The Urge to Over-Pathologize

Sometimes, those of us who live with depression or anxiety over-pathologize ourselves: we mistakenly attribute normal human emotions, reactions or behaviours to our illness, and this isn’t constructive.

It’s easy to see why we do it. We might be feeling having a low day, and we say something without thinking it through, and we beat ourselves up about it; but anyone can put their foot in their mouth, and lots of people feel awful afterwards – so there’s no need to go that next step and see it as further proof of our mental ill-health.

Or we might be feeling super-anxious about, say, giving a speech, and find ourselves feeling panicky. We’ve all heard that old chestnut about how some people fear public speaking more than dying – and yet instead of ‘merely’ feeling panicky, this almost-everyday event can turn into evidence that we’re labelled with a disorder, that there’s something wrong with us. Again, we’re causing ourselves unnecessary extra distress.

Don’t get me wrong, our feelings in these situations are valid (all feelings are valid); but what I’m saying is that we don’t need to keep using ordinary events to remind ourselves that we’re depressed, we’re anxious, we’re different from the rest of the populations. We simply don’t need to keep to keep banging our head up against that label. Sometimes a gaffe is just a gaffe, a fear is simply a possibly well-founded fear – both unpleasant, but both usual life events.

So my challenge to you today is to try and de-pathologize your self-talk for the next 24 hours. If you’re depressed or anxious (or even if you’re not!) examine anything which triggers destructive self-talk, and ask: is this something a “normal” person might realistically experience? Is my reaction really so far outside the range of “normal”? (Sorry for using the word “normal” here – I want you to interpret it as a non-judgmental shortcut for … well, you know what I mean.)*

I hope that this might become an exercise in self-compassion and kindness.



* Gavin – you can laugh now!


Filed under Up

8 responses to “The Urge to Over-Pathologize

  1. A good challenge. Thank you. I had a wonderful therapist who explained to me that just because sometimes I obsess over something or maybe I am compulsive about a thing or two doesn’t mean I have a disorder. It was very comforting.


  2. This is something that’s taken me a long time to learn. I think often mental health treatment, at least of the mainstream variety, teaches us to pathologize everything we think, feel, and do. After all, if the professionals do it to us, it only makes sense that we’d learn the behavior. I can’t tell you how long I spent thinking my introversion was pathological “isolating behavior” because that’s what they told me.

    The last time I was hospitalized, there was this great occupational therapist. When you’d talk about how you were feeling about something, she’d say, “Of COURSE you feel ______! It makes complete sense.” The first time she said it to me, I burst into tears because no one had ever said that to me. I’d mostly just heard how I was wrong or crazy for feeling or reacting the way I did. There was a huge sense of relief at finally being allowed to react my way and to have someone understand that it DID make sense, given my history and current circumstances.


    • How liberating it must have been to hear those words! I know it’s a fine line sometimes, distinguishing between what’s part of an illness and what’s not – but I do think it’s worth trying to make the distinction.
      On the other hand, I don’t want others to start falsely normalizing my depression / anxiety for me …! (I’m a fussy person, aren’t I?)


  3. Thanks for throwing the spotlight on me 😉
    I, for one, don’t feel that anyone is “normal”.
    But I will take the challenge. It should be interesting since I see my psych-doc in a little while.


    • No problems! 🙂

      The only reason you got a mention was because of the word “interpret” … me suggesting people how to interpret the word “normal” … and our previous conversation in response to your haiku about the wolf.

      And you’re right, show me a “normal” person and I’ll do your housework for a year! But it’s a nice little shorthand word for a complex idea.


  4. I love this post and completely agree with you. In my case it is often my family doing it to me. If I get upset at something they’ve said or done they put it down to my depression. I then have to, ever so calmly, explain that it’s got nothing to do with my illness and everything to do with their lack of thought/planning/time keeping etc!!
    Recently, through therapy, I have become much better at identifying genuine thoughts and feelings against my depressed thoughts. Once I’ve recognised something as ‘normal’ (hate that word too) I find it so much easier to deal with.


So, what do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s