Society has tragically low expectations of people with mental illness. These diminished expectations can keep us from getting well.
Certainly, the people closest to us want what’s best for us. They want us to be safe, secure, and, if possible, happy. Sometimes they want these things for us even more than we want them for ourselves.
This is loving, caring, and compassionate. And it can be a burden that holds us back from our true potential.
After a time spent on disability insurance due to the difficulties of my bipolar disorder, I abandoned hope of returning to the executive ranks I had belonged to and took a job in human services, supporting people with developmental disabilities as a job coach.
It was challenging, rewarding, and important work. It paid very little. Yet I was back in the workforce and establishing my independence just as I was 40 and back living with my parents. My passion for business and economics became hobbies, stuff I read about, and I lowered my expectations of what I could accomplish.
So did the people around me.
I did well in the job. I helped a few clients manage a mailroom and deliver packages. Daily deliveries enabled me to meet people throughout the company, and an executive in facilities took an interest in me. When he discovered my business background, he offered me a demanding job with tremendous potential in the business end of the corporation. Excited and looking forward, I took the offer home.
My parents had seen the worst of my suffering. Like many, they attributed the emergence of my bipolar disorder to the intense stress I faced in management. They emotionally supported me as I recovered, and now saw me as stable and healthy, yet vulnerable.
To risk my health for a job seemed dangerous to them. In their love, they judged any efforts of mine to expand my potential and dream big dreams as unsettling. Safety trumped achievement, and they argued vehemently, and convincingly, against my taking the job.
I went to work the next day and turned the offer down. I set aside ambition for security. I accepted the low expectations that society, and those closest to us, often have for those of us with mental illness.
We all too often judge people with mental illness who are managing their lives well as just well enough. They seem so rare, so delicate, and so robbed of their potential through the acceptance of the diminished expectations of both society and those closest to them.
Such low expectations follow the severe judgment that those with mental illness are compromised in their ability to undergo the stress required to excel at anything. So often we settle into average, or less than average lives – leaving our true talents untapped. It’s as if one of the keys to wellness is to play it safe and risk nothing. To succeed at mediocrity is accepted as low expectations are set, and met.
So in a perverse way, the people and systems set up to protect us can rob us of our self-dignity. For dignity, and true healing, are not possible without meaningful work.
This work can take many forms, and doesn’t always have to be a paying job. We just need to accomplish something. To break out and to prove ourselves. To be productive and to serve others is necessary to be well.
Low expectations hold us back from the happiness we can attain. They lead us to doubt ourselves. But severe self-judgment rarely stands up to serious introspection. Quite simply, we are each more capable of happiness than this over-protection makes us expect ourselves to be.
Achievement demands that we take a chance and reach for something. Well-meaning impulses from supporters and doctors counsel us, inadvertently, to avoid the risk. But without risk we can’t get better.
Risk and effort are required to succeed at anything. We have to accept that we are capable of moving forward. Only in this acceptance of our worth and our ability can we see what we can truly accomplish.
I’m willing to bet, if you are able to set others’ caution aside, that this will be more than most people dream possible for you. However you define the life you want through whatever choices you care to make, you can overcome the low expectations society, doctors, and even loved ones hold for those of us with mental illness.
Overcome the doubt and caution that hold you back. Then you can prove their judgment of your potential wrong, and live.