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Ask About BPD: Mental Illness Jokes

“I saw a post on a friend’s Facebook page. She posted a picture about OCD then ‘tagged’ a friend of hers followed by a laughing smiley emoticon. Obviously saying that her ‘friend’ was ‘so OCD!’ It infuriated me! And although I felt offended I didn’t comment. I have never seen this sort of thing actually posted by a friend of mine…but if it was related to a physical illness, surely there would be an outrage?”

Mental illness as an adverb used to really infuriate me. This anger would inevitably lead me to post a verbal rant that was so strongly worded it would make anyone take notice. But when one of my outbursts led to the loss of a friend I sat myself down and asked, “Why is this such a trigger?”

The answer was simple: When I see these “jokes” I feel invalidated and that others see my struggle as laughable. My struggle is not a joke. It’s real and it’s messed up! I wish we could have these people spend one day in our mind and see how “laughable” BPD is. They’d probably wouldn’t last 5 minutes!

Then I thought: Every feeling is valid, but is it true?

In this case, no. And by reacting the way I did I invalidated their experience and made it seem that in comparison to mine, their experience was a laughable joke.

Let me explain what I mean with an analogy:

Before my last crisis I was a high school teacher in the beautiful state of California. We are known for our picturesque beaches and our pleasant weather. Our winters are mild and are often the envy of the country.

Nevertheless, this exchange would happen daily with a student:

It’s FREEZING out there! I mean look at my legs! They are blue and my hands are like ice. I’m sooooo friggen cold. I feel like I’m so cold I could die!

My response would be:

Fifty degrees is nowhere near freezing. And if you had taken the time to put on pants and a sweater instead of shorts and a t-shirt you wouldn’t have blue legs. You don’t even know what cold is. I lived in New Hampshire for five years. My car didn’t like to start when the temperature was below -5 and there were a lot of mornings that my car wouldn’t start! I wish I could send you there now wearing your shorts and t-shirt, then you can tell me what it’s like to be really cold.

Was my statement true? Yes.

Did it change the fact that they were experiencing their understanding of the word cold? NO.

I feel like a lot of people use mental illnesses the way Californians use the word cold. Ask yourself, “was my friend was mocking OCD or was she using it the way Californian’s use the word cold?” If it was mocking then I would have a discussion.

Why is mental illness often used as an adjective?

 The human language is meant to put into verbal form our non-verbal experiences. We do this by taking things we know, and that others can relate to, and use then to describe what we are feeling.

We often hear things like:

“My OCD is acting up.”

“I’ve been so bi-polar lately.”

“I’ve been so depressed.”

Do these people actually have any of these illnesses? Probably not.

Are they experiencing some kind of mental distress that they equate to their understating of these illnesses? Yes.

Does their lack of ability to communicate their distress give them the right to use mental illness as an adverb? No.

Why do people often use mental health as adjectives? Low emotional intelligence. Emotional intelligence is a person’s ability to differentiate between one’s own and other people’s feelings and label them appropriately. Without being able to correctly identify and label emotions people resort to analogous feelings. If this is the situation you need to listen not to what they say, but to what they mean.

What are they really trying to say?

When I hear:

  1. Bi-polar: they feel like they have been experiencing a range of opposite emotions, and that experience is causing them stress.
  2. Feeling OCD: their sense of order and control has been disrupted. They are feeling discombobulated and to combat that they have gone into extreme control mode.
  3. Depressed: they feel low on energy, sad, or otherwise depleted and unmotivated.
  4. Narcissist: they feel like someone they know is more concerned about their situation and problems than other people’s situations and problems.

How do we evaluate other’s use of mental illness?

In your question, what bothered you was the use of a mental illness to describe someone else.


Are they being mean?

Are they being humorous?

Did they mean it to be a put down?

Was there a situation where one of the people complained that their OCD was acting up and that is why your friend posted this pic?

We don’t know, and to pretend we do is to mind read.

What we do know is it was personal trigger for you.

“Calling in” vs. “Calling out”

We have every right to be offended by someone using our illness as a verbal modifier, but that doesn’t mean that we need to react in a way that either proves his or her point or loses the point. To do so is to waste our limited mental energy.

How do we get our point across in a nonaggressive and gentle manner? Calling someone in rather than calling them out.

Learning to the skills to “call in” as opposed to “call out” someone’s behavior takes time. We live in a call out or shame based culture. One that often has a knee jerk reaction to what it feels is offensive, and in its feelings of anger, or offense, shame the person who “wronged” them.

We want people to be accountable for their role in hurting us. We want them to know that their actions are invalidating. We want them to apologize.

Calling out does not solve problems, nor does it educate or end stigma, but causes people to go into a defensive mode and the message behind the post is lost.

If we are always fighting with people over their actions we run the risk of becoming bitter and/or burned out. We run the risk of letting splitting take over and we live in a more black than white world because of it.

Solution: Calling in.

The idea behind calling in is to first look inward at the trigger.

Ask yourself:

  • Why is this a trigger?
  • Do I have the emotional energy to fight this battle in a way that promotes change rather than defensiveness?
  • If I fight this battle what do I expect to gain? What may I lose?

If the statement or post warrants a response instead of calling out a person on social media you speak to them directly. Begin by saying:

I saw your post and I know you were trying to be funny, but as someone who lives with mental illness it offended me because…

How to better manage social networking triggers:

  1. Explore your trigger:
  • Mental illness used as adjectives is a trigger for me.
  • Mental illness used to describe someone else is a trigger for me.

Ask yourself:

– “Why does this bother me?”

– Is there a deeper reason for having such strong emotions?

  1. Challenge Automatic thoughts:

– They were being insensitive and mocking my experience and me.

Ask yourself:

  • What evidence is there that this thought is true?
  • What evidence is there that this thought is not true? What would I tell someone I loved if they were in this situation and had these thoughts?
  • If my automatic thought is true, what is the worst that could happen?
  • If my automatic thought is true, what is the best thing that could happen?
  1. Challenge “must” and “should” of the situation.

It is easy to say they should know better than to use mental illness as adjective, but in this situation they did not.

Acknowledging this does not excuse their behavior. Mental illnesses are not meant to be used as adjectives, but to assume they “should” have known better or they “must” have know how you felt about the subject is a cognitive distortion that will always leave you feeing wronged.

  1. Explore the possibility of the trigger being removed or avoided.
  • If this friend is usually non-triggering give them another chance.
  • If you find this friend often triggers you, but you still want to be able to contact them via messenger you can always hide their posts from your timeline.
  • If you find this person’s posts are expending too much emotional energy or taking up too much room in your head, then it is time to remove that trigger from your life.

Mental illnesses are not adjectives, but they are relatable experiences. We need to talk to others about how the use of these words make us feel, how their use of our illness as a verbal modifier perpetuates stigma, and we also need to help them find other words to express how they feel.

We don’t have to engage in every battle we are invited to and most social media triggers invite us to do just that. Learning when to call in vs call out will help reduce social media triggers and will allow you to engage in our every more connected world and still maintain a healthy mental attitude.

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