Some people find that their actions are violating certain societal norms and feel guilty and ashamed about this. When they try to stop doing these actions, they may find they can’t just stop, and thus they end up feeling even more guilty and ashamed.
Some parents, when they see their offspring act in ways that violate certain societal norms, find that they feel guilty and embarrassed. These parents believe that they are to blame for the actions of their children, and they also feel ashamed because they believe others believe they are “bad” parents.
The idea that certain actions that violate societal norms are mental illnesses like any other illnesses is attractive to many people because they believe it helps to reduce this guilt and shame. To understand this a little better, let’s take a look at a quick parable:
The Parable of Rachel
Rachel, the mother of five-year old Jonathan, recently went through a very sad divorce. Now, at Jonathan’s parent-teacher conference, his Kindergarten teacher expresses some serious concerns. “Your son is very hyperactive and he has a great deal of difficulty paying attention. Have you considered taking him to a doctor? He may have ADHD.”
Upon leaving the meeting, Rachel begins to cry. “I feel so ashamed,” she thinks to herself. “It’s all my fault. I shouldn’t have been so critical of Ron (her former husband). That’s why he left me for a younger woman. Jonathan has been so upset since Ron left, and he blames me for the breakup. And it is all my fault! I’m a rotten mother.”
Later, Rachel takes Jonathan to a doctor who, after asking a few questions, states that he has diagnosed Jonathan as having ADHD and prescribes Ritalin.
“I’m so ashamed,” cries Rachel.
“There is no need to blame yourself,” the doctor explains. “ADHD isn’t caused by bad mothering. It is an illness very much like diabetes. Just like insulin is a drug that treats diabetes, the drug I’m prescribing for your son’s ADHD will treat his medical condition.”
As Rachel leaves the doctor’s office she feels a little less to blame. But when she tells her father what the doctor has said, he grumbles and says that the doctor is full of crap. “Jonathan is angry and upset because of the divorce and not having his father with him any more. Anyone can see that!”
“You think you know better than a doctor!” cries Rachel.
Her father waves his hand in disgust, but says nothing more. Rachel interprets his silence as meaning that she won the argument, but her father is not at all convinced.
Later, Rachel discusses what has been happening with her closest friend, Lora. “I felt so ashamed about how Jonathan has been acting at school, but the doctor explained that I’m not to blame, that Jonathan has ADHD, which is an illness.”
“Well, Rachel, I certainly don’t think you are to blame, but I don’t think Jonathan has an illness. I’m sorry to hear you are thinking about putting him on one of those ADHD drugs; they have a whole bunch of side effects.”
“If it’s not an illness, then I am to blame!” Tears start to roll down Rachel’s face. “I shouldn’t have criticized Ron so much. I should have been a better wife!”
“You did your best, Rachel. I think it makes sense that you take some responsibility for what has happened, but blaming yourself isn’t being fair, nor is it helpful. When people blame themselves a lot of the time they think they deserve some type of punishment. In my opinion, a better way to take responsibility for what went wrong is to accept the strong emotional experiences that go along with taking responsibility, accept that you played at least a part in what went wrong, and then set yourself on becoming determined to take steps to improve. The genuine sad, heartfelt feelings that come with taking responsibility leads us to do a search for making improvements.”
Does The “Mental Illness” Construct Help To Reduce Shame and Guilt
In the above parable, a doctor tries to reduce the shame and guilt that a mother is feeling about her son’s behavior by framing the behavior as an illness. Although this initially appears to help, she runs into some people who refuse to go along with this anti-shame/mental illness notion. Let’s explore this notion a little more thoroughly with the help of some of the writings of psychologist and philosopher, William James.
William James’s Letter to his brother, Henry James
In an earlier post, I discussed William James’s bout with a depression that many might refer to as a type of “mental illness.” There, we found that he came to believe he succeeded in overcoming his struggle with the help of his own will and effort, although he also recognized that as he went through the experience he received a great deal of support with the “will and effort” thinking from reading certain poets and philosophers.
Shortly after his recovery, James found that when he met other people who were struggling with their own bouts of depression, if he brought up the topic of will and effort it was not at all well received. James explains this type of reaction to his brother, Henry, in the following 1885 letter:
To suggest personal will and effort to one “all sicklied o’er” with the sense of weakness, of helpless failure, and of fear, is to suggest the most horrible of things to him. What he craves is to be consoled in his very impotence, to feel the Powers of the Universe recognize and secure him, all passive and failing as he is.
Why would one believe that framing one’s difficulties as an illness would lead to the Powers of the Universe providing some type of help? Perhaps it stems from a related experience.
Anyone with even an ounce of maternal feeling is familiar with the altruistic emotions that spring up when a baby is stricken with an illness. Generalizing from such experiences might lead to the belief that an illness is especially worthy of altruism.
Although this may make sense to some, others just don’t buy the illness notion, and feel that it is an excuse to avoid responsibility. Thus, the “mental illness” construct comes with it some pluses and minuses.
From my discussions with people in Alcoholic Anonymous, it seems to me that many of its members found themselves in a state similar to what James describes in his letter. The program seems to provide them a way to stop blaming themselves by using the “I have a real sickness” idea. It also offers a sense that they could put themselves in the hands of a higher power, while, at the same time, they receive a great deal of support from peers who have managed to recover.
I think the real active ingredients in the program are the reduction of blame that is experienced by becoming a member of a group that stops the blaming rhetoric while also providing peer support to its members to work toward their common goal. However, for people who have a religious background, perhaps the additions of the “real illness” and “higher power” ingredients do offer some added benefits, but they come with negative reactions from those who believe in taking responsibility for one’s actions. Some of those who believe in responsibility think mainly that certain actions are “deserving of punishment.” In my view, it is much better if we come to understand responsibility as a strong emotion that spurs us on to actively pursue better ways to deal with the present and the future.
Now, to further our thinking of these issues, let’s turn our attention to something else that James wrote on this topic.
James’s Talk to Teachers
In James’s book titled Talk to Teachers he tells us, “The teacher often is confronted in the school with an abnormal type of will, which we may call the ‘balky will.’ He then explains what he means by this: “Certain children, if they do not succeed in doing a thing immediately, remain completely inhibited in regard to it.”
James then tells us that “Such children are usually treated as sinful, and are punished; or else the teacher pits his or her will against the child’s will, considering that the latter must be ‘broken.’
Clearly, James opposes this approach. “Such will breaking is always a scene with a great deal of nervous wear and tear on both sides, a bad state of feeling left behind it and the victory not always with the would-be will-breaker.”
In his next paragraph, which I quote in its entirety, the theory that pathology as a concept is used by James to protect individuals can be seen rather clearly.
When a situation of the kind is once fairly developed, and the child is all tense and excited inwardly, nineteen times out of twenty it is best for the teacher to apperceive the case as one of neural pathology rather than as one of moral culpability. So long as the inhibiting sense of impossibility remains in the child’s mind, he will continue unable to get beyond the obstacle. The aim of the teacher should then be to make him simply to forget. Drop the subject for the time, divert the mind to something else: then, leading the pupil back by some circuitous line of association, spring it on him again before he has time to recognize it, and as likely as not he will go over it now without any difficulty. It is in no other way that we overcome balkiness in a horse: we divert his attention, do something to his nose or ear, lead him around in a circle, and thus get him over a place where flogging would only have made him more invincible.
Note that James doesn’t say that the child actually has a neural pathology, only that it would be helpful for the teacher to apperceive the child as having this condition. By apperceiving the case as neural pathology, what does James hope to gain? He does not explicitly say. The technique that he describes of dropping the subject, diverting the mind, then springing it on the pupil later, is stated plainly enough so that many individuals can employ it without first apperceiving the case as neural pathology. I have done so, myself, on numerous occasions.
James appears to feel that some individuals who are prone to apperceive the case as one of moral culpability are likely to use will-breaking and flogging. If, instead, they can apperceive the case as neural pathology, it would be easier to use the technique that leads to a good state of feeling.
Viewing someone as “sick” can elicit altruistic behavior for some people. Feelings of caring, as if for a child with an illness, are conjured up. Such a chain of reactions is more commensurate with James’s circuitous technique than the clashing-wills technique.
Here again, we are faced with the dilemma–whether it is wiser to use the “mental illness” construct to promote caring, which may short circuit the habit of blaming someone in the sense of seeking to punish someone, or is it wiser to promote notions of responsibility that leaves out the desire to punish, while constructively seeking to make personal improvements? Today, I leave this dilemma in the hands of my readers.
Some people will enjoy reading this blog by beginning with the first post and then moving forward to the next more recent one; then to the next one; and so on. This permits readers to catch up on some ideas that were presented earlier and to move through all of the ideas in a systematic fashion to develop their emotional and social intelligence. To begin at the very first post you can click HERE.