The theme of the UK’s Mental Health Awareness Week 2020 is kindness. But when can kindness in the shape of a self-help meme backfire? In this article, novelist Catherine North examines whether spreading self-help memes can actually be bad for our mental health. If you are sharing memes with work colleagues, you should definitely take note.

Self-help memes can be good, bad and ugly

We are drowning in an ocean of inspirational quotes. Not all of them are terrible. Some are profound reflections from thinkers and writers, motivating song lyrics, or excerpts of beautiful poetry.

Then there are the snippets that emerge from popular psychology. Rarely attributed to an author, they’re pasted onto a sunset or rainbow background and launched as memes to be shared and repeated by friends or colleagues until they become ingrained in our culture.

You’re not responsible for other people’s feelings. You can’t love someone else until you love yourself. Stop blaming others for your problems. You can’t expect others to respect you if you don’t respect yourself. You choose your own happiness. The difference between a good day and a bad day is your attitude.

I have a long-term mental health condition. I am fortunate to have access to therapy and support and I’m able to work in a full-time job that I enjoy. Even so, at best I find these trite phrases irritating. On more vulnerable days, seeing them has sent my anxiety skyrocketing or my mood spiralling down further.

I believe they’re shared with good intentions. And I’m not rejecting the concepts outright either. I even agree with some of the thinking behind them. So what is it about these memes that feels so profoundly unhelpful to someone with anxiety and depression?

The western self-help model is overwhelmingly individualistic

In my experience, the western self-help model focuses on reducing mental distress through attempting to separate the self from others. This idea of setting boundaries and owning our choices is used to overcome people-pleasing tendencies, avoid toxic relationships and empower us to live a more authentic life, instead of one based on societal expectations.

If you’re prepared to read thoughtful books and articles, attend a group or see a skilled therapist, there is scope for exploring these solutions in a way that is meaningful to you. Unfortunately, on social media or in the workplace they’re reduced to soundbites and presented as tough-love “truths”. And because the person posting them is not also offering you empathy and support, they come across as smug, victim-blaming and stigmatising.

You’re not responsible for someone else’s feelings is a dangerous suggestion, taken out of context. It’s too easily interpreted as not having to care about their feelings. If someone is hurt by my words, that’s their issue. They should learn to be stronger, so my negative comments don’t bother them. It’s the automatic defence of everyone who refuses to moderate their speech on the grounds that their right to expression is more important than another’s wellbeing. It is inconducive to kindness.

You can’t love someone else until you love yourself may be based on the reasonable premise that healthy self-esteem leads to more fulfilling relationships. But to state that another person can’t love is staggeringly offensive. It belittles millions of caring partners, parents and friends who struggle with feelings of low self-worth, denying them the capacity for basic human emotion. Far from being therapeutic, it makes me seethe with anger every time I encounter it.

Stop blaming others for your problems is over-simplified and lacking in compassion. It’s true that part of our self-development is learning what we can control and what we need to let go of. But blanket statements like this can be very triggering for people who have experienced violence, bullying or abuse.Are Self-Help Memes bad for our mental health? Happiness is not a choice. it's compilated.

You choose your own happiness is an idea that philosophers have grappled with since ancient times.  Many of us would agree that our attitudes influence our experience of life, and this is the basis of cognitive therapy. But just telling people they can choose to be happy is hugely simplistic and demeaning to people with mood disorders and other illnesses. In addition, it ignores or minimises the impact of key factors such as structural inequality, oppression and privilege.

If you don’t respect yourself, you can’t expect other people to respect you. Again, I understand the logic behind this, but the tone is pure victim-blaming: an excuse for taking advantage of someone’s lack of confidence. If a person is unable to stand up for themselves right now, then that’s when they need our kindness and understanding the most.

COVID-19 and the myth of self-reliance

One thing the COVID-19 crisis has done is to shatter the myth of the self-reliant individual, forging our own destiny and living our life as we choose without affecting others. Never has our fragility and our interconnectedness as organisms been more exposed on a physiological and emotional level, in a situation where one person’s right to freedom could literally cost another their life. This shared adversity has inspired magnificent acts of kindness and heroism, which is inspiring to witness in a world where cruelty and selfishness often seem endemic.

The theme for 2020’s Mental Health Awareness Week is Kindness Matters. It’s good to raise awareness, but kindness is so much more than a hashtag. One of the places we could start being kinder is the workplace, whether we’re working from home or are back in the office now. That might mean treating everyone with respect, regardless of their status or how they might feel about themselves. Or checking in with staff or colleagues to make sure they’re okay, and letting them know if they’re not okay, it’s not their fault and they have our support.

Sometimes it may involve changing our behaviour to allow someone else to feel safe and included, instead of dismissing their feelings on the grounds that we’re not responsible for them.

COVID-19 has ravaged our planet and we will be enduring the social and economic impacts for a long time to come. It’s time we stopped trying to ‘fix’ people with memes that put the blame on them and began the more difficult work of making the structural changes to our workplaces and communities that are needed to enable people to thrive.