In Context

 Irving Penn, Glove and Shoe, New York

Irving Penn, Glove and Shoe, New York

All too often, we walk around with the fear that we are “crazy,” “sick,” or “weird” for behaving the way we do. I often talk with patients who come into therapy terrified they will learn that their inability to move past a broken relationship with an ex, or their constant fear of impending doom despite positive circumstances, must mean that there is something deeply wrong with them—that they just might be “mentally ill,” confirming all their worst fears about themselves.

Not only do we think of ourselves in this way, but we also paint others in this same damaging light as well. We dismiss our boss as “crazy” when he responds to our efforts with anger, or we offhandedly mention that our brother is “insane” for proposing to someone we are convinced is “nuts.”

In one breath, we publicly condemn others for the very things we fear most about ourselves in private.

It’s not difficult to understand that this tendency to label ourselves and others as “crazy” is harmful for many reasons (importantly, further stigmatizing mental wellness concerns and shaming others from accessing quality care), but it also reveals a deeper reality of our understanding of the human condition: we do not see people, including ourselves, in context. It is only within context where we can begin to see our undesirable symptoms as normal responses to what we have experienced. And it’s only when we can see our symptoms as appropriate to our experiences that we can begin to heal.

I came to appreciate the importance of context several seasons ago, as I counseled children with trauma histories inside an elementary school. One particular patient, a ten-year-old female, would deliberately avoid eating at her kitchen table, opting to eat on the floor, in her bedroom, or on some occasions, in the bathroom of her home. She knew that eating dinner in the bathroom was odd behavior, and she felt deeply embarrassed to share this information with me. Yet, as she explored her behavior, she revealed she was the victim of abuse, which occurred while she was seated at her kitchen table. Her behavior, in context, made sense. And viewing her behavior through the broader lens of her life experience, she was able to respond to her own behavior in ways that did not further damage or shame her, and in ways that made her feel a bit more normal. 

So what if you began to see your symptoms as normal responses to what you have experienced? What if you came to view your unending sadness as a natural response to what happens to the human spirit when you lose someone you love, just as you did? What if you began to see your crippling insecurity in relationships as the natural response to the emotional neglect you experienced as a child? What if you could loosen your concern surrounding the classification of your mental state as “crazy” or “not crazy,” and rather, you could press into the pain beneath the symptoms? What if you began to accept that those reactions you hate inside yourself are all parts of being human?

I don’t ask these questions to suggest we stay in that place of depression or anxiety forever. However, there is freedom to move through depression or anxiety when we suspend the shame of our “craziness,” and start to see ourselves as humans responding to the context of life.

So if you hear one thing today, let it be this: You aren’t crazy. You’re human.