When Is a Disorder a Disorder?

In this Reddit post, a man describes himself as a “happy loner” whose adulthood has been peaceful and enjoyable. But recently he learned about schizoid personality disorder and began to wonder if he has it and what it means for his life.

Let’s leave aside the question of whether or not he actually has this disorder. Had he never come across information about it, would he have continued being content with his life? Generally, distress is a major indicator of a psychological issue – distress and disruption to one’s life and ability to function. Would he have just kept enjoying his life?

Or would he have become discontented at some point, maybe wondering if he’s missing out on something? It’s hard to answer this question. People can live an unusual or off-the-beaten-track life with satisfaction and without harm to themselves or others.

Looking further down in the thread, I see that he mentions wanting to have a long-term relationship… so maybe that’s his area of discontent? He may not really desire relationships but he still wants to see if he can be in one successfully?

Maybe he has an underlying discontent that he was only vaguely aware of, but the information on schizoid personality disorder brought it to the forefront of his mind. He may be reacting to what he’s learned and maybe also to a perceived stagnation. A lot of times, people feel the need to try something new and see if it works for them better than their current way of life – not necessarily because they’re suffering, but because they want to explore other possibilities.

The responses on that thread include people telling him that he already has a good life and wondering what exactly he thinks he needs to change if he’s satisfied. Also, even if at some point he does wish to change his life, would he need a formal diagnosis and a psychologist?

Do You Tell Your Kids What They Should Feel?

Parents often want their kids to feel differently about something. Their kids dislike a family member they’re supposed to love. They don’t enjoy an activity their parents want them to enjoy. They have an aversion to certain foods, a hatred of certain school subjects, and various fears that make day-to-day life more difficult.

A common response from parents is: “You shouldn’t feel that way.”

Often, parents will present their kids with a different option: “You should feel happy. You should love your uncle (or grandma, or whoever it is the child dislikes). You shouldn’t be afraid.” Parents may also make unhelpful comparisons. “I never felt like that when I was your age! Your brother likes playing sports, so why don’t you?”

Telling kids how they should feel usually isn’t helpful. The emotion doesn’t simply vanish because you want it to. At best, kids may temporarily suppress it. Over time, they may also learn that it’s pointless to share their feelings with you, because what you’re interested in are the right emotions felt at the right time – not the inconvenient or upsetting emotions your kids actually experience.

What’s a more helpful response to children’s unwanted feelings?

Figuring out why they feel a certain way

Sometimes, the reason is silly or not deeply meaningful. It could be that they’re tired at the end of the day or grumpy because they haven’t eaten. Other times, they have a legitimate reason for not liking someone or not wanting to go somewhere; it may even be a matter of personal safety.

Children’s emotions are also shaped by their social circle. How other people treat them and what their friends say about them will have an impact on their own feelings, including insecurities and self-loathing.

Working with them on how to express emotions

Instead of wishing the emotion away or attempting to suppress it, children need to know how they can deal with it. For instance, what are good ways to express anger without destroying a relationship or inflicting harm on other people or on yourself?

Focusing on behavior

Appropriate behaviors are more important than appropriate emotions. Kids need to know when and how to ask for help, especially in dangerous situations. Many times, they need to achieve a workable compromise, such as treating someone they dislike with politeness, but without a fake show of friendship or love.

In other situations, they may simply want to stop doing something – and it’s not the end of the world. For example, even if you have your heart set on your kid playing football or basketball, they may have zero interest in either sport. Instead of repeatedly dragging them to games and shaming them for their lack of enthusiasm, help them explore other interests.

Remembering that emotions aren’t permanent

Keeping a sense of perspective about emotions is also important. Feelings and attitudes can change – sometimes within hours, and sometimes after several years. Kids may feel quite differently about something at different points in their childhood and adolescence. Emotions are important signals, worth paying attention to, but they aren’t necessarily a reflection of an unchanging truth.

Berating kids about what they feel usually causes them to bottle things up or lie about their emotions. It also makes you less trustworthy to them, because they can’t open up to you. The focus instead should be more practical – which circumstances evoke certain emotions, how do we deal with emotions in non-destructive ways, and what are reasonable behaviors for different situations?

Legislate Away Our Loneliness

What can a Minister of Loneliness do for you?

Last year, a report came out about a new Minister of Loneliness in Japan, who is tasked with figuring out what to do about social isolation, poor mental health, and the country’s low birth rate. That’s a lot on the shoulders of one politician. I wonder, what can the government do, in a country where some elderly women like going to jail so that they won’t feel so terribly lonely and invisible?

The government can exert some influence, such as making certain mental health services more accessible or funding a new community center for seniors. But it can’t single-handedly change various underlying attitudes and incentives. Short of massively and forcibly restructuring society, what can the government do about long work hours, long commutes, nights spent in the company of online avatars, and people’s persistent feeling of invisibility?

Japan isn’t the only country that has created a government position aimed at fighting loneliness and its secondary effects, including awful mental health. In 2018, the U.K. also appointed a Minister of Loneliness to primarily address social isolation among elderly people. The results, discussed in this article, are so far underwhelming. And the article got published in January 2020, right before the pandemic. (Spotting the date of the article made me wince.)

How Do You Start Caring About Yourself?

A lot of advice about self-improvement rests on the assumption that people care sufficiently about themselves and their life. But some people may not care. They feel hopeless. They think they’ve made too many mistakes. They’ve sunk into apathy (“What does it matter what happens to me?”).

There’s no easy answer for getting more motivated to care about yourself, because people don’t all respond to the same approach at different points in their life. But here are some things to consider:

Do a favor to your future self

At the moment, you may feel hopeless. You may be depressed or stuck in a terrible job. But you don’t know with certainty what your life will look like down the road. Even if you think it will all be bad from here on out, you can’t know that for sure.

So don’t decide on your future based on your current situation or mental state. Emotions change, mental states change, and so do circumstances. You may not currently care about yourself, but at some point you may see the worth in your life. Act with that possibility in mind, even if you aren’t believing in it at present.

Pick one thing to change

Sometimes, people lose interest in caring for themselves because they perceive so many problems in their lives that they don’t even know how to start changing. They stop caring because to care would mean to feel overwhelmed and crushed.

In this frame of mind, any change can seem impossible. But what if you start with only one thing?

Let’s say you have a drinking problem, eat poorly, and exercise infrequently. Trying to change all of these behaviors at once can be too much. So pick the one that seems most urgent or that you’re most able to tackle at the moment.

If it’s your drinking problem, you work on that. You find reliable ways to cut back on or completely abstain from alcohol. Depending on the nature and severity of the problem, you may need to go to a detox program and attend group meetings.

As you work on this one problem, you may begin to notice positive ripple effects in your life. Because you’re drinking less, maybe you have more energy or motivation to exercise or to work on some projects you’ve neglected. Maybe you start to pay more attention to what you eat and increase the nutritious variety of your diet. The quality of your sleep may improve, and your bonds with other people may become stronger. If you’ve neglected other health issues, you may wind up making appointments with a doctor or therapist.

Changing one habit can make it easier for you to improve your life in other ways.

Let action lead to emotion

You may have no motivation to exercise, and you may not think it matters one way or another. But what if you were to set aside a short amount of time, maybe just 10 minutes, to go for a walk or do some calisthenics? What if you were to repeat the 10-minute exercise the next day, and the one after that?

It’s only 10 minutes, so even if you don’t feel that it’s worthwhile, it won’t take up much of your time. And, as weeks go by, you may find yourself getting into the habit of exercising. You’ll need less effort to push yourself into it. Maybe you’ll want to start extending your exercise time to 15 minutes, maybe 20. You may even come to like exercising, appreciating the feeling it gives you.

Repeatedly performing an action often increases its importance to us. The action comes to mean something and become a part of our day. So even if you’re apathetic about exercise (or about something else, like studying a new skill), maybe give it just 10 minutes out of your whole day, for starters.

Look outside of yourself

I’ve read accounts by people who were close to giving up on life entirely, but they stayed alive for their cat. They sometimes talk about it self-deprecatingly, but there’s no shame in making your pet a reason to live, and then finding other reasons over time. A cat is a living creature, and it needs you. You’re nurturing it and giving it your attention and love. If it helps keep you alive, that’s great.

You may not care much about yourself, but it may be easier for you to care about someone or something else. You don’t want to let your kids down. You want to be there for your spouse. Or maybe you volunteer at a nonprofit, and other people depend on you. Focusing outside of yourself may remind you of reasons to care about your own life, even if you’re feeling hopeless or empty.

Let go of a rigid view of what your life should look like

Life may seem to matter less to you if it doesn’t look the way you want it to. You may not have the job you want, the person you love, or the home you always imagined living in. Maybe you look around and see little of value.

For one reason or another, many people don’t lead the life they’ve always pictured. What we can control is limited. It’s possible to be so focused on an idealized version of your life that you miss out on what you have now. Try not to overlook what’s good in your life, what has potential (even if the potential is currently unrealized). Even small things can bring pleasure, inspiration, and contentment.

Don’t see setbacks as proof of permanent failure

After major failures or one too many failures, you may respond to the pain with apathy, a personal shutdown that enfolds you with protective numbness. 

Failures can be devastating, but try not to see them as unbreachable walls that you can’t get around. Maybe you’ll need to take another path in life and try new things. Failure doesn’t have to extinguish all hopeful possibilities. (And if you can’t see any possibilities now, give yourself time.)

Listen to the impulse to live well

Even when people live in hopelessness or apathy, they may sometimes be visited by thoughts about living well. They think about a job to apply to, an educational program to enroll in, or a friend or relative to reach out to. They remember an activity they used to enjoy. The apathy may roll over and crush these thoughts, but they exist. 

Grab at a thought, examine it, and – if it’s a life-affirming one, if it’s something that may make your life feel less cramped, less gray – maybe follow where it leads.

A Bit of Truth About Booze (From Dorothy Parker)

In Dorothy Parker’s short story, “Big Blonde,” the main character is living an empty, lonely life where she nevertheless has to appear happy. She goes out most evenings, and no one would stand her if she didn’t smile and laugh. But she needs a little help with that.

Drinking helps her, at first. But then the cracks to that strategy begin to show:

“She was beginning to feel toward alcohol a little puzzled distrust, as toward an old friend who has refused a simple favor. Whisky could still soothe her for most of the time, but there were sudden, inexplicable moments when the cloud fell treacherously away from her, and she was sawed by the sorrow and bewilderment and nuisance of all living.”

It’s a good illustration of how drinking to self-soothe is, at best, a temporary solution. Or the illusion of a solution. It also extracts a steep cost.

Streamlining Better Habits

When it comes to getting things done, the hardest step is often the first one. We want to exercise, but getting off the couch is tough. We want to start writing, but we put off opening up a new document on our computer or grabbing a pen and notebook. That first step, the shift towards a new activity, is often the one that defeats us.

I’m writing this around the time when many people make resolutions. If you want to increase the chances of keeping yours, one thing you need to do is streamline the path to better choices.

Here are some examples involving exercise:

  • To make it easier for you to go to the gym, pack your gym bag the night before and place your sneakers and bag by the front door. 
  • If you’re exercising with a YouTube video, open a browser window with the video ready to go. Have it be there, waiting for you to press play. Create a playlist with your exercise videos, so you have them all in one place and can easily find the routine you’re looking for.
  • Reduce decision fatigue by picking a particular time each day for exercising. Maybe you want to do it first thing in the morning, or maybe you prefer right before dinner. Pick a time (or times) you can stick to fairly consistently. This way, you waste less energy deciding. After a while, you barely have to think about it at all; it becomes habitual. If you need to change your schedule for a given day, don’t wait until the last minute to pick a replacement exercise time; make your decision in advance.

You want to reduce the number of steps you need to take between being in a sedentary state and exercising. You also want to reduce the energy you spend wrestling with conflicting choices and desires. The more you streamline, the greater the chance you’ll exercise.

On the flip side, you want to place obstacles on the path to less desirable choices. For instance, if there’s a type of junk food you can’t resist, such as miniature candy bars, chocolate pudding, or chips dusted in cheese, don’t keep those foods in your house. Sure, you can answer a craving by heading to the nearest supermarket, but it will take more effort to do that than it will to open a cupboard or fridge and gorge yourself on the goodies within.

A Good Video on Getting Things Done

Let’s say you have an idea for a project, but you don’t know where to start, and it seems like it’s too big for you to handle. Or let’s say you need to take care of something, like making a phone call to your bank, and the thought of it fills you with anxiety or frustration.

I came across a YouTube video recently that gives a potentially helpful approach to just getting things done. The advice includes:

  1. Breaking things down into small tasks, as small as you need them to be. (Like, logging onto a website, before taking a short break. Reading one page of an article. Typing one paragraph.)
  2. Giving yourself more than enough time for each task. For instance, you can set aside 15 minutes of your schedule just for logging into a site. Does logging in really take 15 minutes? Generally not. But if you’re dragging your feet for one reason or another, those 15 minutes can give you breathing room and space to plod. You also feel less rushed.
  3. The amount of time you assign to a task may vary. On days when you’re more energetic and feeling hopeful, you may need less time. On days when you’re depressed or low in energy, maybe only set aside time to complete one task. And then wait another day (or week) for the next step. The progress is incremental, but better than nothing.

Alarm Sounded About Children’s Mental Health

Multiple agencies have declared a mental health crisis among kids in the U.S., tied to the effects of the pandemic.

The causes may include grief from losing loved ones, the stress of parents losing their jobs, the social isolation, the disruptions to routine, the sense of helplessness, the significant increase in screen time, and the struggle to catch up at school after months of attempting to learn via Zoom. Also, maybe the feeling that they’ve been left behind and that there isn’t a bright future waiting (and they still hear quite a bit of pandemic doom-mongering).

Throughout the pandemic, many people have lost trust in various institutions, including the ones currently announcing the mental health crisis. I don’t yet know what they’re proposing as solutions.

Loving Yourself and Loving Others

In recent years, I’ve seen an idea pop up in articles or blog posts about self-love, and it goes something like this: “If you don’t love yourself, you can’t love others” or “You need to learn how to love yourself before you can love others.”

But is this true? I think it’s simplistic.

Even if you struggle to love yourself, you may still be able to love another person. Even if you struggle to perceive your own worth and good qualities, you may still see what’s good in other people. You may be biased against yourself, and blinded to what’s in you. But your perception of other people may be more generous and loving.

Telling people that they can’t love others unless they first love themselves seems hopelessly pessimistic and discouraging. It can make people seriously doubt if they can ever experience the joy and closeness of a healthy relationship, unless they first meet the goal of loving themselves. (Also, loving yourself isn’t “all or nothing.” There are days when you may not be able to stand yourself, and other days when you’re more accepting of who you are and kinder to yourself.)

That said, self-loathing may encourage a loathing of other people. Meaning that a lack of compassion for yourself may also combine with a lack of empathy or compassion for others. This is one of the potential dangers of self-loathing, especially an entrenched and persistent self-loathing.

Another danger of self-loathing is destructiveness. You may be driven to hurt yourself and to damage your relationships with people. You wind up behaving in unloving ways and hurting them.

So yes, self-loathing can be destructive and needs to be addressed. But I still don’t accept the idea that you need to reach a state of self-love in order to love others.

Maybe it’s also useful to distinguish between love as a feeling and love as a set of behaviors. Ideally, the two go together, but actions are generally more important. For instance, I’m not impressed by people who claim to love their spouse or children but then mistreat them. Do you really love the people you mistreat? Love shouldn’t just be something that’s felt “deep down”; it needs to manifest as action.

I do encourage people to behave in loving ways to themselves, even if they’re not feeling much love for themselves. Likewise, treating others with love and respect, even when you’re in a low mood, is something to aim for. Behaviors can also have the effect of strengthening certain feelings and attitudes, including the love you feel towards yourself and others.

Five Ways Social Media Can Hurt Your Mental Health (And Your Character)

Is using Twitter making you feel depressed or chronically enraged? How about scrolling through Instagram? The answer really depends on multiple factors, such as the accounts you follow, the amount of time you spend on these sites, your personality, and your general state of mind.

It’s simplistic to say that social media is entirely bad, when it can give you benefits, such as connecting with people over books you enjoy reading. But it’s also a potential underminer of mental health and character. In what ways can it hurt you?

Helplessness

It’s fine to stay informed about what’s happening in your community and around the world. But it’s impossible to keep track of everything, and there’s a limit to what you can do about the news you hear. For instance, if you’re reading about a humanitarian crisis, you may be able to donate to a reputable non-profit organization or advocate for better policies to prevent future crises. But you can’t physically swoop in and scoop people out of harm’s way.

If you’re on social media for long enough, you’re immersed in updates of terrible crimes, horrific accidents, and large-scale crises, including wars and natural disasters. It’s one thing to stay informed; it’s another to be steeped in tragedy for hours on end.

You also get a front-row seat to all kinds of propaganda and dishonesty. Dishonesty isn’t limited to one end of the political spectrum. Many people are eager to spread any information that appears to confirm their beliefs. You watch in real time how someone’s reputation gets trashed based on a lie or a profound distortion. Any corrections you share can feel like drops of water in a flood of lies.

When faced with this horrible torrent, helplessness is a common response. You begin to focus more on what you can’t do and on how much is beyond your help. You experience despair, or you become more numb and apathetic. You become less inclined to act in ways that are in your power. You adopt an all-or-nothing mentality: “If I can’t fix all of this, I can’t do anything. What’s the point.”

Dissociation

Spending a lot of time on social media can create rifts between your body, emotions, and thoughts. The relationships and activities of your offline existence fade in importance or resonance. You use what’s on your screen as a perpetual distraction from serious problems, such as chronic loneliness. You become alienated from your body, fixating instead on cartoon avatars or painstakingly tweaked and heavily filtered photos. Good health involves an integration of body and brain, and care for both. When you’re dissociated from yourself, you feel less real, less important.

Social Contagion

Various behaviors, emotions, and psychological conditions are subject to social influence. Suicidality and anorexia are two examples. “Tourette-like behaviors” is another one.

On different social media platforms, there are communities that encourage a lack of well-being. Years ago on Tumblr, for example, I saw groups of younger people fill their bios with lists of mental health problems, developmental disorders, medical issues, and obscure identities. Many times, these would be self-diagnosed, and there was a competitiveness to it. A longer list meant that you were more interesting and more authoritative; people had to listen to you, and you could tell them how they should think and feel about a particular issue. Taking steps to become mentally healthier was a sign that you had no serious problems to begin with. It was a sign that you were boring and “normal.” (Nobody in these circles wanted to be normal.)

This type of behavior isn’t limited to Tumblr, but what I saw on Tumblr was an excellent example of unwellness being turned into an identity. If you were depressed, you weren’t meant to think of depression as a part of your life that you treat and cope with. You’d make it part of your more permanent identity.

Perpetual Dissatisfaction

On social media, you can always find people who are better-looking than you, more talented, more intelligent, and more popular. Many also seem to have a lively social life and strong relationships. Are they actually happier than you? Who knows. You’re looking at curated images and narratives. Some people may be genuinely happy, while others smile and pose through terrible pain. Regardless, a steady stream of posts and images can intensify feelings of dissatisfaction with yourself and different aspects of your life. And you may be fixated, stuck on scrolling past image after image of a happiness that appears to be unattainable to you.

Emotional Manipulation

Social media presents a skewed picture of people and life more generally. Posts that are more extreme and lacking in nuance generally get more views, clicks, likes, shares, and comments. The people most active on a site often behave in obsessive or abusive ways, without a sense of perspective.

You get into heated arguments with bots. You feed on a steady stream of what an algorithm sends your way. The stream of information contains lies and distortions, and how much do you absorb without fact-checking or questioning?

Plugging into social media twists your emotions around. You feel angry and outraged for hours. Or you ride on waves of vengeful pleasure. Or your stomach twists into anxious knots, and fear settles cold and heavy in your belly. The emotions stay with you long after you’ve looked away from the screen (and it’s so hard to stay away!). You’ve plugged in and received currents of algorithm-driven feelings, and it’s addictive – the emotions, the potential responses from people to your posts. Do you sense that you’re in control of your social media use?