I hear more and more people describing experiences and narratives of sadness or heightened stress as depression and anxiety. While anxiety can get away with being a term used to describe a feeling of nervousness, depression, in my opinion, is a much more traditionally clinical term. I hear phrases from my clients and people in my personal life oftentimes say things like “my depression is getting worse lately.”
Why would a clinical mental health counselor have a problem with this phrase?
It is because it is a pathologizing statement.
Pathologizing is where we over diagnose ourselves and those around us. The quick definition provided by Google Dictionary describes pathologizing as to “regard or treat (someone or something) as psychologically abnormal or unhealthy.”
It can oftentimes be a part of intellectualizing our problems. In psychology, this is described as a coping mechanism to remove ourselves from our problems by making them into more philosophical, ethereal things.
While this may sound idea, in actuality it is rather unhealthy because it removes us from experiencing our problems.
I can provide my clients and friends with highly effective coping skills that can help us manage our feelings and experiences when they become overwhelming. But, I cannot take away the pain, nor should we attempt to.
To start, taking away someone’s pain (including our own) is highly invalidating.
Ever wonder why people who are already angry become angrier when they’re to just calm down? Anger is oftentimes outwardly displayed pain. When we tell someone to stop being angry, we invalidate their pain, causing further anger, because the things that pain us are actually worth feeling pain over. The death of a loved one, a breakup, the loss of a job or dream, hurtful words, trauma of past experiences. These are all worthy things to feel pain and hurt over.
So when I hear pathologizing and intellectualizing of people’s problems, I become very worried.
Because when you pathologize and reduce someone’s problems to a “simple explanation” like a diagnosis, you are invalidating their very healthy experiences and very healthy emotional reactions.
This is why women often become more upset when someone tries to fix their problems or provide comfort too soon. They need to feel their pain and they need to cry their tears because it is validating of their experience that something bad or undesirable or hurtful has happened. They absolutely should! Nor are they pathological for doing so but for some reason, we as a society treat healthy emotion expression and experience as pathological!!
People often prematurely comfort/fix/placate, pathologize, or intellectualize others in these situations because they are not comfortable with their own inner world or emotional experiences. So they try to remove not just themselves from these experiences, but others around them as well.
Now imagine someone who pathologizes themselves! I’m sorry. Your depression isn’t getting worse because you’re going through a breakup. You are grieving and hopelessly sad because you have lost someone you still love dearly but you don’t have a body to bury.
Your borderline isn’t getting worse because you’re in a relationship. You grew up in a very broken home and watched your parents almost kill each other every day before the divorce and now you are terrified to experience love with someone else because you have no idea what it’s supposed to look like.
Your addiction isn’t getting worse because you lost your job. You are trying to cope with an unbelievably terrifying rejection and now you have no idea how you’re going to pay the bills for very long. This job felt like your last chance after making so many mistakes before because you just couldn’t cope with that next level trigger that pushed you past what you were able to handle before.
I implore you! If you are reading my blog today, do not reduce your experiences to some diagnostic term that is more useful for clinicians to communicate with insurance companies (a whole other flaming P.O.S. I could go on another tirade about). Your emotions are healthy and normal and good!! Even the painful ones albeit they sometimes don’t feel great.
I may work in mental health and for professional reasons have to describe myself as a clinical mental health counselor. But what I am is a witness. A witness to the beautiful depths of human souls.
That is why I love my job. It is not because I help make the depression better.
It is because together, we gather our courage, we peer into the vast, beautiful, endless chasm of your heart where your deepest emotions echo back even from your most precious, terrifying, and even earliest memories, and we make sense of your experiences, what your emotions are trying to tell you about your life.
You are my storyteller and I am a keeper of stories. Countless stories of beauty that is the human experience. And I have listened to enough stories of pain, terror, joy, apprehension, and all the rest to know that your life, your challenges, and your personality are much more than any single diagnosis could ever describe.