Mental Illness and False Beliefs: How Our Misperceptions of Ourselves and the World Around us Sustain our Fear and Sadness

I often cover topics related to self-esteem, about how thinking differently, and more realistically, about oneself engenders a sense of relief and well-being; so, I wanted to write a blog post expanding upon the effects of globally erroneous beliefs (about the self, others, and the world) on mental health and well-being.

People often perceive philosophy as being a waste of time, impractical and unnecessary, as though it were the exclusive domain of sedentary rich folks with unlimited time on their hands; but, what’s often, and most, overlooked is the why of philosophy, the foundation which sustained its practice for as many centuries. Philosophy, and its accompanying persistent questioning and Socratic dialogue, is so significant not because of the answers one finds but due to their effects; philosophy, in essence, is a wonderful means of healthy thinking, and thus healthy living; thus, in my work with my clients, I frequently utilize Socratic questioning to help them understand the why of their difficulties, collaborating with them to explore the foundations of their dysfunctional beliefs.

What makes beliefs so fascinating is how little we think about them, our own beliefs, in our daily lives. We exist in cocoons of limited awareness, acting on our beliefs each second of each day, while remaining disassociated from them and their sources; yet, there they are, affecting everything that we do, in too often unacknowledged ways. Outside of our false labels of ourselves, the bad and the good ones, which I’ve discussed in depth elsewhere, we frequently have misperceptions of the world and others, which contribute to our low moods and anxiety. Beating ourselves up for failing to reach some exuberant  standard is only one aspect of a larger image in which we often see the rest of the world as having all of those things which we don’t, the attainments which positively define others but seem to elude us.

And that bigger picture sustains mental illness, with the widespread help of social media, and the multitudes of facades permeating your newsfeed. If we were to look behind the veils, we’d see people just like us, with tragedy and triumphs, failures and successes, presenting with ordinariness and even boredom; but, our beliefs about others, the notions that they’re more successful than we’ll ever be, perpetually keep us feeling down and anxious, fueling avoidance of risky endeavors. We live out our lives in terror of failure, as though the label of failure can ever define us, believing it to be plausible. We avoid fulfilling our potentials, believing that everyone else has it figured out except for us. And we evade the death’s contemplation, fearing its encroachment, as though it were some mystical boogeyman sent to carry us into a state of inconceivable suffering.

All of these fears: of life, of death, of failure; they’re all fueled by underlying false beliefs: death is suffering and infinite darkness, I’m a failure because I haven’t reached my (likely impossible) goals, everyone else is doing so well but I continually feel lost. And these beliefs make philosophy possible, and they make it necessary. When therapy works, Socratic questioning leads to profound insight, creating behavioral and emotional change. When an individual accepts the possibility that the worst aspect of thinking about one’s core beliefs is simply the fear of discovery, not the finding in itself, one can begin the exploration requisite for their extinguishment. For, the scariest part of examining certain core beliefs about oneself, and the world, is simply the possibility of demonstrating their truthfulness, proving, once and for all, how incompetent you are and how terrifying death is; therefore, you avoid.

Analysis is challenging and exploration repugnant because we already think we know how awful reality is, so we avoid confirming it. But, what I’ve found in my own treatment, as well as in treating others, is that reality isn’t what it may, at first, appear to be; and, rather than confirmation, analysis creates clarity, removing the deceptions that you’ve imposed upon yourself, and those which were imposed on you by others. Clarity is the goal, as clarity is our saving grace.

I can see clearly now, the rain is gone,
I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s gonna be a bright (bright), bright (bright)
Sun-Shiny day.

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