There was no real coping – just a harsh, shaming self-talk demanding I push forward.
I just felt like a person running fast because someone else had a gun to my head and was telling me to do so. And I often found myself being unkind to people who didn’t deserve to be judged harshly because I was so anxious and irritable, harming my relationships. I was miserable – trapped in an invisible prison of my own making.
The inevitable consequence of my “criticize first, ask questions later” approach to life was emerging mental health issues. Despite being a psychology major and in training to be a clinical psychologist, when I started graduate school at the age of 22, I was terrified at the mere mention of not being 100% mentally healthy. Therapy was this distant academic concept.
In fact, I saw the world as those who were mentally healthy and those who needed help. And as an aspiring mental health expert, I was convinced that I needed to be one of the healthy ones – even if it meant ignoring some rather obvious counter-evidence. So, the more I ignored, avoided or suppressed what I was feeling to keep moving forward, the worse things got.
Predictably, this approach to my life soon blew up in my face. My unrelenting anxiety caught up with me and eventually transitioned into a depression where for the first time in my life I was having trouble getting out of bed. I didn’t become curious about what was happening to me because of an evolved epiphany about the benefits of curiosity over criticism.
I became curious because I had no choice. I couldn’t avoid questions that were punching me in the face.
- Why was I anxious and irritable all of the time and constantly worrying?
- Was it normal to literally never feel relaxed or fully “in the moment?”
- Why did I never sleep through the night? Why did I binge eat and drink so often?
- What made me feel entitled to judge others?
I couldn’t just be critical any longer – I had to be curious to figure out what was wrong with me.
Curiosity Is The Key To Connection
It was then that I sought out therapy and began to see things differently. I started to recognize that almost every negative interaction I had started with either my criticizing myself or someone else criticizing me. A harsh critical mindset means that it is right and wrong, winners and losers, righteous and fallen.
So, even if I won the argument, I still felt like I lost because the world felt so harsh and unsafe. In contrast, almost every interaction that worked out well for me started with curiosity. The reason is that curiosity is the beginning of a connection. It’s the start of a constructive dialogue in which I’m trying to figure myself out or understand someone else.
Maybe it was a new activity I’d never seen that I was open to trying. Maybe it was my wondering why I was anxious about something and following that train of thought to an effective coping strategy. It is limitless in its potential. And I found that it was actually more motivating – I felt like I was moving towards something good rather than away from something bad. But where it’s served me the best is in the area of my work – treating people with mental illness.
Be Curious About Mental Illness
I have to keep in mind my supervisor’s lessons and Silver’s example as I try to create open-minded, non-judgmental, and constructive discussions with my patients. To be sure, it’s an ever-evolving effort and an ongoing journey.
And this is what we need to do as a field – mental health practitioners and advocates – and as a society comprised of people who struggle with mental illness, their friends, family, colleagues, and associates. We need to change the conversation from being critical of mental illness and stigmatizing those who suffer into one where we are curious.
We need to make that simple pivot of asking ourselves in a curious rather than critical way – what are we feeling, doing, or thinking? Do we need help? Are there ways that we can explore to cope more effectively? And all of the stakeholders need to come together to make this shift in the culture around mental illness so that people can see mental illness as the beginning of a curious and productive conversation with themselves and others, rather than the beginning of a nightmare of criticism and stigma.
Thanks, Lily Cornell Silver, for your leadership. I’m curious to see how we as a society learn this lesson.
Written by: Michael Friedman, Ph.D Originally appeared on: Hardcorehumanism.com Republished with permission