The feeling of not being good enough and needing to change is so familiar to me; it has been the reality that I’ve known for as long as I can remember. It’s like an old coat from my childhood — comforting and warm in its familiarity, but uncomfortable because it doesn’t fit, nor do the job I need it to do. This feeling of not being good enough and invalid has been built by and reinforced through many things — my experiences and interactions with myself and others; words that have been said, messages received. We are confronted every day with messages telling us that there is something wrong with us. Whether this is through explicit communication or simply based on the society in which we live, these messages are powerful. As a woman, I receive this messaging constantly. We have learned long ago that if we are unhappy it’s because of us. If something doesn’t feel right, we need to change our response to it. As women, there is a lot of implicit as well as explicit messaging that says that we are to be kind, compassionate, patient, and understanding. Therefore, don’t get angry. Take care of everyone else. Taking care of ourselves, as women, will make others uncomfortable so please, they tell us, hold your feelings inside to protect others. Do that emotional labour and ask for none in return. It’s so powerful because it happens on all levels — individual, familial, and societal.
From a young age, I have also experienced a diverse range of emotions in response to the events of my life that have made me feel like I don’t belong. The desire for belonging is universal and something children and adults alike strive for. When that doesn’t happen, what’s left? For myself, I grew up thinking that there was something wrong with me and wishing I was different. Lets map this onto the society in which we live. The beauty industry is predicated on this idea of not being good enough. As women, we are bombarded with messages that we need to change who we are — be skinnier, prettier, be carefree, be assertive but passive, and on and on. This isn’t the only system that reinforces this idea. Our mental health and health systems are no exception. It’s no surprise that women experience higher rates of mental health challenges than men. It’s no surprise that minority groups in general experience higher rates. When we are all being compared to what is “normal” and “ideal” only those who created these boxes are going to fit into them.
When we talk about mental health what we are really talking about is mental unhealth. Our system is created based on a ‘sickness’ model. Rather than a system that is dedicated to proactively creating and maintaining mental health or wellness, the current system specifically targets individual sickness and disease. This model looks at symptoms and provides a diagnosis. It is a reactive system and serves to individualize mental unhealth, categorize it, and stigmatize it.
This is how it works. First you feel so unwell that you go to the doctor. This doctor then checks a number of boxes indicating a specific diagnosis and directs you to a psychiatrist who will do the same thing more formally. And voila! You have, for example, an anxiety disorder. The next step is to discuss treatment. Now lets be optimistic and hope that that doctor discusses all treatment options with you — therapy, mindfulness, diet, etc. And then they will strongly recommend medication. Why? Because there is a chemical imbalance in your brain that is causing this anxiety that is atypical. Message: your brain isn’t working properly; it’s ‘sick’. You need medication to fix you. What you are experiencing isn’t normal and you need to get back to this socially constructed idea of “normal.” To be in that much distress is your and your brain’s fault and is the result of nothing else. Solution: this resides solely with you changing the way you react and behave and/or you changing your biology.
But what if this isn’t true? What if this isn’t the only understanding? What if you are normal? What if there is no normal? What if you are enough and do not need to change? What if the system needs to change? What if mental unhealth and illness are the result of the world in which we live and the inherent trauma that is associated with our experiences? What if it is the result of our unmet emotional and attachment needs? Our experiences shape who we are. Our experiences — especially our early ones — provide the context and environment in which our brains initially form and continue to develop.
While I know this to be true, it wasn’t until a few months ago when I felt it to be my truth. I was describing the ways in which I’ve felt like I’m not enough and need to be different when my friend posed that very simple question: What if you don’t need to change — you are okay just as you are? And that’s when it clicked. What if I’m not at fault? What if it’s not about fault? What if mental unhealth and illness is actually related to larger social factors and structures? Because it is. If we grow up in an unpredictable and chaotic environment, of course we may feel anxiety. If we get into a car accident, of course we may develop a fear of driving. If we lose someone really significant to us, of course we may experience depression. If we live in a capitalist system that promotes individualism and operates to create as much money as possible through consumption, of course they are selling those magazines that tell us we need to change our hair, our clothes, our weight, and so on just to be valuable and happy. And if this is what we are constantly confronted with, of course we may feel disconnected, empty, less than enough. It makes sense. But even though it makes sense it does not make it true. I am not less valid and valuable because of this and neither are you.
We were not born with chemically imbalanced brains. We are a product of our environments. Humans are social creatures and we need one another. What this can mean is that through our interactions with one another — individually, communally, and societally — we can experience mental unhealth and illness. But that also means that we can experience full health and well-being — not just mentally but physically and spiritually as well. It is through our interactions with others that healing can happen. I am not discounting any form of treatment or healing. I think that we are the experts of our own lives. We get to decide which route is best for us. For me, there is a lot of healing that happens through my relationships with others. When I stopped worrying about there being something wrong with me and decided that I am enough, I experienced freedom for the first time. So I ask you, what if you are enough? Because you are.