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Self-Knowledge • Growth & Maturity

When Illness is Preferable to Health

The idea that there might be an ‘advantage’ to feeling mentally unwell can sound strange — and possibly highly insulting too. Why — given the horrors involved — would anyone choose to be depressed or anxious, paranoid or body dysmorphic? The very enquiry can sound like a covert accusation of being a faker or a malingerer.

Nevertheless, the thought can be a fruitful one to raise with oneself. One isn’t thereby saying that that the illness presents any sort of net gain or outright advantage, simply that it might function as a sort of ‘solution’ — albeit a very painful and sad one — to some kind of unfair dilemma or impasse which one has been unable to work through in any less damaging way.

Photo by Manikandan Annamalai on Unsplash

For example, a person who had grown up with a highly jealous parent might fall into depression whenever something went conspicuously right for them in their career. Their low mood might represent the unconscious mind’s attempt to find a compromise solution to an intolerable choice forced on them by their emotional environment: a choice between success on the one hand and family loyalty on the other. By becoming depressed, lying in bed unable to work or look forward to anything, the ‘winner’ could ensure that they would seem like a ‘loser’ and thereby dampen parental jealousy and ward off an ensuing danger of abandonment.

Similarly, by developing body dysmorphia, a person might protect themselves against the possibility of coming into full awareness of their attractiveness, which could otherwise bring on guilt in relation to a fear of superseding an insecure or threatened sibling. Or manic anxiety about money might help someone never to have to think about a growing hatred of their partner, which they lacked the strength to deal with directly.

To try to detect if there might be any such secondary hidden factor at play in our illnesses, we could try to ask ourselves the following:

If I didn’t have this illness, the risk is that…


If my illness magically went away, the downside could be that…

We may get rather surprising answers back from our unconscious, hinting at the daunting aspects that might accompany a return to health. We could — if we were better — have to risk to a confrontation with an otherwise beloved parent or accept that we needed to leave a relationship in which we had invested so many of our hopes.

The gamble is that awareness will always eventually be preferable illness. We simply need to be supported to realise the trade offs we have made and then assisted in dealing with their downsides as these emerge into consciousness. We may not have to suffer forever once we can accept that being well won’t — after all — have to be the end of us or of those we care about.

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