The word “pathologize” means to view or characterize something as medically or psychologically abnormal. There is a peculiar trend in our society today to pathologize negative feelings like sadness and worry and positive feelings like joy or optimism. Every day I see people in my office who are deeply concerned that they may have a mental illness because they are feeling very sad about the death of a loved one or the failure of their marriage or the loss of their job. Somewhere they got the idea that these feelings are no longer appropriate or acceptable. I recently saw a man who was moving to a beautiful part of the country, to a gorgeous new home, and starting a challenging new job that would dramatically increase his income. He was so worried and depressed that he actually wished himself dead and ended up in the emergency room. When I told him it was normal to worry about all the new situations he would face he gave me a puzzled look and said, “Then you don’t think I’m mentally ill?”. He was so relieved that he began to improve almost immediately.
Good people – our bodies are functioning correctly when we feel sadness at bad news, or worry over big changes. These feelings only become problems when they significantly impair us – when they interfere so much with our life and function that we begin to fail and withdraw. When sadness is the reason that we no longer want to live, or worry makes us a prisoner in our own home then we have a disorder – not a disease or illness. We are the victims of our own disordered thinking and need someone who can help us begin think differently. A mental health counselor is someone trained to first form a relationship with us and then help us look at our lives and our coping in a fresh way.
If you want a model for mental health look at a toddler. They eat when they are hungry, sleep when they are tired, giggle when they are happy, they find the fun in everything they do and they never question whether how they are feeling is wrong or right…it’s just how they feel. Look for the toddler in you this month!