Podcast: Self-Help Cliches Have a Peculiar Value

Woman in waiting room hand on forehead

Podcast: Self-Help Cliches Have a Peculiar Value

Take the bull by the horns! Pick yourself up by your bootstraps! Are these cliches condescending for people with mental illness? Or is there a grain of truth to them? Today, Gabe and Lisa debate the pros and cons of the all too common “taking your life back” advice we all get from well-meaning people. Gabe shares his personal story of gaining back control of his life a day at a time while healing from depression.

When you struggle with mental illness, how much of your behavior, thoughts and emotions do you actually have control over? Is it helpful to feel in control of your life, even when it screws you over?

Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations , available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from Gabe Howard. To learn more, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.

Lisa is the producer of the Psych Central podcast, Not Crazy. She is the recipient of The National Alliance on Mental Illness’s “Above and Beyond” award, has worked extensively with the Ohio Peer Supporter Certification program, and is a workplace suicide prevention trainer. Lisa has battled depression her entire life and has worked alongside Gabe in mental health advocacy for over a decade. She lives in Columbus, Ohio, with her husband; enjoys international travel; and orders 12 pairs of shoes online, picks the best one, and sends the other 11 back.

Computer Generated Transcript for “Self-Help Cliches Episode

Lisa: Y ou’re listening to Not Crazy, a psych central podcast hosted by my ex-husband, who has bipolar disorder. Together, we created the mental health podcast for people who hate mental health podcasts.

Lisa: Hey, everyone. So today’s quote is, you must take personal responsibility. You cannot change the circumstances, the seasons or the wind, but you can change yourself. And that is by Jim Rohn.

Gabe: I’m assuming that we’re going to be talking about personal responsibility when it comes to managing and living with mental illness. This dude said it better and considerably shorter than Gabe and Lisa say anything. So you want to wrap?

Gabe: Like anything has a double edged sword, right? You must take personal responsibility. OK. I dig that. We can change ourselves. We can be in charge of ourselves. We can move forward. That’s a very empowering statement and one that, frankly, does speak to me. But it has an upper limit, right? If you’ve been incarcerated against your will, you’re a political prisoner in another country because of gender or race, like. And somebody is like, listen, you can’t expect these people to let you out of prison. You’ve got to take charge of your circumstances. That just seems like jerk advice.

Gabe: And I’m wondering, is it condescending to say to somebody with a severe and persistent mental illness, I mean, literally a disease? I have bipolar disorder. I have anxiety and psychosis, and I mean just. And you’re telling me, well, Gabe, you have to take personal responsibility.

Lisa: There is absolutely still wisdom in it, because even if things are unfair, it doesn’t matter, you can’t change it. Although this advice is in fact very condescending and you want to say to this guy, hey, that’s easy for you to say. And it’s not a coincidence that when he said this, he was, of course, a wealthy white man. But it’s also just practical. It doesn’t really matter how much you’ve been screwed over by life. You can’t change that. This is all you can change. Your own behavior is all that you have control over.

Gabe: One, I completely agree with that, except that in the case of mental illness, we often don’t have control over our own emotions, brains, minds. I mean, just, I can only imagine if when I thought demons were trying to kill you and I was standing sentry in our front yard, you would have said to me, Gabe, you can’t control the demons. You’re only in control of your own actions in life. So therefore, by the power of will and want, you will defeat psychosis. Just come in the house and watch television. Do you think that would have worked? Would you have given me that advice on the lawn?

Gabe: I think what you’re getting at, Lisa, is we have to be active participants in our life. We can’t just sit back and wait for a magic medication or a magic treatment. If we don’t participate in our own recovery, recovery is unlikely to move forward. I understand that this advice does not work for people who are literally in the high end throes of mania or suicidal depression or suffering from psychosis or have such deep crippling anxiety that they can’t get out of their house. Mind over matter doesn’t always work. We’re discussing this from the point where we have gained back some of our faculties, where we have a little bit of control and we have the ability to make decisions and we’re trying to decide if we want to. That’s how it kind of was for me for a while. I didn’t know that I wanted to try. I’d failed so much. It was painful to try.

Gabe: It’s so easy, Lisa, when I’m depressed to just really hate these quotes, because people are just throwing them at you, right. Constantly telling you you pick yourself up from your bootstraps, just cheer up, go for a walk. You know, stop and smell the roses. The sun will come out tomorrow. It is what it is. There’s just a million of them. But I do agree with it. So there’s a lot of nuance to all of this. And I just want to orient our listeners to the idea that what we’re saying is, if you have the ability, use it. And if you don’t have the ability, do whatever you can to get it. And then finally, this is going to be the crux of the show, right, Lisa? Try to figure out the difference.

Gabe: Nope, Lisa, you’re going to tell the story, because arguably this is your story. But I’ll give you a little bit of setup. Bipolar disorder took a lot. It was unfair. I didn’t deserve it. I don’t deserve it. I was fighting this illness, at, you know, what, twenty five years old? And all of my friends, they kept advancing in their careers, whereas I lost my job. I wanted to make sure that everybody within the sound of my voice knew that I was wronged. That I was a victim of this. That I was suffering from it. And that it was bullshit. Picture all of my anger, energy and loudness, proclaiming how I was a victim and how I was wrong. And I did it one too many times, and, eventually, Lisa snapped.

Facing a serious diagnosis

Everything changes when you learn that you have a life-threatening illness. Perhaps you cried, sought out the comfort of loved ones, or did your best to distract yourself or pretend like nothing had changed. Or maybe you simply froze, unable to process how your life had suddenly changed out of all recognition. Or perhaps you even jumped into action and started tackling your health problem head on.

It’s important to remember there’s no “right” or “wrong” way to respond. We’re all different, so don’t tell yourself what you should be thinking, feeling, or doing after a diagnosis or serious health event. Give yourself time to process the news and be kind to yourself as you adjust to your new situation.

Allow yourself to feel. It may seem better in the moment to avoid experiencing your emotions, but they exist whether you’re paying attention to them or not. Trying to ignore your feelings will only increase stress and maybe even delay recovery. But if you allow yourself to feel what you feel, you’ll find that even intense, disturbing feelings will pass, the initial distress you felt at news of your diagnosis will start to ease, and some aspects of life will even return to normal.

Be patient with the pace of treatment and recovery. After receiving an initial diagnosis or suffering a major health event, it can take time and an array of tests and consultations before your medical team settles on an appropriate course of treatment. It’s easy to become anxious as you wait for a clearer picture of what your road to recovery will entail. But scouring the Internet and relying on what can often be inaccurate or scary information will only make you feel worse. When you’re faced with a lot of unknowns, you can still care for yourself—eat a healthy diet, exercise, sleep well—and pursue those relationships and activities that bring you joy.

Be open to change. Rationally, no one would consider having a heart attack or receiving a cancer diagnosis as ever having any positive consequences. But it can happen. Some people diagnosed with life-threatening conditions do undergo a change in perspective that focuses them on the important things in their lives—those things that add meaning and purpose. Negative emotions such as anger or guilt can even sometimes have a positive effect, motivating you to meet treatment goals, for example. Keeping your mind open may help you to find the positives and better cope emotionally in even the darkest situations.

Facing the Reality of a Loved One’s Final Days

If you are close enough with this person to discuss end-of-life care and final arrangements, it is important to broach these topics early on. The conversation may be uncomfortable initially, but talking about details and preferences will assure your loved one that their wishes will be carried out. This discussion will also provide you with clear instructions to follow both before and after their passing.

It may seem morbid to some, but end-of-life conversations can help both parties come to terms with the situation and segue to other poignant discussions. When Mercia Tapping’s husband was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, they talked openly about his impending death.

“We faced his disease head on,” she recalls. After a two-year battle, her husband passed away at home, as he had requested. “We had discussed all aspects of his burial and funeral. He wanted me to deliver his eulogy, and I did. Because we faced this so openly together, I have no regrets. Nothing was left unsaid or undone, which makes his death painful but complete.”

“In a situation like this, there is nothing to say except ‘I love you,’ ” Kritz admits. “I tell my mother all the things that I never had the time to tell her before. I hold her hand and stroke her hair and massage her feet. I can’t imagine what she feels or what her thoughts are, so I just love her by being beside her and comforting her the best way I know how.”

Letting someone know how much they are loved, listening to them and offering a hand to hold are perhaps the three greatest gifts you can give to someone who is facing the end of life.

“We must talk about our fears, wishes, joys, and regrets and be able to accept and forgive before we end our time on this planet,” encourages Paula Shaw, CDAC, DCEP, a grief counselor with more than 21 years of experience. “Anyone who helps us do this is a gift.”