How the Iceberg Illusion Explains Illness Recovery


Have you ever heard of the “iceberg illusion?”

The iceberg illusion of success shows how success is the tip of the iceberg. It’s the part you can see, above water. Below the water, the mass of the iceberg, is the road to success – all the failures, hard work, sad moments, self doubt, existential crises and pondering whether or not it’s even worthwhile to keep going.

This is especially true nowadays, with social media. There is a trend with social media to only show your best face and what’s great in your life right now. To a degree, this creates an iceberg illusion. People see the good things, but have no idea how they happened or the road to how someone got to their success. It makes personal failure feel weird because nobody talks about failures that led to this “happy place” of success.

This applies to mental and physical illness recovery.

When I was first diagnosed with lupus, and also with my mental illness, it seemed to me like everyone was just “well” and never talked about how they got there. I’m sure you will relate. When you first get sick, there is a far off land of recovery that feels very unattainable – the land of better. And you may find yourself asking, “Well, how do I get to that land? Where people are smiling, happy and doing things?”

Because the world seems to explain illness in two stages: You’re sick, followed by a magical transformation, which then leaves you feeling better.

When I was first diagnosed with lupus, I read many books about chronic illness. They all talked about being well, but not how you get well. It was all tip of the iceberg, no focus on the mass below. They didn’t talk about the struggle in-between, the bit of the iceberg below the water– which was the part that I really wanted to hear about because I was trying to get from point A to point B.

An example of the iceberg illustration that shows you only see the tip of the iceberg and not all of it.

With mental illness, it tends to be the same thing. This is particularly so because nobody likes to see the struggles we experience with mental illness. They want the recovered version of you, not the challenge in-between.

It can be especially hard when you have first been diagnosed with either a physical or mental illness to see people happy, smiling, recovered or better off than where you are at. You may be left wondering how they got there. If you feel that way, it is important to remember this iceberg and all the hard work that goes into the smiles you are seeing, even if people aren’t always telling you about the hard work or the stuff behind the smile.

Recovery, with physical and mental illness, is a two steps forward and three steps back process. Sometimes you may even have the tip above water, then go back under again and then float back up. That cycle may repeat for a while until you finally get to the point where your iceberg is afloat because you’ve found some coping strategies and tools that work to give you balance and help for the long-term.

I still sometimes see people who are at a better place in their recovery than I am, and I have to remind myself of this iceberg.

This iceberg helps me not only remember that they have had failures and set backs, just like I have, and that they didn’t immediately get to the happy smiling place I see as recovery. It also reminds me that my failures and setbacks are normal, and that I will get there and keep progressing there, too.

The iceberg puts it all in perspective.

Pretend, for a moment, that the tip above water is your goal or idea for recovery with your illness.

The part below water is a myriad of the things you need to do to maintain the tip above water. It is the
struggles, the hard work, the sadness, the setbacks, the self-care, etc. It can be therapy, medication, exercise, healthy diet, sleep, doctors visits, self-care, taking a break from all of these things and being you, humor, and having a bad day. It can also be setbacks in these things, depression, anxiety, the hard work at all of the above, time spent on you career or hobbies, friends, etc.

Thinking of it this way reminds me of the things I need to be doing to keep the tip above water. It makes me proud of the hard work I did and continue to do to get to recovery and to stay there. It also helps put the land of recovery into perspective. It’s not something that happens overnight to people, but it’s something that is built, like a career would be.

It can feel like you are treading water when you are fighting mental or physical illness and trying to keep your head up. When you look around at all the other people in the water or on the boats, they look like they have it made – at least, that’s how I have felt. I never understood how it seemed so easy to other people, how they got where they did, just like my recovery may very well seem that way to other people.

This iceberg explained it to me.

I like this analogy because it reminds me how strong my recovery is, because icebergs are strong. And your recovery will be strong like an iceberg because you built it that way.

You can build your iceberg the same way to take on anything.

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Gettyimage by: Znovenko


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