The Every Body Is Beautiful Project

Empathy: Our Greatest Asset As Allies to Those In Recovery

RecoveryOphelia's Place5 Comments

At Circles of Change we are working to change the conversation around health, beauty and body image. We believe changing the conversation is an empowering way to take control back in these areas. As mental health awareness month comes to a close we want to share some insight in how to be mindful of how damaging language can be and on the flip side how healing. 

The amount of stigma surrounding mental illness is intense, it is real, and it is keeping people who are impacted from getting help. This leads to unnecessary suffering and can often be fatal. I got to a point early on in my life that my pain was greater than my fear of stigma and shame. So when I got the help I so desperately needed I also found that using my voice and sharing my story helped to reduce my shame, in addition to allowing me to help reduce the stigma with people who heard me.

There is so much messaging that contributes to this overarching commentary that ‘mental illness = weakness.’ A large part of my recovery journey has involved listening to my body, my intuition, and my wisdom, to understand that when I get anxious after hearing something, I dig deeper and ask myself, “what message am I internalizing?”

The other day I heard a story of a woman who is very physically ill and going through an immensely painful time. Her friend asked her, “With all this going on how do you not get depressed?” Her innocent reply was that depression does not serve her and she is so grateful for the support her family continuously pours onto her.

When I heard this story my anxiety kicked in. These were two people I trusted deeply, who are well versed in mental illness- how could they be so insensitive? I chose not to react in that conversation and to not communicate my feelings at the time. I wasn’t completely sure why that comment hit me so hard, so I chose to take a step back and process through what triggered my anxiety- what triggered my shame.

I realized what I heard was, “gratitude heals depression.” This was a message that gave me extreme guilt in the midst of my illness. I would compare my life to others and shame my experience by saying, “they have it so much worse.” “I have so much to grateful for, why do I struggle with the will to live?”

It took me years to understand that my depression wasn’t a lack of gratitude and that it was a response to a trauma that I did not have the tools to work through.

The other thing I heard was that, “there are practices everyone can do to avoid mental illness, and if you have mental illness you are failing at those practices.” This was something else I internalized a lot with my depression and eating disorder. I would tell myself that there were flaws in my personality, such as being lazy, pessimistic, vain, selfish, and insensitive. I can absolutely understand how it can be projected that way and yet, now that I am on the other side of it, I am able to see that those were all symptoms of a malnourished and trauma ridden body. I have the privilege of seeing a before and after shot of my brain and having a clear understanding of the affect mental illness had on my thoughts and my behavior.

Once I had an understanding of what this was triggering in me, I now had a choice in what to do with the information. I had to change the story that was playing in my head; from one of shame, to one of grace.I reminded myself that mental illness is a part of my story; that it is not because I am a bad person or have personally failed at picking myself up by my boot straps, or that I lack gratitude and I am not thankful for the gifts I have in this life.

I chose to have a conversation with the person where this conversation got started. Because I am confident that their intent was to not harm, I wanted to check in with them. I explained my experience to them and said, “This is what I was hearing, is this what you were saying?” We were able to talk through the messaging I was internalizing, and I used my voice to say that those types of answers can perpetuate the stigma so many people continue to feel.

I also was able to get clarification that a part of that conversation that wasn’t conveyed was that the woman she was talking to said, “I don’t have a predisposition to depression.” Which was all I needed to hear. If there is one thing I hope people learn about mental illness is that if you are someone who hasn’t experienced anyone of these diseases you are not morally superior, you simply don’t have that wiring.


I believe that mental illness forces us to look at life’s toughest questions and analyze the popular “self help” theories. I know that my personal illness challenged everyone around me. When they saw me fighting for my life, taking medications, and going to therapy and not seeing my situation change, they had two options.

  1. Understand that life is not black and white. It is so much deeper than cause and effect. There are millions of factors that impact our lives. Holding and embracing the gray areas challenges our souls more than we can handle. Being able to hold the tension between seeking treatment and not getting results is almost more than most people can bear. So they move on to option 2…

  2. They blame the individual. They must still be suffering because they are doing it wrong, they don’t have enough faith, they aren’t as strong as most people, they must lack something…

One of my favorite quotes by Bill Ballard, that I believe can help solve this problem, is “Opinion is really the lowest form of human knowledge. It requires no accountability, no understanding. The highest form of knowledge is empathy, for it forces us to suspend our egos and live in another’s world. It requires profound purpose larger than the self kind of understanding.”

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This is so simple and yet extremely difficult because it forces our souls to expand, to hold pain and confusion, to be in the mess with the solution; to continually hold tension and to learn to be uncomfortable. Yet, as I practiced that, I watched my being grow- I became a friend to humanity and to the uncertainties in life. Mental illness is one of the hardest realities in life. I ask you to please listen more, practice empathetic responses, try to put yourself in that situation, ask how you can support, and maybe even inspire yourself to seek healing in your life.