I’m Still Thinking about the Effects of Labels for Mental Illness and Disability

Every once in a while, a subject gets into my head and just stays there, gnawing away at my free time and causing me to think and think. The topic of how often we refer to negative things in terms once used to describe people living with disabilities or mental illnesses just won’t go away. Now that I am aware of how often these terms are used, I see (or hear) them everywhere, especially in casual conversation, but sometimes even in more serious speech and writing. This has led me to a loose collection of not-all-that-related thoughts.

So much negativity! Image by @kelsen28 via Twenty20

Where do we see these terms?

I do NOT see these pejorative terms used (often) in the news, magazines, or academic books. That’s a good sign I guess. The one exception seems to be the “crippled economy” and the like. I am wondering of that persists because circumstances actually can cripple concepts like economies, degrees of debt, etc., by causing metaphorical injuries to them. Perhaps that word can be seen as more neutral, then?

I can see how people can easily get confused until they practice using alternate ways of referring to people. The subtle nuances of finding neutral ways to refer to people dealing with various challenges can take some time to sink in. Luckily, there are plenty of resources to guide you (but don’t read too many, because they can start to conflict). I’m just glad to see there seems to be at least some effort made in new media and places like that.

I want my talking heads to leave the name calling to the people they interview. Image by @amauritorezan via Twenty20.

Who’s most likely to use these terms?

Another understanding I’ve reached is that it’s no wonder people use these disability kinds of terms to put others down; as a whole, people are still pretty ignorant about actual facts about disabilities of all kinds. I found an interesting article from the UK about the language of 14-year-olds for putting others down about disabilities.

The authors found five themes in the data.

  1. Popular derogatory terms (nuts, psycho, crazy, loony)
  2. Negative emotional states (disturbed, depressed)
  3. Confusion between types of disability (disabled, spastic, dumb)
  4. Actual psychiatric diagnoses (depression, schizophrenia)
  5. Terms related to violence (scary) (I admit, I didn’t see this as violent)

There are lots of lists of words in the article, but the authors concluded that, for the most part, the young people didn’t really know what the words meant and were just using words for emphasis, especially the popular derogatory terms. They were surprised that actual diagnoses weren’t used much, and concerned that the violence words appeared as much as they did (though they were the least used).

We’re just kids, mimicking other kids. Cut us some slack. Or educate us! Image by @lelia_milaya via Twenty20.

The article cited above inspires me to cut folks some slack. How many people know where the words “loony” or “spaz” come from? I sure didn’t until I was a lot older than a teen. Many really hurtful utterances probably come from folks just picking a word they’ve heard others use that sounds sufficiently negative to emphasize a point.

I come to the conclusion, based on that emotional maturity stuff I talked about yesterday, that people who are still muddling along at the adolescent stage of emotional maturity, at least with respect to labeling others, are more likely to engage in using disability terms to insult or put people (and ideas) down.

Now I’m back to name calling

On the other hand, name calling, in general is one of my least-favorite human proclivities. It’s something I worked with my children to eliminate (fairly successfully, for the most part, though we did love the word doofus for gently chiding ourselves for making simple errors). People just LOVE labels. And so many people define themselves by the labels others (and they, themselves) assign to them. That’s why I don’t like name-calling and that type of put-downs. They can mess a person up.

Labeling Exercise

So, here’s something to think about. How many labels have people put on you, or you have put on yourself, throughout your life? I’m thinking both positive and negative, by the way. Here’s a list for me, with my internal labels in italics. (note that some of the items in the left column I don’t personally find negative, like sensitivity and agnostic, and some of my positives are negatives for others.)

NegativePositive
FatSmart
UglyTalented
TalkativeGood listener
StupidPatient
UnlikeableHard worker
UnfriendlyEmpathetic
SensitiveGenerous
UnpopularKind
Goody-two shoesBrave
HeathenFeminist
AgnosticSpiritually open
Femi-NaziLiberal
LibtardWell read
Intellectual snobAltruistic
HystericalCentered
NervousOpen minded
Self centered
Look, I made the columns kind of equal, though it was easier to think of the items on the left

As I look at my own list, I can see that some of the labels that have been applied to me sunk in and were very difficult to shake off. Others didn’t bother me at all. I’ll have to ponder why that’s so, but as a first stab (aha, a war metaphor), I’ll guess that labels that point to my insecurities (fat, unlikeable) stuck longer than put-downs that I’m actually proud of (feminist, agnostic).

So, I challenge you to see if you can come up with a list of the things people label you (or you label yourself with). Are they accurate? Have you glommed onto inaccurate ones and believed them at some point in your life? Have you broken away from some labels?

I’ll share more about this later, I guess.

I’m Not Sick, Just Tired, But I MUST Be Supportive!

Please let me first apologize for making my discomfort with plane travel over the weekend appear like I think I am sick. I have no symptoms of COVID-19, and have been taking my temperature. Still just fine, as far as I can tell. I was just really uncomfortable being around so many people in the Dallas airport and sitting next to a woman who was coughing. Like I’ve said before, I’m a special snowflake who believes the pandemic is real and would prefer not to take chances. But, I’m not sick.

As it does every day, noticing nature’s beauty keeps me feeling well. These are two red-tailed hawks circling above Marbry’s Ridge.

And by saying I’m tired, I mean I’m spending a lot of energy (and rightly so, I think ) supporting friends and family who are going through really hard times right now. It may be tiring, but it’s important work, and I don’t plan to stop.

Examples and Inspiration

For example, I know how to not get overly sucked in by others’ needs, but when your close friend’s husband passes away, you can’t help but send your energy out to them. My friend Vicki was the only person who came to my dad’s funeral to take care of ME, and she’s stuck with me since we were teenagers, despite our political and spiritual differences. That’s true friendship. I’m so sorry she lost her beloved husband so soon after finally reuniting with him. True friends need to be there for each other and truly listen, so I’ll so what I can in these WEIRD times.

A circle of friends surrounding a cactus seems an apt illustration!

Coincidentally, I just read this beautiful article in the New York Times, by someone famous, but who suffers just like us.

“[W]hen people ask how any of us are doing, and when they really listen to the answer, with an open heart and mind, the load of grief often becomes lighter — for all of us. In being invited to share our pain, together we take the first steps toward healing.”

The Losses We Share, by Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, New York Times, November 25, 2020

She recently experienced a miscarriage, a devastating life passage she shares with so many of us. She shared that just having someone actually express that they care about how she is getting along was helpful and healing. And her overall point, that checking on others during this time of isolation is VITAL, is something we all need to think about.

I know reaching out is not one of my best skills, but I’m prioritizing it. I’m very GOOD at responding, though, and boy do I send out those healing thoughts (which I’ll go along with the organized religion fans and assume do some good).

This is where I send all my vibes to. Hee hee.

Another example: someone I know mentioned that none of their local friends had checked up on them during the pandemic until very recently. That hurt. It made me wonder who I should be checking up on (yes, I will call my stepmother). Who do you need to check on, just so they will know they aren’t alone?

As Meghan pointed out this morning, we need to really see each other right now, even if we’re covered up:

“We are adjusting to a new normal where faces are concealed by masks, but it’s forcing us to look into one another’s eyes — sometimes filled with warmth, other times with tears. For the first time, in a long time, as human beings, we are really seeing one another.”

Ibid.

I truly hope she is right. With so much loss and pain going around, we need each other to see us, accept us, and show we care.

A final example: a blog reader wrote me a long email yesterday, in response to one of my blog posts on Highly Sensitive People. He was worried that he was using his sensitivity as an excuse to indulge his other issues (fears of various things). Now, this man is also dealing with autism and other mental health issues, and I felt so bad to think he worried that his personality type was an excuse. I’m glad he reached out, because I think he expressed something many of us experience, which is that our thoughts or feelings aren’t good enough, or are a cover-up for something else. In reality, many people share the HSP trait, and some of them have other issues, too. It’s just who we are, and dealing with it becomes a lot easier if we accept our limitations and challenges, and work to be the best unique individual we can be. Who that man is, the way he is, is fine. No one should judge him without spending some time in his reality.

Of course, I told him this, in other words. It’s what we all should do, listen and be supportive. Everyone’s struggling with something!

Looking out my window, it’s easy to see how we feel isolated, each of us up on our own hills.

Listen to the Universe

Wow, it sure seems like the Universe is conspiring to tell me something this week. Clearly, the effort it takes to be supportive of others, to listen to what people are concerned about, and to reach out is worth it, even if it can make you tired. We’re all we have!

Just another cool hawk photo to enjoy. I like how the sun made the interesting effect. Nice to end on a note of beauty.

Being Sensitive Is NORMAL

Are you often told that you’re too sensitive? Do you get told to “just ignore” bullies and passive-aggressive people? Do you have trouble accepting criticism unless it’s kindly presented? Do you have a LONG list of books, movies, and television shows you can’t watch, because they upset you? If so, you may be a highly sensitive person (HSP), just like me.

And Penney is a highly sensitive dog. We have had to work to accept that “feature” of her.

Many HSPs already know all about this, having read The Highly Sensitive Person book (and its many friends). I wrote about it a bit last year when sensitivity was causing me some issues, in a post called You’re TOO Sensitive. So yeah, I’ve heard that before.

I’m such a sensitive flower, humble but lovable!

But, if you are among the majority of humans who don’t have the HSP trait, you may not realize this is a normal way for people to be. It’s also not necessarily a negative trait! There are many wonderful things about being highly sensitive.

Not a Sensitive Person? Read This!

Before you tell a friend or family member to get over it or change the way they experience the world and people around them, consider this information, and maybe you’ll be able to accept people like us just the way we are:

  • Around 15-20% of people are Highly Sensitive Persons. That’s a LOT of people, not just a few kooks.
  • People are born with the HSP trait; they can’t make it go away.
  • HSPs tend to have good imaginations and creativity. That’s handy!
  • They are often empathetic and can understand what’s going on with others. They can help people in groups get along better.
  • Not all HSPs are introverts. 30% are extroverts! (Reluctantly, I think that’s me.)
  • HSPs make GREAT leaders. They tend to prefer the “servant leadership” model rather than the hierarchically focused kind, and all kinds of people respond well to quiet leadership.

See, there’s a lot of good in people like me. We spend all our lives developing ways to cope with our more “tough” friends and colleagues, trying to moderate our strong reactions to violence and personal digs, being social as much as we can, etc. Maybe those of us who are not HSPs can “just ignore” the things about us that bug them! Hmm. What an idea.

Or, maybe we can all learn to accept our differences. Kindness never hurts, and bullying is never right. We also have to be able to accept criticism in order to grow and become better people. If we hurt someone’s feelings, we can apologize. And if we are easily hurt, we can explain that we understand it’s often not intentional. Meet in the middle? Why not!

Don’t worry, I like you all just the way you are. Variety is what makes us humans interesting, to me. Let me know if you found the information here to be useful!

More Information

Here are some signs you might be an HSP, from Elaine Aron’s really helpful HSP website:

  • Are you easily overwhelmed by such things as bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens nearby?
  • Do you get rattled when you have a lot to do in a short amount of time?
  • Do you make a point of avoiding violent movies and TV shows?
  • Do you need to withdraw during busy days, into bed or a darkened room or some other place where you can have privacy and relief from the situation?
  • Do you make it a high priority to arrange your life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations?
  • Do you notice or enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, or works of art?
  • Do you have a rich and complex inner life?
  • When you were a child, did your parents or teachers see you as sensitive or shy?