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Self-Knowledge • Fear & Insecurity

The Upsides of Being Ill

It sounds really strange to speak of the upsides of being ill. Surely there are only downsides?

But rather than assuming, as we normally do, that our mental illnesses are just a problem for us, we can dare to ask in a spirit of open-minded exploration: What are my illnesses doing for me? Whatever their costs, what are their secret upsides? What are their unexpected benefits? Why might I be covertly siding with them against the possibility of health?

We often develop psychological illnesses because the alternative to them is in some way worse. The illness protects us —- at huge and tragic — cost from a confrontation with something that threatens to be yet more painful and psychologically difficult: the truth about what has happened to us, what we need to do next and the true nature of certain people we are close to.

Think of the person who repeatedly fails her exams, despite being very intelligent and driven. What could possibly be the benefit of an illness as awful as self-sabotage? But if we examine this person’s life, we might find the presence of a hugely competitive and jealous mother who could be extremely displeased by her daughter’s success — and might respond by cutting off her love and becoming highly aggressive. The daughter hence chooses the illness of self-sabotage over the yet more awful realisation that her mother was damaged and damaging and never loved her properly. It can feel ‘better’ to be ill than realise one was always unloved.

Behind a great many psychological illnesses, we uncover “benefits” — if we can put it that way:

— Failing can be a protection against being envied

— Worrying about our appearance can distract us from the fact we were made to feel horribly unworthy as a child.

— Being manically busy can block out uncomfortable news of our true sexual desires

— Being paranoid can prevent us from acknowledging who we are really annoyed with.

— An addiction can keep us ignorant of our early abuse

In certain circumstances, getting ill is — to our unconscious minds at least — the easier route. It might not be in any way nice or simple to be always impotent, or worried, or a failure or paranoid, but these options might nevertheless be better than realising that one has an altogether different sexuality or was furious with a supposedly beloved parent or is jealous of a sibling or should be changing jobs or leaving a partner. Behind a great many psychological illnesses, is a highly distressing truth we’ve exchanged for a neurotic symptom. 

Once we realise the overall mechanism, we should — whenever an illness comes into view — repeat the naive enquiry: what is the peculiar and particular advantage of this illness for me? What does it prevent me from knowing about myself? What would I need to do if I wasn’t ill? What is the upside of feeling depressed, or of blowing up a relationship or of being impotent or friendless? We may generally complain about these problems — but, if we can put it this way, what purpose are they serving for us?

We can then dare to think that there is something worse — something truly difficult to swallow — that we are protecting ourselves from via being unwell. The way to overcome a mental affliction is to cease to look at it merely as an explanation-less nuisance. It may be a shield protecting us from what we deep down suspect — mistakenly — would hurt us more.

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