There is a lot of talk these days about the importance of mental health. In years past, mental health was not openly talked about. People were the target of bullying and even imprisonment if they showed signs of mental illness. Fear and shame kept people from openly talking about their mental health struggles. Sometimes, mental health issues became so debilitating that people would have to be committed into psychiatric hospitals. Even worse, sometimes struggles were so severe that people resorted to self-harm or even suicide. Certainly, these outcomes still happen. But people today are much more open about discussing their mental and emotional well-being, taking proper medication, and finding healthy ways to improve and maintain a healthy state of mind. And while mental and emotional illnesses can affect our behavior, it is important to remember that mental illness is not an excuse for inappropriate behavior. And when we do behave in inappropriate ways, we still must take accountability for our actions.

            I think it’s wonderful that people are so willing to talk about emotional and mental struggles now. When we talk about something openly, it loses its power over us. Still, talking about something has its risks. When we talk about something private and potentially controversial, we can feel exposed. We can feel like we’re sharing intimate pieces of ourselves with people who might not understand. People might have ignorant prejudices about the conditions we discuss and they might even respond with mean or hurtful comments. But most people are willing to listen. And sometimes we can even relate to each other when we realize we’re not alone. If, for example, I tell you about some of my tendencies as an autistic person, then you might realize you do some of the same things. Maybe it’s something you’ve done for years and always felt it made you “weird”. And now, all of a sudden, you realize you’re not the only one and you feel a little more normal. Talking about our vulnerabilities openly can be empowering and refreshing.

            It is important, however, to remember that our mental and emotional difficulties do not give us free license to behave any old way we want to. We are still ultimately responsible for our behavior and we’re responsible for ensuring our behavior is appropriate. We’re also responsible for taking accountability and making amends when our behavior has been inappropriate, and taking steps to try to make sure we don’t behave that way again in the future.

            As an example, one of my autistic tendencies is that I can become frustrated and upset by things that don’t really bother other people. When I become upset, I sometimes react in unexpected ways. This might include raising my voice or even lashing out against someone close to me (most often my wife). While I can take medications to keep the reactions at bay and I can try to be mindful of how I’m feeling before I have a reaction, sometimes I am unable to control it in the moment and I behave in a way that is inappropriate and even hurtful. When this happens, I need to take steps to ensure it doesn’t happen again, and I need to apologize to the person or people affected by my behavior. My neurodivergence is not an excuse for bad behavior.

            It isn’t easy being a human. We are all incredibly flawed. So much, in fact, that our brains don’t like to pay attention to our flaws. Our human brains have evolved to take care of us. And because they are so highly evolved, our brains reach a conclusion that we can do no wrong. Have you ever noticed that everyone on the road seems to be a bad driver? No matter where we’re going, we know there are going to be bad drivers. Could each of us possibly be the best driver on the road? Not likely. It’s just that we don’t notice the mistakes we make while driving the same way we recognize the mistakes other people make. Chances are, we’ve swerved out of our lane a time or two and not noticed it. But if we see someone else swerve, then we can easily become aggravated because our brains tell us we’re better drivers and we certainly would never make the same mistake.

            At times each of us will behave inappropriately. Sometimes we make mistakes. Sometimes we do things we wish we wouldn’t have done. When those things happen, we need to be aware of our behavior. We need to take steps to correct our behavior in the future and we might even need to apologize if our behavior was hurtful or harmful to people in our lives. It doesn’t feel good to be corrected. And sometimes we even become defensive. Has someone ever told you that “you’re being defensive”? When that happens to me, I become even more defensive. Still, it is important to refrain from defensiveness and to allow ourselves to receive feedback. We become defensive because we feel exposed and even attacked. But we need to flip the imaginary switch in our brains and allow ourselves to receive the information. Is the other person always right when they tell us we’re behaving inappropriately? No. But it is still an important life skill to receive their feedback. Once we receive it, we can take an honest assessment and determine if we want to change our behavior. Sometimes we realize we need to adjust. And adjusting when necessary is a good skill for each of us to work on developing over our lifetimes.

            A question I need to keep exploring is: what do we mean when we talk about appropriate behavior? Usually we mean behavior that is accepted by the other people around us. In legal terms we hear about the “reasonable person standard.” This is a hypothetical (and fictional) person. Essentially it means that a reasonable person driving a car will follow traffic rules and avoid reckless driving. A reasonable person working in a store will ensure the store is safe for the public to enter. If there’s a spill, the spill will be cleaned up. If a repair is necessary, the repair will be made. Would a reasonable person lose his or her temper if dinner is not prepared on time? Probably not. Would a reasonable person yell and scream if something wasn’t exactly where they expected it to be? Probably not. Sometimes in modern slang, the word “Karen” is used to describe a woman who is the example of how a reasonable person would not behave (Apologies if your name is Karen, but I suspect we’ve all heard of “Karens” in pop culture).

            There are lots of healthy ways to improve our behavior. We can ask a trustworthy person to hold us accountable and to let us know when they perceive our behavior to be inappropriate. We can take a deep breath and count to ten. We can go outside for a walk. We can take a drink of water. As helpful as they may sound, we probably want to avoid substances like drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol. These might make us even more oblivious and less willing to change. The good news is, we don’t need to be embarrassed. Everyone else in our life has done the same thing, and they also need to work on themselves. They’ve made mistakes, too. We can simply look inward and realize we’ve just learned something about ourselves that we hadn’t noticed before. Working on emotional and mental well-being is a lifelong journey. Sometimes it’s easier and sometimes it’s harder. Sometimes we become frustrated because we feel like we haven’t made progress. But if we look objectively at ourselves, we can quickly realize that one minor setback does not mean we’re not getting better. It just means we’re not perfect yet. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we understand we’ll never be perfect. But we still have to keep working toward trying to be.

This is the Worst!