(Note: This post relates to mental health, not the COVID-19 pandemic.) On a fairly regular basis, I see messaging along the lines of “it gets better,” or some variation thereof. While the intention behind it is good, I’m not convinced that it’s useful on a broad scale because it’s not necessarily true.
There’s a U.S.-based non-profit organization called It Gets Better that provides support to LGBTQ+ youth who are being bullied. In that case, there probably is reason to think that things would get better in time simply by graduating out of the school environment.
What if the setting isn’t a factor, though? When it comes to mental illness, there’s no possibility that a time will come when you can physically remove yourself from… well, yourself. Is there any validity to saying it will get better, or is it just patronizing, another form of toxic positivity?
“It gets better” makes more sense when it comes to intense surges of symptoms above and beyond whatever that individual experiences at their baseline. A panic attack will get better in the sense that the particular attack will abate, but that can’t be extrapolated in the same way to the disorder as a whole. Similarly, intense emotional states won’t be sustained indefinitely at the same intensity simply because it’s the nature of emotions to ebb and flow.
It also makes sense if it’s coming from someone like a health professional who has an understanding of the course the illness tends to take, and therefore they’re in a good position to say with some degree of certainty that will get better. What I’m not comfortable is people who whip out the “it gets better” without having any actual reason to suspect that things really will get better.
I try to be a realist, and the reality is that some people’s illnesses don’t get better. Some people’s illnesses get worse as time goes on. Telling someone who’s in that boat that it will get better can just come across as platitudes.
It’s certainly possible that someone with a treatment-illness could figure out new ways to compensate for some of the symptoms, or find new ways to have a sense of purpose. However, that doesn’t necessarily make things better – different, maybe, but not necessarily better.
Probably all of this depends to some extent on the temperament of the person involved. For some people, optimism and hope that things will get better are really important to maintain. And for people who do achieve some degree of remission between episodes of symptoms, it may also be useful to hang onto the idea that it will get better.
But I think that it’s important that we do acknowledge that it doesn’t always get better, and recognize that it’s not necessarily helpful to tell someone that it does when that’s just not something that’s realistic for them.
In cognitive behavioural therapy, one of the common cognitive distortions is fortune-telling, which involves being sure a certain thing will happen in the future even when there’s no evidence to support that. “It gets better” predicts that someone’s future will head in a positive direction, and usually there’s no way of knowing that will be the case.
We can’t control the future, but we can be in the present, and we can work on getting through each moment as it comes.
Do you think “it gets better” is something that gets tossed around too freely?
You can find more posts about negativity and toxic positivity on the blog index.
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