The Stigma Inside Me: Overcoming the Shame of Mental Illness
I remember having a chat with my first therapist about the concept of stigma surrounding mental health treatment. It was about a year after I had first come to her office with a businesslike bulleted list of anxiety triggers I wanted to fix, preferably in as little time as possible. I had no intention to dive deeply into the depths of my fears or lay on her couch with a box of tissues. I was simply at the end of my rope, felt this was my last shot at feeling better and wanted to get it over with as quickly as possible, before any of my friends or family figured out that I was seeing a therapist.
Of course, I quickly learned that therapy doesn’t work like that, nor would I benefit from it if I viewed my appointments as some shameful secret I had to sneak around and hide. A year into my journey with therapy I told my counselor about these thoughts I’d had in the beginning, and how they had been barriers to my seeking counseling in the first place.
She told me how common it is for people to feel shame around seeking help for mental health. As an example, she asked me how I would feel about telling someone I was seeing a counselor versus seeing a “psychotherapist.” It was an interesting thought. Although the words mean the same thing, I cringed a little at the term “psychotherapy.” But why? Why did I have these feelings in the first place? Why did I harbor such internalized shame about my mental illness?
I didn’t ask to have an anxiety disorder, in the same way, that no one asks to develop seasonal allergies or twist their ankle. Yet, when you’re feeling sick or injured, it’s typically easy to be open with others about those struggles. Physical injuries happen to a lot of people and there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Friends and family might check in on you, offer their sympathies, or perhaps even share a time when they were afflicted with the same struggle. For the most part, we understand that the person is not defined by the illness or the injury.
Mental illness, however, is still unfortunately shrouded in shame and stigma in our culture today. We fear being labeled “crazy,” and this fear can prevent us from seeking the help we need. There is no expected network of support, no “get well soon” cards, no neighbors dropping off casseroles. And that right there is why we so desperately need to change the narrative.
I have panic disorder with agoraphobia. I lived with it for many years (my whole life really, as long as I can remember) before finally seeking help, partly because of shame and partly because of fear of treatment. You see, the most effective way to treat phobias is through exposure therapy. Put simply, the more you confront your fears, the more they retreat, and over time the fear lessens. It’s an uncomfortable process that requires a lot of strength and bravery, and it’s necessary to move past the fear.
I believe that the same can be said about shame. The reason I was feeling shameful about my mental illness was because I was hiding it from the world. I didn’t want to face it and fully own my story because I was worried about what people would think of me. I feared that my coworkers might think I was less capable of doing my job. I feared that my friends and family would judge me or think less of me. I feared that others would think I was crazy or weak.
But after that first year of therapy, I had come to a very painful realization: the reason I feared being seen as crazy, weak, less capable, or less lovable was that, deep down, I believed those things. My mental illness had been lying to me, making me feel weak and less than. The realization that I harbored such deep insecurities was very painful for me, but it was time for me to confront my own shame.
Moving Past Self-Judgement
Changing our cultural narrative starts by taking a raw, honest look at our own beliefs about ourselves. It’s often much easier to extend compassion to others than to ourselves. Did I believe that people with mental illness were crazy or weak? Certainly not, and I would never say such things to a friend who opened up to me about their mental health struggles. But if that’s the case, why was I judging myself through that harsh lens?
When I identified and faced my insecurities in therapy, I realized I wasn’t crazy or weak for having an anxiety disorder – I was incredibly strong! I was persisting despite the fact that everyday tasks were immeasurably more difficult for me than for someone without anxiety. Every accomplishment, big or small, suddenly felt that much more valuable. I was strong and capable and worthy of love, respect and friendship.
Once I realized this, keeping my mental health journey a secret began to feel like I was living inauthentically. I decided to be brave, confront the shame head-on and finally speak out, if not for my own benefit, then to help others know they’re not alone. So, I wrote my first blog post for Still I Run. In finally coming out as a person living with mental illness, in owning my truth and opening up publicly, something incredible happened – the shame retreated. I finally stopped living with this awful secret and started living openly as a triumphant fighter, willing to share my story with others who may be dealing with the same thing.
And boy, am I in good company. I can’t even count how many times friends, acquaintances, coworkers, family members, or even strangers reached out to me to share that they, too, lived with the same struggles. It felt comforting and validating to learn I was not alone, not even close. So many people I loved and respected and even envied were privately living with the same kinds of mental health struggles that I was. And with that realization, my shame retreated.
Changing the Narrative
I recognize that blogging about mental health struggles is not for everyone, nor is openly discussing your most private fears with strangers on the internet. I’m not saying everyone should open up in the exact way I did. But if you are keeping your mental illness a secret like I was, I challenge you to question why. Are you simply more comfortable with only reaching out privately to close friends and therapists for the support you need? Or are you desperate for help but too ashamed to admit it, too ashamed to open up to loved ones?
If it’s the latter, I challenge you once more to consider confronting your fears, opening up and reaching out for support. You might just find that in doing so, those shameful feelings simply melt away, and then the warrior that you have always been can finally shine through.