The Self Explored

Like I was heading into Blockbuster to return an overdue DVD, last week I handed over the final vestige of my “young adulthood” and began my fourth decade on this strange planet (vis a vi, I turned 30). And while I doubt many of our nomadic ancestors spent much time reflecting on young adulthood, it seems to be a common exercise in contemporary society, especially as the gap between adolescence and adulthood broadens and blurs. Of course, this isn’t the case in every country, much less every community in the United States. But with a college degree and relatively good health, I had the privilege of trying out identities, locations and careers like I was perusing the aisles of the “build your adult self” supermarket. Naturally, my earnest, decade-long search for my “adult self” caused me to ask much deeper, more existential questions of myself, such as, “what is the purpose of my life?”…. “what is most important to me? …. “why am I the way that I am?”

For most of human history, these egocentric questions were answered for us by one’s religion or civilization’s rulers. That, or we simply didn’t have the time or the luxury to ask them of ourselves. But now, thanks to our hyper-individualistic culture, we live in an age where exploring and expressing your “self” has become common, if not celebrated. And for the most part, this is a good thing. As someone who has spent years in therapy and has become a therapist, myself, I see the vast potential in a world inhabited by self-aware citizens who have taken the time to uncover the roots beneath their thoughts, emotions and behavior. The issue, instead, exists within the systems we use to define ourselves and to answer life’s deepest questions.

From the political affiliations we espouse on social media, to the brands we wear and the standardized tests we take, Americans primarily define and express themselves using culturally constructed labels. Of course, using categories to differentiate one thing from another is necessary to operate a large civilization. After all, we need to make choices. However, by using those labels to define who we are as human beings, we oversimplify the ever-changing human experience and limit the free expression we aim to promote.

The label economy has become such a pervasive quality of our culture that it has even subsumed the very space people enter to explore their contradictions and complexities. While many people visit therapists or psychiatrists to address the deeply personal reasons for their difficulties, they often return home with a common medical diagnosis that might not capture their personal experience but that fits neatly alongside all of the other labels they’ve received or adopted.

In the broadest sense, there is widespread demand in our culture for self-improvement through reducing suffering and cultivating self-awareness, but the service being provided in return is often an oversimplified diagnosis, a medication, and, if possible, ongoing psychotherapy.

Of course, that’s not to say there aren’t justifiable purposes for diagnoses in the mental health industry. For many people, especially those with a neurobiological condition, like Schizophrenia or Bipolar Disorder, a proper diagnosis and an effective medication regimen can be life changing, if not life saving. However, at the same time, mental health professionals are overdiagnosing certain conditions, which has the unintended consequence of re-asserting cultural norms for human behavior and categorizing individuals who divert from that norm.

As of 2018, roughy 10% of kids in the United States (ages 3–17) were diagnosed with ADHD, and at the present moment, about 10% of Americans have been diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder. Of the 10% of kids diagnosed with ADHD, nearly 70% were prescribed stimulants. Meanwhile, as of 2008, 11% of Americans over the age of 12 were taking anti-depressants, which marked a 400% increase from 1988. These dramatic statistics headline a troubling story in America’s health care system, in which difficult, but common emotions and behaviors are pathologized using medical terminology and treated with psychotropic drugs.

As a means to an end, diagnosing someone with a mental illness can be an effective way to prescribe a medication when it is necessary and to ensure that the individual’s insurance company covers the treatment. However, when it is unnecessary to their safety and wellbeing, labeling someone with a diagnosis and prescribing medication is an impersonal approach to a deeply personal, nuanced problem.

Alternatively, if we offer people the space to explore their internal conflicts and suffering without applying a diagnostic label, they might discover that they don’t fit one category or another, both medically and individually. In fact, one might realize that the pressure to conform to societal expectations and project a fixed sense of self has prohibited honest reflection and self-expression all along.

I believe there is growing demand in our society for people to understand themselves and to experience relief from unnecessary suffering. And I fear we are not capitalizing on the opportunity because we reflexively categorize and define one another without embracing nuance or plurality.

To meet the growing demand, I am suggesting that we simply drop the labels within the context of self-exploration and encourage each other to see ourselves just as we are. Not to define ourselves within the context of a given culture or in comparison to a norm. Ultimately, through promoting fully liberated self-awareness in our culture, perhaps we can open the door to a healthier, more accepting society.

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Therapist/Yoga and Meditation Teacher (sammyredmond.com)

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Sammy Redmond

Sammy Redmond

Therapist/Yoga and Meditation Teacher (sammyredmond.com)

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