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 others 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. These are physiological changes we have little control over.
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 go to the gym and 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 (perhaps) more difficult to see, but in mental illnesses, the same concept applies. People with clinical depression are self absorbed and consumed by their depression. The same is true of people with clinically significant levels of anxiety. In depression and anxiety, concentration often becomes greatly impaired, making it difficult to maintain attention on others.
Along with increased self absorption, it appears that some mechanism around vulnerability somehow kicks in. This would be a fascinating area of study for psychologists as it makes intuitive sense that people are -by definition- more vulnerable when ill. It may be that when the body (or mind) becomes ill, it triggers a hypervigilence of sorts to protect it from further attack? This is just an interesting possibility to study at this point, but could be helpful as an explanatory mechanism for the degree of self absorption that occurs, especially in more pervasive mental disorders such as clinical levels of narcissism. Speaking of which:
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 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. This statement does not imply people should not be held accountable for any actions they take that harm others. They most certainly should be held accountable! Holding people appropriately accountable for their actions ALWAYS helps improve both the community health and safety, and can be a very effective tool in motivating people to seek treatment- which can help them become more functional humans.
People with trauma symptoms are no different from other people with illnesses. When in the grips of trauma symptoms, self absorption happens. For example, their hyper vigilance is a form of being self absorbed around their personal sense of safety. Again, this self absorption is generally not a choice. Rather there is a drive to try manage their responses to trauma in the best ways they know how. That leaves less energy for everything else.
Not being able to fully see others and comprehend their full humanity is quite problematic in itself.
At the cultural level, trauma based reactions make it very easy for people to become and remain defensive, engage in oppressive behaviors and be -unable- to expend as much energy on problem solving.
We Are Less Insightful Because We Are Ill
Because Cultural PTSD says we are in the grips of a serious illness at a cultural level, it has also been much more difficult for us to clearly perceive or understand our historical traumas and our cultural reactions to them as root causes of many of our problems. As sick people often do, we mistake our symptoms for the illness itself.
This lack of insight and the natural tendency towards avoidance work hand in hand to keep us blind to the numerous cultural norms that are fairly screaming out to be recognized as trauma based reactions.
Currently, we protest ridiculous invasions of privacy of the NSA or any other “intelligence” agency, not seeing the invasions as hypervigilance on a cultural scale, instead framing the issue in terms of ideological differences of opinion. The bloated military budget and the quick use of military interventions are easily seen as clear marks of trauma based reactions transformed into cultural norms, but again they are seen as “merely” ideological differences.
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. Creators of this kind of entertainment find they “need” to show greater and greater amounts of stimulus in order for their audiences to feel anything at all, even horror.
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. But when looked at through a trauma informed lens, as one group’s desperate attempt to consolidate power in order to feel safe, it is difficult to not see it as a trauma based reaction on a cultural level.
Discrimination, Empire Building, and Trouble Seeing Others As Fully Human
Clearly history is full of situations that show Western cultures in general have had problems seeing various groups of Others as fully human. America’s incredibly stunted history of enslaving other humans and actually encoding into the US Constitution that they are to be counted as 3/5 of a person is a prime example. The vast numbers of Western cultures where half the population have been treated as property to be traded and married off is another. The deliberate discrimination, legal disempowerment of and attempted genocide of indigenous people in the US is another example of the repeated pattern of failure of collective groups to see other people as fully human.
These are historical facts of our cultural level inability to see others as fully human. And these facts are also quite obvious indictments of how ill our cultural norms have been.
Healing Requires Acknowledgement And Tools of Reconciliation
Acknowledgement of the extent of our cultural illness induced inhumanity towards others is exceedingly difficult work for many of us. It is a challenge on many levels to fully acknowledge the wrongs of our ancestors and some of our current practices as well. But thoughtfully reframing our actions as actions done by people in the grips of a serious cultural illness, and re elevating the value of compassion towards others and towards ourselves are very important first steps.