Reasons Individualistic Cultures Relentlessly Undermine Mental Health

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*The ideas contained in this post are the opinions of the writer and communicated without reference to supporting documentation. The writer also recognizes that BPD is a disorder that affects both males and females, and uses of “she” or “he” in the  communication of ideas  are not  intended to  covey  sexual bias. Breakaway MHE Disclaimer

As a therapist and person who has worked through severe mental illness (Borderline Personality Disorder, BPD), I recognize the importance of learning to take responsibility for all things that go on inside the human psyche. Even more than this, I recognize the importance of taking responsibility for all emotions and behavioural urges. Every human experience emanates from within and no one but the individual has the power to make adjustments at the deepest level. I get it. That being said, since learning many things about how to take responsibility for mental health, I have also discovered how an “over-emphasis” on individualism in human culture sets the stage for mental illness.

Since individual responsibility is an essential ingredient for mental wellness, it can be hard to grasp how individualism as a cultural ideology could contribute to mental illness. Nevertheless, I am here to inform you why this is indeed the case and how it happens. In general, it has to do with the type of environment that gets created when you have many people focusing on themselves and their personal interests. More specifically, it has to do with the ways that relationships get neglected and undermined when individual progress holds the highest value, and how relationship neglect (particularly between parents and children) results in emotional ignorance and mismanagement. The extent to which relationships are nurtured (or not) has much to do with the onset of mental illness, and especially with the onset of emotional disorders like BPD.

When you grow up in an individualistic area of the world (e.g., USA, Canada) and cultural paradigm, there is an ongoing and underlying expectation that you will progress and achieve. In other words, the highest priority in several stages of life is to qualify (and remain qualified) to earn money sufficient to pay for all the necessities of life, and ideally as well, to pay for many non-necessities (e.g., toys, hobbies, holidays, etc.). In many cases, the aspiration of the individual is much higher than “the ordinary aspiration,” meaning that he or she is aiming to make more money than would ever be needed for a single lifetime. Short of money-making activities and aspiring to make more money, attention often then shifts to collecting the rewards of money-making (buying things). In short, the focus remains on individual production and consumption (or family production and consumption), and this often means little relevance is allotted to other essential life areas, such as mental health and relationships.

A misguided expectation of individuals in an individualistic culture is that health and relationships will “take care of themselves” if only enough money and rewards can be collected. The reality usually sets in later once health and relationship problems start happening, and then the next misguided expectation is health services will provide quick solutions and fixes. It doesn’t work this way, meaning there is no “magic wand” to make mental health and relational problems magically disappear. Honestly, ask any therapist about “the magic wand;” see what they have to say. The inconvenient truth is that many health issues are not amenable to “quick fixes,” especially mental health and relationship issues.

Making lasting improvements to mental health and relationship problems requires adjusting lifestyles and ideology (belief system) so that priorities can change and more time is automatically allotted to health maintenance and relationship practices. However as indicated above, many people in individualistic cultures automatically devote most of their time and energy to production and consumption activities. Therefore, suggesting adjustments to priorities in ways like this can present a strong challenge to beliefs about how life works and where, for instance, “worth”  and “satisfaction” comes from.

Indeed, many people will remain resistant to adjusting lifestyle and ideology because it represents a threat to sense of self, sense of security, and self-worth. As resistance continues, ongoing attempts will then be made to correct lingering mental health and relationship problems with approaches that have nothing to do with adjusting lifestyle and ideology (e.g., more working, more planning, more buying things, more belief). The temporary highs of achievement and material rewards can be extremely deceiving, leading people to believe that all need areas are met, but they are not, and symptoms (e.g., anxiety, depression, relational toxicity) will continue to tell the truth.

When ideology and lifestyle stays the same, lasting improvements to mental health and relationships remain very unlikely. Even so, the power of individualistic culture to maintain member allegiance to the individualistic paradigm (belief system, ideology) is incredibly powerful, since it gets regularly dramatized, sensationalized, and replayed in almost all forms of mainstream media (e.g., movies, television, music). For instance, any message that suggests “it’s gonna be great when I get, when I have, when I achieve, etc….” is planting the seeds of individualistic ideology. The problem, again, isn’t that taking individual responsibility is necessarily a problem concept, but rather that presuming that individual achievements can act as a “catch all” for matters of health and wellness. It doesn’t work that way, despite the ongoing ideological indoctrination suggesting that pursuing materialistic dreams and aspirations is the ultimate happiness solution.

The bottom line is that placing ultimate value on individual responsibility (in particular the producing and consuming aspects of responsibility) results in losing sight of the need to also let go of individuality periodically so as to remain whole and healthy. Mental health and relational health cannot be experienced while individuals are too often focused on their individuality, but unfortunately this doesn’t stop them from remaining unbalanced because of cultural indoctrination and conditioning.

An extremely important point of awareness while existing in an individualistic culture, therefore, is that the culture relentlessly functions to undermine mental health and relationships (if not in the short-term, then in the long-term). It does this because it is not able to reconcile its demands on the individual with the needs of the individual to nurture and maintain relationships. To acknowledge the need for adjusting oneself to this conflict of interest greatly improves the odds of not having mental health and relationships undermined.







photo credit: gedankenstuecke Screen centric via photopin (license)

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