You know what’s suffocating about American culture? The relentless optimism. Americans are so focused on happiness, they neglect any meaningful counterpart. A moment of sadness appears, and Americans act like it’s a moment of failure. As if emotions exist on a hierarchy of usefulness. I guess that’s what happens when individuals are expected to compete, at every level. You compete at home, with your siblings and parents. Then you compete in school, with your classmates and teachers. Then you compete at work, with your colleagues and managers. Growing up in America, you would think there’s nowhere to go but up, or else, back down.
No doubt, my view is colored by my mental health. I have struggled with anxiety and depression from a young age. But sometimes I wonder, is society making me sick, or am I solely responsible for how I feel? This is essentially the question Sylvia Plath was asking when she wrote The Bell Jar. In 1950s America, women weren’t supposed to question motherhood. If they did, it probably meant something was wrong with them. They were sick. And if they were sick, who would want to marry them? And if they didn’t get married, how would they survive?
Plath bought into the competitive ethos, and she kept aiming higher and higher. The poet is lauded for her genius, but it’s hard to separate her suicide from her legacy. I read The Bell Jar recently, and I was surprised by how much anger Plath expressed. It’s obvious how much she struggled to assert her worth in a male-dominated society. But I think it’s interesting how Plath intended to publish the novel under a pen name. I think she was ashamed of the novel’s raw emotions. There are poetic moments in the text, but mostly, it’s a harsh and scathing portrait of a woman aiming for greatness, while feeling as if she’s up against impossible odds.
But what would happen if, instead of aiming to go up, people aimed to reach out?
I finally reached out for help, a few years ago, when I sought out therapy. I wanted to see a therapist for many years, but I never thought I could afford it. When I sat across from my therapist, I realized many things. I realized how little I trust other people. I realized how much I didn’t like myself. I realized how little I understood about my emotions. I realized how much fear ruled my life. I would say fear has been my guiding principle, for as long as I can remember.
Fear isn’t a bad thing, though. Actually, fear is quite useful. Fear tells us what to pay attention to. The problem is, if you live in a constant state of fear, you end up taking in too much information, and your senses become overloaded. That’s why I felt exhausted all the time. I was always worried, worried, worried. Because I felt like it was always me, against the world. And I bet a lot of Americans feel this way. Our culture asks us to be our best, all the time. But how can we possibly accomplish this? (We can’t.)
I’m glad I went to therapy because my therapist really helped me. She did something so few Americans have the capacity to do: She let me be myself. She let me say how I really felt. And when I showed her what scared me, she said it was okay. She didn’t ask me to perform for her. She didn’t expect me to entertain her. She didn’t want proof that I was a worthwhile individual. She just sat with me and let me be a human.
But as much as I love my therapist, and as much as she helped me gain a sense of confidence in who I really am, she also showed me how much I’ve been missing. It’s heartbreaking to realize how lonely I feel. And how damaged I am, after years of being convinced that I had to prove my self-worth.
And now that I remembered how to be human, how to feel, how to acknowledge reality, I keep being reminded of how the rest of society is still caught up in the fray. Even now, as I write this, I’m anticipating people judging me and rejecting me, for simply sharing how I feel. Because this isn’t a how-to article about overcoming a problem. This isn’t a neatly packaged life lesson, one that others can apply to their lives, like something they bought and paid for, something they ordered online.
I feel so much anger and sadness, and I guess that’s what happens when you get past the fear. For so long, I kept my feelings close to me, suffocating me, hoping no one would notice how pessimistic I felt about — everything. At times, I admire Americans for their optimism. I see the strength in persevering and not getting caught up in a brooding mood. But there have been so many times where I felt like the optimism was just a blindness. A bright, shiny promise for a future that would never come.