My last post was on the detrimental effects of untreated mental illness on those around the ill individual. It was a strongly worded post because I have strong feelings/beliefs on the topic – I believed and do still believe that it is immoral / sinful / wrong to refuse treatment for mental illness (or for that matter, any significant problem we face…as our refusal bears consequences not only for ourselves but others). That said, the reaction to the article was not what I had hoped. People who were already trying hard felt I was calling them to try even harder…and if there was one thing I wasn’t trying to do, it was to call for folks to try harder…so in this post I want to develop the discussion a bit further by talking about the difference between trying harder and trying better – it is the latter I want to encourage folks to, not the former.
What Is Trying Harder?
Trying harder is when we face an obstacle and we attempt to overcome it by the same or a similar series of actions over an extended period of time with increasing amounts of willed power.
- An alcoholic who tries harder to stop drinking.
- An individual with a raging temper who tries harder to be calm.
- An individual with trichotillomania who tries harder not to pull their own hair.
- A student failing at physics who wills themselves to do better, study more.
- An individual who tries harder not to respond automatically to unpleasant stimuli (e.g., someone treating them poorly; an unavoidable delay).
- Someone who wills themselves to not look at pornography.
The problem with trying harder is that (a) we aren’t getting better and thus inflicting pain on ourselves and others and (b) we generally have increasing feelings of guilt, shame, inferiority, etc. So what can we do instead?
Try Better Instead
Trying better is difficult – and this is why we keep trying harder.
Trying better is difficult because it involves (a) admitting we have a significant problem, (b) admitting we are not strong enough to overcome this issue on our own, and (c) seeking help outside of ourselves.
While trying harder may be easier in some sense it is usually futile and thus is actually harder. Thus trying better is a wiser path forward.
I’d like to say that others won’t look down on us when we admit we have a problem and seek help – but the truth is, many will, and it feels horrible. That said, let me tell you a secret: Every judgmental person I’ve met has a big gaping problem in their lives they are completely ignoring. We are all broken and half the battle is simply getting to the place where we can admit this brokenness to ourselves and others. Those who judge most are usually those who most lack insight into their own weaknesses.
Lets take a look at the examples of trying harder I laid out above but instead think about what it might look like to try better:
- The alcoholic (a) begins seeing a counselor to deal with the emotional triggers that lead them to drinking and (b) join an Alcoholics Anonymous group.
- The individual with a raging temper (a) begins seeing a counselor to deal with the emotional triggers that lead them to angry outbursts and (b) join a Rageaholics Anonymous group.
- An individual with trichotillomania (a) may begin a medication to treat biochemical issues that can cause trichotillomania and (b) uses finger covers that prevent them from getting a good grip on their hair.
- A student struggling with physics (a) requests after-class assistance from the teacher and (b) seeks additional online homework help.
- An individual who responds automatically to unpleasant stimuli might (a) begin seeing a counselor who might treat them with exposure response prevention (ERP) therapy and (b) seeks out a support group of individuals who struggle in similar ways.
- An individual addicted to pornography (a) installs a porn filtering application on their computer and (b) speaks to a counselor about the things that trigger their impulses to look at porn.
You probably notice a few common threads running through these examples of trying better:
- Going to counseling.
- Becoming involved in a support group.
Other common trying better methods included above:
- Getting medication for illness.
- Using aids to overcome issue.
- Using technology to overcome issue.
Pride Comes Before The Fall
I can do it this time. The emphasis is on us and our ability. We are able. We will control our own road to health.
Pride is frequently the reason why we refuse to try better. But maybe it isn’t in your case. Maybe instead your reasoning is:
It really isn’t that bad.
I’d actually track this back to pride. We are lying to ourselves, minimizing the magnitude of our issue(s).
But maybe you say it still isn’t pride. What else could cause us to resist trying better?
When we admit weakness we disempower ourselves. We are now vulnerable and others may use this weakness against us.
In almost all situations (I won’t claim all) we will still find ourselves better off allowing ourselves to be weak than by pretending to be strong.
It is difficult but important for us to remember that while we may be weak in an area (or five) this does not invalidate us in other areas of our lives. To struggle with something is not suddenly to lose authority on everything. We are not our problems and when we honestly struggle with them we frequently find as many people give us more power as take it away…for example, when we attempt to maintain power while denying weakness others often deny us authority because of our hypocrisy (we deign to instruct others while unwilling to instruct ourselves).
How does one start on the road to better? Where should you start? You can email me or leave a comment below and I’ll be happy to point you to a few starting points for your specific problem.
- I’m not saying it is wrong to have a mental illness, rather the choice to refuse to deal with the illness is the problem and as I’ll discuss later is usually the result of either pride or fear.↩