When I was seven, I took my first trip to the psychiatrist. I later learned that this was not my first trip. I had been in and out of psychiatrists’ offices since I could walk and talk, but this visit was important because it was the very first time that I realized something was going on. As I left the office, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was somehow different from my schoolmates: I wondered how many of them had to attend appointments like I did. I wondered how many of them felt strange and abnormal, like I did. I wondered if they felt like they were under the microscope, too.
A Need for Normal
For years, the deepest cry of my heart has been the need to feel “normal”. As a teenager, I sought comfort and validation from social comparison: I gauged my successes and failures by comparing them to other people’s achievements. That is how I knew whether or not I was doing things “right” – I looked to others to affirm me, to criticize me, and to confirm my belonging in the realm of “normal”. “Is this right?” I asked with my whole soul. “Is this good?”
At no point did I consider that my version of normal and my peers’ versions of normal might diverge. I never considered that I could be forcing myself into a box that wasn’t built for me.
The more I uncovered my mental health conditions, the more alone I felt. Every day was more evidence that I was not “normal”. Every day provided more ammo for me to barrage myself with accusations that I was “strange”; too different from the vast majority to deserve love, acceptance, and patience. Every diagnosis further alienated me from my loved ones because I had a damaging, internalized core belief about myself: that my mental health conditions kept me from being “normal”. I believed that I could never experience life like a “normal” person. I was so extremely jealous of everyone that I met – in my mind, there were two categories. “Normal,” and then “Like me.”
I desperately wanted to feel like other people, to have difficult days that were like other people’s difficult days, and to have good days like other people had good days. In my life, I have dealt with decades of shame and self-hatred over my perceived abnormality. I couldn’t see myself fitting into anyone else’s expectations of what “normal” should be: I couldn’t find myself in any of the portraits of well-rounded, exceptional adults that I saw in the media. I wanted to be “normal” so badly that I overlooked a crucial fact about normality: it looks different for everyone.
A New Normal
There is no definition of “normal” that can encompass each of our unique and individual experiences. This is especially true for those of us that live and thrive with mental and behavioral health conditions. I get swept away in other people’s definitions of “normal”. I try to fit myself into their boxes, but their boxes weren’t made for me or my experiences.
Social comparison may be the thief of joy, but it’s also the thief of belonging. We are not built to adhere to someone else’s definition of “normal”. How is it, then, that we all wind up expecting societal normalcy of ourselves? I may not be able to handle my hard days like other people. Truthfully, they may not feel like they can handle their hard days like I do. So why are we comparing?
The definition of normal is: “conforming to a standard; usual, typical, or expected.” When I crave the usual, when I ache to be considered typical, whose definition of “normal” am I trying to conform to? Whose standards am I so desperately trying to meet? When I really think about it, I can’t come up with an answer. All I know is that I carry scars from years of othering myself before someone else could do it for me.
For years, I stigmatized myself – I made my mental health conditions into a monster that separated me from everyone else. I no longer want to treat myself like that. Now, I want to experience acceptance, love, and understanding. And no one can give me that like I can.
The most revolutionary thing I’ve done for myself in my recovery is to confront my negative, internalized beliefs about myself. My number one belief: that I am not like other people. That I am so different, so alien, so abnormal that love and acceptance should be out of my reach. This belief has robbed me of the joy and belonging that was right in front me all along. I thought this belief was motivating me to recover, to “get better” – I realize now that it has only held me back.
People living and thriving with mental and behavioral health conditions are not “others”. We are not abnormal. We exist alongside everyone else, finding our own ways of coping and being healthy. We set our own standard for normalcy. We stand together and create our own definition of typical.
De-stigmatizing the Self
If you have ever felt out of place and unworthy of support because of your mental and behavioral health conditions, you are not alone. I have felt that way for most of my life. But I am slowly realizing that I don’t have to live with that fear anymore, and neither do you.
We stigmatize ourselves, too. We shut down and cast accusations at ourselves before society can do it for us. This is called “self-stigma” – the process of holding negative core beliefs about yourself and your mental and/or behavioral health conditions. Society is ready for a new normal: in order for us to be ready, we have to do the work of destigmatizing ourselves.
We all have negative, internalized core beliefs about what it means to live with a mental and/or behavioral health condition. We talk about destigmatizing mental and behavioral health in the media, in the news, and in our governments, but we don’t talk about the most important frontier of de-stigmatization: the self.
Think about the ways in which you “other” yourself: do you feel shame surrounding your experiences with your mental and/or behavioral health condition? Do you feel fundamentally different from those without lived experience of these conditions? Do you ever tell yourself that you don’t deserve the same level of acceptance, love, and support that “normal” people deserve? These are all signs of self-stigma.
So, how do we start to de-stigmatize ourselves? Studies show that there are two main ways that people with lived experience can begin to destigmatize the self:
- Address internalized, negative core beliefs through identification and adjustment
- Build strong coping skills that empower individuals to address their self-esteem and self-stigmatizing patterns
The first approach involves identifying the root cause of your negative core beliefs – where did you pick up these beliefs? What has enforced these beliefs in your life? It is important to return to the past in order to understand how these beliefs have impacted you through the years. The second approach involves creating and developing coping skills to help you ward off the effects of self-stigma.
Give your body and soul what they need; don’t hold back nutrition, joy, experience, or love. Find ways to prove to yourself that you do deserve to feel normal and accepted. Make a list of all the loving relationships in your life, all the strengths that you have, and all the ways you have overcome obstacles in your journey towards recovery. Approach your self-stigma with kindness rather than judgement – it’s not your fault that you’ve developed this response to your health conditions. In fact, it is likely a way of coping with external stigma. It can be effective to ask yourself: “is this helpful? Are these feelings working to further my recovery?”
What helped me the most in de-stigmatizing myself was simply recognizing the patterns; I would anticipate negative reactions before they happened. I assumed that I would fall apart in social settings, and that no one would understand. I let these assumptions turn into self-fulfilling prophecies, because I was more comfortable with an outcome that I had predicted than one that I could not control.
When I walk into my psychiatrist’s office now, I know that other people feel the same way that I do. I know that I am part of a new normal, and I am proud to be someone who lives and thrives with a mental and behavioral health condition. I am learning to see that I do belong. I am learning how to destigmatize myself and how to adjust my negative core beliefs to reflect the truth: that I am completely normal. And I always have been.
You deserve love no matter who you are. You are completely normal, you belong, and you don’t have to force yourself into a box. You don’t have to abide by someone else’s expectations. You can live, love, and learn without demonizing yourself for your mental and behavioral health conditions. You deserve to extend to yourself the acceptance that you extend to others.