People with good mental health are able to give others respect, listen to their perspectives with open minds, show compassion and engage in dialog with them as equals. In short, healthy people see others as fully human and as equals. Healthy people see others as valuable, and know they can learn from any and everybody.
In contrast, the inability to be able to see others as fully human, as having needs and perspectives just as valid as our own, the inability to see others as having rights and as deserving of respect is a sign of significant mental illness.
Historical oppression shows us how very clearly we have had trouble seeing other people as fully human at cultural levels. Understanding our cultural level illnesses can help us become more compassionate and wise in how we deal with each other.
Let me unpack the idea of illness correlating with inability to see others as fully human:
Physical Illness Makes Us Self Absorbed
Think of your last bout with physical illness. When we have physical pain or illness, it commands at least some of our attention, and we therefore do not have as much ability to attend to other things, particularly things outside of us. We are less quick on our feet, we may miss things we would easily have comprehended had we been feeling better, our brains process information at slower rates. It takes more effort to concentrate. There are physiological changes we have little control over.
We may be able to function as normal, but we have to be vigilant about the tasks, and we rarely sustain our normal levels of activity without the consequence of getting sicker due to “overdoing it”, or at the very least feeling more depleted once we have ceased performing whatever activities we normally do.
When we are quite ill, our worlds shrink. If I have the misfortune of catching the flu, my bedroom, the kitchen and my bathroom will become central to my thoughts. I will not notice much else. I will become quite self absorbed. The thought of doing normal errands like shopping becomes overwhelming. I simply cannot work out-it is physically impossible. I simply can’t give others my full attention. This is due to physiological changes in our bodies.
We don’t consciously choose to become self absorbed. The illness creates conditions such that the end result is naturally and always more focus on self and less focus on others than normal. This is an important point to bear in mind as we proceed.
Mental Illness Also Makes Us Self Absorbed
It is more difficult to see, but in mental illnesses, the same concept applies. People with clinical depression are self absorbed and consumed by their depression, their concentration often becomes impaired, making it difficult to maintain attention on others. They are less likely -less able- to accurately understand others, or to attend to others’ needs or wishes. People who are highly anxious are consumed by the worries running through their minds. They, too, are less able to attend to things that normally they could easily attend to or accomplish. Once recovered, these people can return to being generous, compassionate, interested in others and able to be empathetic.
Pervasive Mental Illness Makes Us Even More Self Absorbed
People with the most serious and pervasive mental illnesses like full fledged personality disorders or schizophrenia almost by definition have real difficulties seeing others with any depth, that is, as fully human. They tend to see others as instruments or tools that are there to meet their needs rather than full humans with as many wishes and desires that they themselves possess. But as with other illnesses, their more extreme levels of self absorption are due to the illness. Not being able to fully see others is not a consciously made choice (generally), although it may appear that way. (And yes, I am going to come back to this part).
Trauma survivors are no different from other people with illnesses. They are self absorbed, -not by choice- but physiologically they expend a lot of their energy managing their responses to trauma in the best ways they know how. That leaves less energy for everything else. People in the grips of trauma symptoms are -unable- to expend as much energy on problem solving or attending to other things or people as people who are what we quaintly call psychologically healthy. But once trauma survivors recover, they can also go back to being able to attend to others fully.
Cultural Illness Makes Us Less Insightful In General
Because we are in the grips of a serious illness at a cultural level, it has been much more difficult for us to clearly perceive or understand our historical traumas and our TBRs to them as root causes of many of our problems. As sick people often do, we mistake our symptoms for the illness itself.
Currently, we protest ridiculous invasions of privacy of the NSA or any other “intelligence” agency, not seeing it as hypervigilance on a cultural scale, only seeing it as ideological differences of opinion. Literally millions of people take their shoes off each day at airports in the U.S. due to an infinitesimally small possibility of a terrorist attack. (And of course the reply will be it’s because we take our shoes off that the threat is so small. This is typical trauma based decision making writ large: The vet with 11 outside cameras installed around his house while his entire family feels imprisoned and worry for him will say exactly the same thing about needing all 11 of those cameras).
We bemoan the excessive amounts of violence in our “entertainment”, but don’t link it to the very common dynamic of trauma survivors simultaneously finding ways to reenact trauma, while also downplaying the impact of it, and becoming numb to it.
We protest the greed and recklessness of oil companies and other big businesses, focusing on the callous disregard for the earth and other people. It has been difficult for us to understand why this happens. Why are businesses and people driven to these absurd lengths -why is power and profit so obsessively pursued at any cost? The relentless pursuit of power is framed only as an ideology to be disdained or vigorously defended. When looked at through a trauma informed lens though, it is difficult to not see it as a TBR on a cultural level.