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Why the Words ‘You Seem Better’ Can Cause So Much Shame

“You seem better.”

Three little words. To a person battling mental illness, a simple phrase can be enough to offset your equilibrium for days. Simple, well-intentioned, but loaded with haunting baggage. On the surface, the words “you seem better” are complementary. However, “you seem better” reminds the recipient of an all-too-open wound and releases memories that spark feelings of shame. Feeling better can be hard for someone with a mental illness because the vulnerable memories coupled with the fear of relapse can be debilitating.

When I’m told “you seem better” at the end of a particularly difficult anxiety, depression, migraine or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) flare, I freeze. I sweat. I want to be violent. I want to scream. Mostly, I am embarrassed. The words spark deep-seeded shame because I know that feeling better — particularly to a degree others notice — means my pain and weakness was obvious before. I shovel through my brain to identify what I was doing before to raise the alarm bells. Was my hair not washed (or even dry shampooed)? Was I eating in a peculiar way? Was I being a burden to those around me? Was I needing too much support? Was I dropping the ball at work? A comment like “you seem better” is enough to send my OCD thought process into a compulsive thought spiral so deep and tumultuous that it might take me days or weeks to dig out.

The equally challenging, if not worse, part of the “you seem better” comment is that a person in my life chose to not reach out during the height of a mental illness crisis but only commented in the aftermath. This is hurtful, scary and sad. The knowledge I could be walking around in my own personal rainstorm, without the offer of an umbrella from someone in my life, sort of kills me. It makes me feel ashamed, like something is wrong with me. It makes me feel like the person I am at my very worst is too shameful or challenging for anyone to approach.

All of these thoughts, though hard, are part of the process. Feeling better, coping and finding balance involve reflection and facing the hard emotions. I now choose to fight the shame with a positive counter thought. Maybe I do seem better because I just bought a rocking new outfit or I’ve been hitting the gym. Maybe I seem better because I am better, and that’s a good thing. Maybe nobody offered me a hand because I seem stronger than I feel.

Maybe I am strong and maybe you are too. Mental illness is no cause for shame, it’s an opportunity to realize our strength. Feel better, cope, and thrive without shame.

Photo by Butunoi Sergiu on Unsplash