Does Putting Ourselves Down in Print Make our Writing More Relatable?
On the language we use to depict our inner world
Readers can infer a lot about the relationship you have with your own self by the language you use to document your inner life.
In certain cases, how you choose to present yourself to others and what identity you adopt in print tells us a lot about you before we’ve even read your copy.
Do you write under your own name? Have you chosen an alter ego or a pseudonym instead? If so, does it emphasize a particular physical or mental characteristic? Is it in jest, to support your advocacy work and raise awareness, or as an expression of raw self-loathing?
I write about mental illness, a predicament many erroneously conflate with being crazy so I could have chosen to call myself something that reflects that, playing to the clichés, and pandering to the lowest common denominator.
There’s always the danger that a name or a handle you intend as ironic self-deprecation could end up reinforcing stigma.
Since my work is about doing the exact opposite and neither my illness nor my limitations define me, I write as, well, me.
Depression corrupts your inner monologue. In chronic cases like mine, you often lose the ability to distinguish between your own thoughts and depressive propaganda. Writing about this reality makes finding the right words all the more important as being careless with language could perpetuate prejudice.
Those of us advocating for a more tolerant society have a duty of care toward our readership.
But the first person we have a duty of care toward is ourselves.
When stigma and shame keep you down for years and conspire to cut you off from the world, you have no frame of reference anymore.
Oddball, outlier, misfit, aberration.
The eyes and voices of your peers spell out rejection and before you know it, you’ve co-opted their language. You use their words and their tone as the building blocks of your own narrative. You internalize their misguided opinions and soon they become yours, self-inflicted and homegrown.
Your difference swallows up your identity and your own voice.
No longer a full-fledged human, you’ve shrunk yourself to the crazy. Or the lonely. You are layer upon layer of unspoken pain which you unpack in full view, wringing out your heart until you offload all the hurt. Awash with self-loathing, your words dissolve upon contact with the page, leaving only judgment behind.
When illness and society try to wrench your humanness away from you and you begin using their words, you hand it over with nary a protest.
Every time you put yourself down in writing, you send out the message that it’s OK to do so, inviting others to join in. It’s as if you didn’t want readers or witnesses but a lynch mob so you egg them on.
To yourself, you’re a monster so you tell everyone, hoping they’ll join in.
Sometimes, they pile on and oblige.
Why bind your identity to that which hinders you the most?
Demeaning yourself in print does not give you a head start, it just destroys hope.
Hope in yourself, hope in others, hope in humanity at large.
If you’ve convinced yourself to never expect anything from anyone so you won’t be disappointed, fair enough. But there’s at least one human you should expect better from: you.
How we treat ourselves is how we show others it is acceptable to treat us.
Compromise on love, respect, and honesty, and so will everyone else. Use vague and nebulous language, remain lost in the fog. Strive to be exacting and precise, the clouds will eventually part.
Why not talk to and about yourself as you would to and about someone you respect and appreciate? Even if you feel none of those things toward your person yet, the right language can help you reclaim an identity separate from your predicament.
You’re not the crazy. You’re not even the broken brain. Your brain may be home to a cantankerous and deceitful parasite but that doesn’t make you one by association unless you insist in print that you are and force us to believe you.
The things we repeat most often are the ones we tend to focus on so choose wisely.
I’m neither your crazy friend nor your token depressive.
Although depression and I may be stuck together, my future will be what I make it, not what the parasite in my brain decides.
This is why I edit out anything that might suggest illness dictates my copy.
This is why I don’t wallow in self-pity in print even though it would make for far easier writing. Then again, copy dripping with overwrought pathos is often clickbait and does little to advance mental health advocacy. Instead, it perpetuates the cliché of the “woe is me” helpless and self-centered depressive, which is as reductive as it is inaccurate.
This is why I keep a tight grip on my narrative, only sharing what I would be happy to discuss in public. We may not always have a say about how our story unfolds but we get to choose how we tell it.
Many of us are miserable, and the more miserable we tell ourselves we are, the more miserable we remain. Acknowledging misery is a universal experience is one thing, adding to it with whiny copy is another.
Supplying schadenfreude to the unsuspecting is a waste of words. Why encourage fellow humans to seek solace in the misfortune of others, even if that misfortune is your own? I don’t want you to feel glad you’re not me, I want you to understand you could be.
Language is the most accessible catalyst for change and the words we choose to communicate have the power to affect our daily reality. Unless beholden to an editor or a style guide, many of us are in complete control of the language we use.
And if we’re trying to build up self-confidence and promote tolerance, how we relate to ourselves in print is a good place to start.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.