On Mental Illness: Unfair Expectations

By Jack Bragen
Monday August 08, 2011 - 02:50:00 PM

If you are a person with mental illness who “presents well,” meaning that from looking at you and speaking to you, one couldn’t tell that there is anything “wrong” with you, people may expect too much of you. If you have a mental illness and your spouse doesn’t, it can create a headache for you when the spouse doesn’t have understanding of your disability. The same goes for parents, who might be laying guilt trips on you because you can’t seem to “make a go of it” in the work world. You could even be your own worst tormentor. You might be constantly comparing yourself to some unfair standard impossible to live up to. 

As writer of this column and freelance writer, expectations are not excessive. It doesn’t require that I work forty or even twenty hours per week to maintain this column and do some other writing on the side. I still get in arguments with my wife over the dishes. It is much harder for me to do the dishes than to write this column. The column involves no immediate pressure and the workload is minimal. A twenty hour per week job requiring leaving the house would require much more effort. I’m saying; you shouldn’t unfavorably compare yourself to the author of this column. 

I know of someone who has severe clinical depression and will not give himself a break. He works in excess of fifty hours per week; he and his spouse are berating him because he doesn’t do enough work around the house, in their perception. This person is on a treadmill of self torture. Those who have a legitimate disability such as depression, bipolar or Schizophrenia often can not handle the same workload as a non-disabled person. 

Part of the stigma of mental illness is often to blame a person for their disorder and assume that he or she is somehow less of a person; e.g.; he or she needs to be more responsible and try harder because they “let this happen,” to their self. The spouse of the mentally ill person may take on the role of being superior. It is equivalent to assuming that you are superior because you did not contract breast cancer like your cousin did. Mental illnesses are physical diseases and are not caused by a person’s moral turpitude or weak will. In fact, the mentally ill person should be considered a braver person than others because they have had to face an illness that others didn’t have to face. 

Applying unreasonable and unrealistic standards to oneself so that you can maintain the status of not being successful is a way that people remain on a treadmill of self disapproval and never give themselves credit for their accomplishments. This is at the heart of diseases like anorexia, being a workaholic, and numerous other ways in which people never give themselves a chance to relax and enjoy where they are at present. This is applicable to most Americans and not just to some of the people who have mental illness. 

Do you have a parent from whom you have repeatedly sought approval or appreciation and to whom, no matter what you do, you’re never good enough? That might be how the cycle got started. Even if such a parent is now deceased, the thought pattern that he or she has ingrained in your neural circuits lives on. (That doesn’t mean he or she is a “bad parent”—they are inadvertently passing on programming that their parents passed on to them.) 

We may be laboring under the illusion that if we slow down and appreciate where we now are, it will stop us from trying hard enough and we’ll be “dead in the water.” But how long are you willing to postpone enjoying life? And what good is all the work you’re doing if you can never enjoy the accomplishments? 

It is not fair to expect a person with mental illness to have the same levels of performance versus rest and rebuilding as someone without. A person with bipolar, depression or schizophrenic illness often needs to spend more time regaining energy after an exertion. Such a person may require self-coaching to combat the self doubt that is common for those who have had a setback. Efficiency is not going to be the same because the person is weighted down by residual symptoms of their illness and by medication which can have side-effects that detract from performance. A mentally ill person could try to compensate by ratcheting up the effort, but even the ability to create effort is not untouched by the illness and by the medication. And if the person with mental illness, in an attempt to live up to unreasonable expectations, creates effort that’s excessive, it could trigger another relapse of their condition. 

Attempting to meet an untenable standard is foolish because it sets a person up for future “failure.” Aiming a bit lower concerning how much you can handle increases the likelihood of succeeding. This is better than trying to do something that’s too difficult and then having a “crash and burn” happen. If all you can handle for now is to take medication and try to stay out of the hospital, you should be okay with that, too. 

Unfair as it may be, a person with mental illness must take things a bit slower and must get some enjoyment out of what they’re doing at present, or risk a relapse due to pushing too hard. It may require some practice to discover a level of effort that can be sustained, but it is worth doing. Persons with a mental illness should not deny themselves the self appreciation that is deserved, even if their apparent level of achievement isn’t what someone else’s seems to be.