Friday, December 11, 2009

Dangerous Tropes: "I Can Do and Be Anything I Want"

Most of my generation was raised on this trite bit of nonsense and a lot of us really believe it. "You can be anything you want to be." "You can do anything you want to do, if you really work at it." "Where there's a will, there's a way." "I've got high hopes..."

Human beings are extremely versatile and resilient. We are very capable of being a great many things, every one of us. Nearly everyone has a variety of skills to draw from and a variety of innate intellectual talents with which to develop those skills. But my innate intellectual talents are not universal, neither are yours. An artist may not have the raw analytical talent necessary for experimental design. A scientist may not have the engineering talents necessary for affecting repairs on a car or their home. An engineer may not have the abstract creative capacity needed to write poetry, or a good novel. While we humans are versatile, we are not, any of us, infinitely capable of doing absolutely anything that might strike our fancy. And not everyone has the physical capacity to be this sort of athlete or that.

Now this may grate against the social conditioning of many people who grew up with the feel good tropes of the seventies and eighties, a legacy that still haunts many of our schools today. I am sure that the claim that we cannot, in point of fact, be whatever we might want to be is offensive to some. Having grown up with it, it goes dead against my own socialization to express it. There is a rather big problem though - it's true. We are not all the same and we do not all have the same abilities. About the best that can be said, is that most of us are rather drawn to follow our innate abilities - to do what we are good at.

The problem is that when we happen to pick on something that we just don't have the talent for, we often feel that our inability to succeed is a moral failing. That we just didn't try hard enough. It is so firmly ingrained into our psyche that we often cannot comprehend, cannot accept that there is any reason except our own laziness or insufficient will that we could fail. Even when reality is pointed out, there is often a part of us that truly believes our failure was a moral deficiency on our part. I mean come on, everybody knows that if you want it enough, you can totally make it happen. Except when you can't. At which point it is all your fault, for not wanting it desperately enough.

There is a very serious consequence to this mentality, when we try something and fail. Because we perceive that failure as a moral failing, it becomes rather easy to decide that we just don't want to try anymore - especially if we fail more than once. Conditioning can be crippling, even to people who have never shown signs of neurological disorders. Losing faith in oneself do very absolutely can and sometimes does break people. People commit suicide or slip into severe depression for a lot less than perceiving themselves a complete failure, unable manage that mythical, "what I wanted to be."

Then there is the very dangerous cousin, "you just need to think your way out of it, think your way past it." Like many people with neurological disorders, I have heard this one numerous times in my life, from many different people. Bad enough to hear it from family or friends who really don't understand or accept problems they cannot see. I would love to see damn near every psychotherapist who utters those words, or words to that effect, stripped of their licenses. Should they manage to kill a client with that kind of bullshit, I would love to see them prosecuted for it - and telling a severely depressed client, "you just need to think your way out of it," can be and sometimes is fatal.

Essentially telling someone who is severely depressed that it is their fault they are feeling this way, is a great way to send them into a major spiral. It is not uncommon for such spirals to bottom out into such despair that trying to continue to that next breath is inconceivable. And have no doubt, if you have never experienced it - there are times for a lot of people with neurological issues, especially those with mood disorders, when every breath is a struggle - a miserable eternity that you know it going to be repeated over...and over...and over again.

Loved ones do not make it any easier, when they try to push someone through this. It just isn't that simple. But when someone who is a licensed professional, someone who is trusted as a supposed expert on neurological issues does it, it is like telling them that this person who is trusting them to help them struggle through it is a failure. That it is their fault they are feeling like this. That if they really wanted to get better, they magically would be better. That is, to be clear, not likely what the therapist is trying to say. At least I should fucking hope not - though there are some ridiculously ignorant jackasses out there. But that is exactly what the client hears.

Lets think about getting past bullshit tropes that hurt people. Lets be realistic with our kids the way that the adults in the lives of my generation were not with us.

No, you can't be anything and everything you might want to be. You have innate talents that if you work hard to foster, will allow you to be good at what you really can do. If you work extra specially hard to foster those talents, you can even be great at what you do - though that doesn't always happen because life isn't always fair. And it is totally ok if you need some help along the way - all of us do really. It's just that some of us have brains that sometimes work against us. If you need medication to make it, that's ok. Getting cognitive therapy along with the meds is even better. No, you don't have to just think your way through it, because that is not how it works - unless you happen to have a very mild neurological issue.

Another thing to consider...A lot of substance abusers do so because they have failed too many times...


ZDENNY said...
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RPS77 said...

I could easily be wrong about this, but I thought that very few people really take those "you can be anything that you want to be" slogans literally after maybe age 10 or so. I'm probably projecting my own experience too much - my problem was usually fighting against the feeling that I couldn't do anything, rather than being devastated because I thought that I could do more than I actually was capable of.

The idea that "it's not such a big deal - you just need to get over it/think your way past it/work through it" has been a painful part of my experience. I've been luckier than I will probably ever appreciate that a few people in my life as I was growing up, most especially my psychiatrist and my parents, took a different view.

I wonder if one of the greatest problems in understanding between people who have serious mental/emotional/psychological issues and people who do not is that people who have "normally functioning" brains have not experienced part of their own mind working constantly against them. Everyone has self-defeating or "out of control" thoughts and emotions at times. For many people these things come and go and can be pushed aside or worked through quickly, but for other people they are an almost constant, permanent feature of their mental universe - and one that can not be ignored, reasoned through, or pushed aside.

VictormS said...

When I was young they said to me "hard work and practice are the keys to talent"
"You can be anything you want to be, if you really work at it!"
The Lie: You can be anything you want to be.... and the truth: No, you can't
A video about that: