Our mental health sufferings do not define who we are


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Content warning: self-harm

Not long ago I met with an old friend. We chatted at a cafe until late at night. As two young people just out of high school, we engaged ourselves in a conversation filled with confessions and revelations.

During our conversation about the loneliness we had both felt during high school, I showed her pictures of some already faded scars on my body. In one picture were some light scars on my left arm, scratched with a craft knife. I’d done that to release myself from stress or shame, as if an air would come out through the cuts and carry away all my troubles. In another were patches of bruises on my right leg, overspreading the side of my calf. I’d done that with my tennis racket during a match that I eventually lost.

I don’t remember why I chose to show her these pictures. Perhaps I was trying to prove that I was the lonelier one. Perhaps I was just seeking sympathy. Either way, my strategy didn’t quite work.

“I used to do that, too,” she said. “And I know a lot of people who did that.”

At that moment I was taken aback by her explicit indifference. I made a deliberate effort to end the conversation and said goodbye to her later with a rather sulky expression. I felt ashamed that I had been beguiled so easily into exposing my vulnerability to her and didn’t understand why she didn’t even feign a little sympathetic expression.

Now, as I reflect upon this experience, I see that my dismay in fact arose from the way she generalized my negative emotions as something universal. I didn’t like the idea of universality. I thought that all the negative emotions I had experienced had permeated my mind, had saturated my ways of thinking and feeling, had molded me into who I was — a unique individual. I thought that I was the one having the problem, the victim deserving proper attention, the patient awaiting the diagnosis.

I expected people to come and tell me that I had done the wrong thing by hurting and punishing myself. I used their judgments of my behaviors as part of the definition of my character. I even began to endow my negative emotions and experiences with their own distinct voices, using them as ways to render the narratives of my life.

That’s why when my friend told me that she knew a lot of people hurting themselves just like I did, I felt the narratives of my life being dubbed as cliché and my character as commonplace. I believed that my negative emotions shaped who I was as an individual, and yet she pointed it out to me that they might as well shape who many others were.

We often become unconsciously dependent on our past, in particular our mental sufferings. Part of the reason is related to human evolution. In his article “Are Negative Emotions More Important than Positive Emotions?” Dr. Aaron Ben-Zeév explains that we are more susceptible to negative emotions because they possess greater functional value, and that the risks of responding inappropriately to negative events are greater than to positive events, “since negative events can kill us while positive events will merely enhance our well-being.”

I believe, however, that the more important reason is our own misconception that our mental sufferings have defined our uniqueness. We believe that they have made each of us into someone with an atypical character, different from everyone else; that, reacting to these negative emotions in our own ways, we have done something aberrant, something ill-fitted to the social norms. We believe that, in order to let people that we care about know who we truly are, we need to expose our vulnerabilities, tear our wounds open and let the pains themselves be the storytellers of our own life experiences.

But this mental attachment to our once existing negative emotions is precisely the burden that we need to unload from ourselves. We are independent from them. We are not subject to them.

My friend was right. Mental sufferings are universal. As pessimistic as this idea may sound, it is in fact one of the most positive things we can bear in mind. Because the universality of our mental sufferings means that our uniqueness is by no means defined by them. Rather, it is our own unique ways to live the fullest of life, regardless of the inevitability of sufferings, that make us who we are.

No one can deny that mental sufferings are an inherent part of our lives — however, they do not tell the stories of our lives. We do.

Contact Raina Yang [email protected].