‘What?’ you say. ‘How can you introduce the language of morality into mental illness? It’s unfair, it’s inappropriate, it’s didactic.’
Certainly we must be careful about labelling the mentally ill as morally failing – it seems to harken back to Victorian psychology, or worse, to medieval Christian psychology. But hear me out.
When I suffered from social anxiety, in my late teens and early twenties, the anxiety in part arose because of my moral system. At the core of this system was the belief ‘I must please other people’, which can be expressed as a general moral axiom: ‘The Good Life is the life that wins the approval of others. The more people like me and approve of me, the better I am.’
This value system led directly to my anxiety, via habitual thoughts like: ‘It is terrible if someone doesn’t like me, everyone must like me’, which made me so worried about people not liking me that I eventually became fixated on my social performance and other people’s reaction to it, which was fine when I was performing very well, but not so good when I wasn’t.
I then put myself through a course of CBT, which taught me to Socratically evaluate my beliefs, and to ask myself, ‘must I really be liked by everyone? Is that the ultimate judgement of my self-worth?’ I gradually became able to consider this habitual belief system, to detach myself from it, to weigh it up, and to reject it.
I moved instead to a value system which recognized that public approval is not the same as the Good, and that the latter is a more important goal than the former. I also recognized that my good as a human being lies in seeking the latter, as opposed to the former.
It seems to me, from my own experience, that it’s fair to say that many emotional disorders arise from these sorts of failure in practical moral reasoning, and that returning to health involves re-organizing your value system so that it more adequately fits your environment and enables you to flourish.
What do you think?