Why “you need a better attitude” pisses me off

I’m sure everyone with a mental illness, whether mild or severe, has dealt with some variation of the “You just need to cheer up!” admonition. Whether it’s “You just need to stop worrying” to someone with an anxiety disorder or “You just need to get organized” to someone with ADHD, this is one of the most aggravating and useless things that could ever be said. If it were that easy, everyone would do it. (In general, if the word “just” appears in the sentence, I’m going to tune out whatever you’ve just said. ::coughs::)

But…mental illnesses are complicated and there are sometimes ways in which we can affect them and help ourselves. It depends, first of all, on the origin of the illness.

I think it’s fairly safe to say that severe mental illnesses are biological in nature, caused by brain chemistry and other factors under no personal control. So, for example, telling someone with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder to stop doing what they’re doing isn’t going to get you anywhere and is extremely hurtful.

If you’ve got something wrong with your hormones or brain chemistry, you probably need medication and that’s okay. There is nothing shameful in needing medication for a mental illness, just like it’s okay for a diabetic to need medication or insulin to control their blood sugar. And if anyone tells you that you should be able to “cheer up” or “calm down”, then you have my permission to smack them with a clue bat 😉

But when you move down the chain to the less severe illnesses, there may be aspects of the illness that are cultural (society tells us how to think of our emotions and reactions) or familial (how your family dealt with emotions and reactions) or part of your personal history (how your own experiences have taught you to deal with them). There is generally some aspect of brain chemistry involved as well, although it can be incredibly difficult to see where the line is.

Sometimes you can ameliorate the effects of mental illness by doing things like exercising, changing the way you think about things, and learning cognitive and behavioral tricks to deal with your life and your illness.

A good therapist can help you figure out what might help you. If your depression or anxiety, for example, is being exacerbated by cognitive distortions, then you can help yourself feel better by noticing when you’re magnifying your shortcomings or overgeneralizing from insufficient experience. (I’ve found this very helpful, personally, since I’m guilty of about half the distortions on that list.)

Cognitive behavioral therapy is great if you have developed maladaptive behaviors and unhelpful emotions. If your response to the slightest criticism is to assume that everyone hates you and you should go hide under your bed, you can probably be helped by CBT. Maybe not completely cured, but you will most likely see improvement. Combine it with medication and most people will feel better.

However—and this is a very big however—none of this gives another person the right to tell you that if you just had a better attitude, things wouldn’t be so bad. Because here’s my actual main point:

It’s not crazy to be upset, sad, depressed, angry, or anxious when actual bad things are happening to you.

It’s not. In fact, I would argue that if you’re not sad or upset when someone dies, or anxious when you have a big life-changing event coming up, then you have a bigger problem in your brain than I do!

The problem is finding the point at which you’re mentally distorting the event to make it even worse. If you’ve gone from “my mother died” to “everyone around me is going to die immediately and I’m going to be all alone forever” then you could probably use some therapy. If you’re just sad that your mother died, then people should leave you the hell alone, because you’re bloody well allowed to be sad about that.

Yes, you can use various cognitive and behavioral techniques to ameliorate your depression or anxiety even when they’re triggered by actual events and you absolutely should try them. There’s no reason to be more miserable than necessary, after all. But you have no responsibility to the people around you to be happy, cheerful, and completely normal at all times when bad things are happening. If they can’t handle a certain amount of bad attitude, they may not be the people you want around you.

And when actual bad things are happening, it’s not good for you to pretend there’s nothing wrong. It’s going to be more harmful in the long run if you pretend that everything is happy and normal and your emotions don’t exist.

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About mamamara

I'm a 40-somethng, work-at-home mother of two. I'm pro-vaccine, pro-medicine, pro-science, and an avid reader of information about all of the above, and I want to combine my love for my children with my love for science. So here we are!
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