, mental illness, learning difficulties, immune system disorders, and so on. Hopefully the next generation will be so well educated and familiar with these problems that they shed all the misconceptions and stigmas that they can still evoke.
In the meantime, we have to do our personal best to treat others with the compassion, curiosity, and kindness that we hope to see in them. Instead of giving people our own personal labels, ones that blame and shame, let’s try to find out more about why they are the way they are, and give them extra support. Essentially, people are good, and try their hardest in life, whether we can see that on their surface, or not. Let’s try hard, not to label someone as lazy, stupid, a misery, crazy, selfish, or anything else that sums up their character in one negative characteristic, one that may be a symptom of an illness, and is more than likely something that they fight against every day. Calling someone by a negative label is one of the harshest things we can ever do, because it causes so much pain, and makes their every day struggle even harder. It never, ever helps or motivates. No child in school is going to improve their learning because a teacher calls them stupid or lazy. No one responds to that kind of negative poking in a positive way. All it does is, at best, leave us with a chip on our shoulder, or at worst, cause us to stop trying because it seems so hopeless.
Most important of all: when a loved one, friend, colleague, work or school mate, tells us that they have depression, ADHD, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, dyslexia, Aspergers, or anything else that provokes a negative or sceptical response in us, be accepting, be compassionate. Don’t think – or worse still, say – “oh you’re just…… insert negative quality of your choice“. They will almost certainly already think negatively about themselves, and you confirming that will hurt and alienate them even further. Believe in them. Show that you sympathise, and that you have faith in them, and will do whatever you can to help them overcome their challenges, and live as full and happy a life as possible. Show your faith in them – people respond far more to that than to cynicism, criticism, and abuse.
And to do that, start with yourself. What negative labels do you give yourself? When you struggle with a task, or fail at something for some reason, what do you say to yourself? “I’m so stupid. Why am I so lazy? I’m such a loser. I’m a failure.” STOP! Fight those voices. Defend yourself. If we all get into the habit of doing that for ourselves, maybe it will be easier to do that for loved ones and friends.
Because nobody should have to walk through life with a huge LOSER/IDIOT/WASTER/WEIRDO label around their neck. Every one of us is worth far more than that. Let’s live up to our potential, and give others the dignity to live up to theirs too.