My Three Mountains
When we were young children with developing brains, we viewed the world through only our eyes and assumed that others saw the same. This is called egocentrism. Think about the young child who gives his mother a toad because that’s what he would want as a gift. To the child, it was beautiful, and he couldn’t believe that anyone would see it any other way. Eventually our brains develop the ability to discern that others see things differently. We start to develop our concept of morality and the concept of intent and to understand we are not the center of the universe. And then we grow up, become adults, and regress back into the infantile subjective egocentrism all over again.
What is Egocentrism
Webster’s defines egocentrism as “excessive interest in oneself and concern for one’s own welfare or advantage at the expense of or in disregard of others.” Egocentrism is selfishness on steroids. To be clear – everyone is selfish in some way or another. It’s in our DNA. It is instinct to self-preserve and survive, but our cognitive brain picked up along the way that to do so requires outside help through the form of other humans. So we decided to assimilate and work within our cultural norms with our fellow humans as a survival mechanism.
Egocentrism Drives Stigmas
The terms culture-centrism and ethnocentrism apply to what happens when an entire society becomes egocentric. It means that a society is judging outsiders according to their own internal standards. So what happens when we no longer fit our external “social norm”? We differ from our society, act differently, look differently, or have mental health or substance issues that appear different then accepted norms. As noted on the home page of this website, it starts with Public Stigma: the general population endorses the stereotypes of mental illness and acts in a discriminatory manner.
What Mental Illness is…
Webster’s defines illness as an “unhealthy condition of the body or mind.” So to me, the more important (and nuanced) question becomes the opposite question: “what then is healthy”? Depending on your background, culture, and upbringing, what is normal and healthy may mean very different things. Healthy and “illness” can be subjective in many ways.
I bet you didn’t know there are currently 572 codes under the ICD10 grouping of Mental Health Billable Diagnosis Codes. That means there is a pretty large spectrum of what is considered a “mental illness”. Does “F52.21 Male Erectile Disorder” count as a mental illness? How about “F51.12 Insufficient Sleep Syndrome”? That sounds like two things that we are inundated with commercials for medication – and they certainly don’t sound like a mental illness to me.
I am not saying there are no true or intervention-required mental illnesses – there certainly are. Technically, I have a few. But when we use the word “illness” with “mental” it immediately pulls up a stigma. Just like everything else in our society, we only pay attention to the extremes. The movie “Joker” was lauded by some for its portrayal of mental illness – but what was the result? To the larger general audience, the end result was the continued reinforced messaging that “mental illness” means something extreme – not something normal.
…Depends on Your Perspective
Every single person sees the world differently than the next person. There are physical variances in perception – and there are cognitive variances in perception. Then factor in the diverse backgrounds of the individual, history of experiences, prejudices, pre-determined judgements, and so on. It is impossible to “see the world though other’s eyes” as there is no way to translate their entire experience into your thoughts. We can conceptualize and maybe understand why someone may believe or feel that way – but to expect everyone to fall in line to one person’s version of perception is unrealistic and impossible to achieve.
This is especially true when dealing with mental health and substance use issues. People who have not truly experienced these issues have no idea what they really are, what they feel like, and how they affect our everyday lives and interactions. We’re just lumped into the next movie cliché or media commercial for a new pill to fix us. So when people look at us with that stigma, it’s not their fault for thinking that way – misinformation has been their only exposure. Just as there should be no stigma for having a mental health or substance use issue – there should be no stigma placed on those that don’t (yet) understand. They just don’t know better.
Around the Mountain
Piaget had an exercise for early childhood development called the “three mountains task.” A child of around 4 years old was to look at a model of three mountains with specific items on each side. Then the tester would ask what the child saw, and then what the child thought the tester saw. At 4 years old the answer was they thought both sides were the same. At around 7 years old, the child had developed the ability to understand and say what each person saw from their side of the mountain.
My three mountains have some pretty interesting topography on my side with a lot of sharp crags, landslides, and wreckage – but some really beautiful vistas as well. It takes the bad to make the good after all. I am who I am when I am. I deserve an opportunity to change, to grow, and to become a better human. I certainly cannot go back in time and change the past – and I’m not sure I would want to anyway. My experience has made me who I am. If I experienced things differently, I would not be the current me.
So instead of us judging and stigmatizing each other – how about you and I take a drive around the three mountains. You can look at my side and I can look at yours. Not to compare, but to understand. After all, I am not asking you to move here – just asking that maybe we can build a bridge and visit each other from time to time.