A photo popped up yesterday on my Facebook memories, a photo which was a time capsule marking the beginning of my “conscious” mental health journey, and flashes of everything that changed in the last 3 years of my life came rushing back. Mostly, starting therapy at 30 and uncovering triggers for my lifelong anxiety, listening to my gust instinct to shift my career, and aligning my values more with my life and my work (an ongoing, everyday struggle). Unfortunately, these are not things one can easily share and talk about without feeling like oversharing. Whenever I meet new people or reconnect with old friends and family, and they ask what has been going on with me, I feel like I have nothing to show for it. Currently visiting my home country of France (where the stigma around mental health remains strong), I struggle with this dichotomy between the performance of what I feel is expected of me, what success looks like – and my real, inner life.
It is widely expected – especially for women – that life should be punctuated by traditional milestones. Engagement. Marriage. Starting a family. In our capitalist world, it is also expected for everyone that work achievements be celebrated as proof that one is climbing the ladder and “making it.” Promotion at work. New job with a raise. Buying a house.
In my filmmaking or artistic circles, it’s about making a movie, and a second. Writing a book, releasing an album, and a second. Whether you have had time in between to think through life and process what is happening to you and to the world doesn’t matter as much as your capacity for producing and staying in the competitive rat race.
Celebrating and sharing your inner life
The pandemic and subsequent confinement shifted a lot of that. It forced people – who had the privilege to be able to do so – to reevaluate their lives, and take better care of their mental health. The worldwide protests for the Black Lives Matter movement forced people to take time to think through systemic racial injustice and reevaluate their private lives, their belief systems, friendships, and worldviews – rather than go on business as usual.
But the majority of people was focused on survival and furthermore, powerful forces are at work now to push people to go back to the status quo and prioritize everything but their “inner life” – which I define here as their honest, solitary dialogue with themselves, which Hannah Arendt considers an essential thinking process to keep totalitarianism at bay.
But it should not be just an intellectual process – it’s about feelings and emotions, too. We don’t learn to understand or talk about our inner life, which leads to mental illnesses or feeling like a failure when we struggle with mental health issues. I wish we could reclaim the value of our internal journey so that the progression of our internal dialogue and the degree to which we know ourselves become the metrics for a “life well lived”. (Socrates came up with that a long time ago, so where did we go wrong?)
Celebrities on social media have started to open up about their struggles to remove the stigma around mental health. Brene Brown, and Oprah Winfrey before her, popularized the concept of bringing your “whole self” to work and being more vulnerable. But in one’s everyday life, it remains difficult to do.
Expanding the scope of what is considered worthy – a feminist struggle
In a beautiful essay published in “Les Glorieuses”, writer Leni Zumas asked why can’t we celebrate the end of year holidays by sharing lists of books that changed our life, political fights we believe in or playlists of songs we love, rather than by sending family portraits that celebrate the traditional nuclear family and its conservative values.
If we were able to open up more consistently about our inner life, and most importantly if such things were praised and honored as much as we celebrate the traditional milestones to keep up with societal expectations; if we were able to share what moves us, what changed our mind about an issue; if we could revel openly in the small and big victories of our struggles with mental health; all this could help open the floodgates for people who won’t have that dialogue with themselves, let alone with another human being. It would expand the scope of what we deem worthy to talk about and to praise. This is not just a mental health issue – it’s at the core of a truly intersectional feminist and LGBTQ struggle, as Leni Zumas pinpoints beautifully with the example of the Christmas family portrait.
Start at home
I believe this is also essential to keep the fire of activism alive. First, within ourselves, and then with the people around us. Seeds are planted in every interaction. Further, as our lived experiences shape our vision of the world, a revolution can be ignited in the privacy of one’s home, as countless feminists and especially feminists of color have written about. (See below a non-exhaustive list about the many nuances of “the personal is political”.)
This article might be a poorly disguised attempt to justify my life in the eyes of my peers, or in my own eyes. But mostly it seems to follow the stream of consciousness started in this article about my creative breakdown, and this article about the art of doing nothing. So like Alice chasing the rabbit, I am following the thread and hoping it leads me somewhere exciting.
“The Personal Is Political“, Carol Hanisch
“Living a Feminist Life“, Sara Ahmed
“A Black Feminist Statement“, Combahee River Collective
“The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House“, Audre Lorde
“Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color“, Kimberle Crenshaw