One of the things about my mental illness that I am most grateful for is the doubt.
You heard me. The doubt.
I mean, it didn’t come with doubt originally. I was very, very sure that I was a terrible person, and that everyone hated me. I had no doubt whatsoever that making a mistake meant I was a failure, and other harsh things.
I was so sure of those things that when, in the process of recovery, I learned that many of those things I had believed with every fibre of my being were not true, it really floored me. It cast doubt on everything.
There are three ways I could have then approached this conundrum:
- This input that says these core things are not real is wrong, because it goes against something so basic to me that it resets my world if it’s not true. Throw it out.
- This core thing is wrong? Then everything must be wrong! Throw everything out!
- Hm. I can see that these core things may not be the complete truth I once thought they were. This makes me have doubts about other beliefs I have, too. In light of this new knowledge, I am going to examine my beliefs to make sure they are what I thought they were.
If I had followed the first path, I would still be locked tight under the prison of severe depression fueled by delusional worthlessness. Or dead from suicide. Probably the latter. So, that path is bad.
If I had followed the second path, the phrase ‘baby out with the bathwater’ would pale in comparison to the good things would have been thrown out without true justification. My life would have been hurt dramatically. So, that path is bad, too.
The third path is hardest. It requires much more thought and much more work. It requires making yourself uncomfortable as you question, ponder, and research each thing, one at a time. Sometimes it will lead to needing to make lifestyle changes. But it’s the only real way to reach the truth.
As we grow up, we are taught many things. Many of them are good and on purpose: Don’t hit your brother. Don’t take stuff from the store without paying for it. Be nice to people you interact with. Some of them are not so good: It’s okay to sample things like grapes or candy at the store because it’s tiny so it doesn’t matter and you want to know how good it is. It’s not okay to have silence. Stop asking questions, it’s annoying. Don’t be extraordinary because standing out is uncomfortable and might make other people feel bad. Failure is not an option. Downloading something without paying for it isn’t stealing because it’s just a copy. It’s bad to be alone. Going out without mascara is unacceptable.
There are TONS of things that we all grow up learning that become so standard in how we see the world that we don’t question them, and if we aren’t careful, they become so untouchable that anything that comes up that throws any type of question or doubt on them can make us nervous or angry. This is worse if the thing we believe is actually flawed, because deep down, we still want to believe it and we feel it is important that we believe it because it is tied to family or culture or simply comfortable familiarity or blissful ignorance. Lots of times we are so afraid of losing that belief (and subsequently everything tied to it) that we can’t tolerate even the idea that it might need to be adjusted.
Great example: in the LDS religion, righteous men of certain ages are given the priesthood. This includes both certain types of authority and certain responsibilities. Over the decades, this has been associated with a lot of practices and policies in the Church and the Church culture, some of which are good, some of which are benign, and some of which are not so good. The not good ones fall under what we call ‘unrighteous dominion’ — that is, a man basically abusing the power. In the doctrine, a man who abuses his authority no longer has the power or authority of God backing him up. However, since people are flawed and politics and lies abound, this does not always translate into a man losing leadership positions, respect, or authority within the Church structure. Which, of course, can cast a lot of doubt on things like the Church, the priesthood, the leadership, etc. And just like my example above, we have 3 ways we can deal with it. Two are bad. One is good.
So, back to my original point, I am beyond grateful that I was taught to doubt. Not just because of the direct doubting that I am a horrible person. But because of the other harmful ideas I once took for granted, which I was able to adjust or toss. I still see people all around me, though, who suffer under beliefs that are either flawed, incomplete, or outright wrong. They prompt these people to limit or hurt themselves and others, either through the belief itself or through emotional and often irrational defensiveness of the belief they are afraid to question. So I thought I would offer a few basic tips to help people try to find truth and the subsequent peace that comes with it.
- Break it down! Most of the time if there is doubt cast on something, it is because of a PART of something is bad, though sometimes that can be hard to see because we may have a hard time separating the flawed part from the whole. In the priesthood example above, you may have to separate a bad leader, local policy, or common practice from core tenets of the priesthood in the LDS faith.
- Learn to recognize and separate emotional reactions, arguments, and rhetoric from fact. There are a lot of people out there who can give very convincing arguments, but if you actually examine what they say, you find that very little is actually based on any facts at all. They might start with a fact, but then look at it from a skewed or tainted perspective, then blow it out of proportion, then use words that may be technically accurate but give exaggerated and emotional color to their argument that is misleading.
- Try not to make it personal. This can be hard, because sometimes our false belief is very tied to things that are important to us, and sometimes recognizing that we believed something wrong means we need to enact some difficult or uncomfortable changes in our lives. This can be doubly hard if it was taught by a parent who is still alive and still believes it and might get very angry to see you challenging it.
- Once you’ve learned something, don’t just sit back and decide you are done. Sometimes we grow up believing A, then B idea comes along to discredit A. That doesn’t mean we then throw out A and make B our new unquestioned mantra. Always keep learning! Always keep examining!
- Most of the time, the change needed is an adjustment. Not a purge. If your Dad always treated women like they were less important than men, that’s bad. But that doesn’t mean you start treating women like they are MORE important than men, or exactly the same as men (equal, yes. Identical, no.). Backlash beliefs or beliefs based on incomplete or false data are equally wrong and damaging.
- Recognize that some beliefs have different value to different people because of their family and culture, and you need to understand and respect that. There are a LOT of things in life that have value, and we can’t pursue them all equally. Other people and cultures often prioritize these differently than you do. So someone putting public image (including clothing or makeup) ahead of independence or honesty or other things that YOU may value more, does not make them bad people or mean they don’t value those things at all.
Examine. Question. That doesn’t mean to just throw out what you were taught. If your beliefs are worthy, they will survive.