The Root of Mental Illness is Unsafety - Teal Swan Articles - Teal Swan Jump to content

The Root of Mental Illness is Unsafety

Have you been looking around lately and had the feeling that people are losing their mind? There is actually a very good reason for this. And that reason has the potential to change how we approach mental illness. When most people think of unsafety, the images that are conjured in their mind are situations that can lead to physical harm. Such as swimming with sharks or being in a relationship with someone who is physically abusive or driving in a blizzard or being around someone who is infected with a virus for example. But the actual picture of unsafety is much broader. To be safe is to be protected from or to be free from danger, risk, harm, pain or injury. But danger, risk, harm, pain and injury can occur on many different levels of the self as a result of so many different things. It can occur to you emotionally, mentally and/or physically. It can occur as the result of what is not done just as easily as it can occur as a result of what is done. After all, when our needs are not met, that is a danger to our wellbeing and so we perceive ourselves to be unsafe.

Anytime our wellbeing and best interests are opposed, we perceive ourselves to be unsafe. And this perception of unsafety, causes us distress. When a person is in a situation that causes them distress, but they perceive themselves to be unable to eradicate the stressor itself, they are forced to cope with it. To cope is to make a specific alteration mentally, emotionally or physically so that you can manage or adapt to something that is causing you stress. And a coping mechanism is a specific procedure, strategy, process or technique, which manages or creates adaptation to stress. To make this simple, if we cannot make a situation safe, we are forced to manage with, deal with and adapt to the unsafe situation, so as to make ourselves safer in that unsafe situation.

The primary coping mechanism for a physical human is fragmentation. This is essentially the splitting of one’s own consciousness so as to suppress vulnerability and to the opposite, to put forward aspects of oneself that can self-preserve. We could say that in order to deal with unsafety, you have within you a part of you that is vulnerable and a part of you that is trying to protect that vulnerability. We could call these protector parts “protector personalities”. And though people tend to default to a particular protector with a particular strategy to stay safe in most situations, the reality is that people have several of them within themselves. If you want to learn more about this in-depth, you can watch my video titled: Fragmentation the Worldwide Disease.

The thing is, these protectors within people have some strategies, procedures, processes, techniques and behaviors for trying to self-preserve that are pretty extreme. In psychology today, a mental illness is diagnosed on the basis of symptoms that present themselves in a person. But if you look deep into those symptoms, they are really just indicators of unsafety and adaptive strategies that a person is using in order to try to self-preserve when faced with that unsafety.

So that you can understand what I mean, here are a few examples:

  1. Don grew up in a dysfunctional family system where every person in the household was really just out for themselves. His father was an alcoholic, who was more of a threat to the family than he was a benefit to the family. His mother was hopelessly codependent. She would let Don’s father do anything to both he and his brother if it meant avoiding conflict herself. Don’s brother Charley figured out that the only way to self-preserve in that home was to become everything that their father and mother wanted. To be the kid who caused no problems whatsoever. Don found this impossible to do. He could never get off of his father’s bad side and his mother only ever sided with his father. As a result, Don was unsafe. He realized quite young that people are really only ever out for themselves. He realized that if he was going to stay safe, he was going to have to be concerned with and look out for his own best interests only.
    Even though down deep, Don has very low self-esteem, Don behaves extremely arrogant. He exaggerates his achievements and his talents. He is able to suppress his feelings of powerlessness by deciding that he is meant for big things in this life. He focuses his mind obsessively on his own success and power. He seeks admiration everywhere he goes. He insists on having the best of everything. He monopolizes conversations. He uses other people to his advantage. He confuses unquestioning compliance with love. He tunes out the needs and feelings of other people. Don has been diagnosed with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. But what people are calling a disorder is really just an attempt to protect himself and ensure his own wellbeing.
  2. Jake was born into a very wealthy political family. His family cares much more about money and status and keeping up appearances than they care about the emotional needs of any specific member of the family. When Jake was young, he needed guidance and tenderness and comfort. Instead, he was passed off onto a transient stream of nannies and sent off to a harsh boarding school. As a child, when he acted unhappy or started to express his issues with what was happening, he was immediately invalidated. He spent his life being gaslit. Being told that unlike other people, he had everything. Being told that only losers can’t make the best of things. Being shamed and isolated for any negative emotion he had. And later, being sent off to centers in secret for rehab because no one in the public could find out that someone in the family had issues. Jake is in a great deal of despair. He feels like shit about himself. He is emotionally starving. But that aspect of him that is emotionally starving and in despair does not keep him safe. Instead, it makes him more unsafe in his family. It is what he is trying to deny, suppress and disown… even though he can’t. Whenever something happens that causes this despair to creep up, he rarely recognizes it. Instead, he immediately subconsciously panics and so to him, his mood swings seem to “come out of the blue”. And in order to try to stay away from the perceived unsafety of his own despair and his true negative feelings about the situations in his life, his protector personality steps in. This part of him starts to behave manically. It won’t let him go to sleep because slowing down would mean being present with how he is actually feeling. It causes his thoughts to race. It causes him to go on buying sprees and take drugs. It causes him to go climb dangerous mountains with little to no preparation and with no rest periods. It tells him and other people stories about how amazingly he is doing in life and about the big things in the world that he is going to create and accomplish. All of this is an avoidance strategy. And that avoidance strategy does not last very long.
    Soon, after four days or so, Jake can’t keep it up. Because he is suppressing the part of him that is in despair and that feels like shit about himself and that is emotionally starving, that part is actually being fed with energy too. And so, on day #5, he experiences a parts takeover. Jake has no energy at all. He is depressed and he finds no pleasure in any of the things he usually enjoys. He loses his appetite and he feels guilty and worthless. During these periods, he frequently starts to think of plans to kill himself. Jake has no idea what to do to exit this never-ending cycle. Jake is considered to be mentally ill. He has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. His psychiatrist has not recognized that this entire behavioral pattern that he has labeled bipolar is really just Jake’s adaptive strategy to the specific kind of unsafety he experienced and continues to experience in his life.
  3. Ruth was molested by her step brother. When the incest was happening, she knew that what was happening was wrong. She knew that it didn’t feel good and was terrifying. But her step brother kept telling her that he did it because she was just so beautiful. She felt completely out of control of herself. Out of control of her body because he was able to do what he wanted with it, regardless of what she wanted. And out of control of her emotions because even though she knew it was wrong, she couldn’t stop herself from wanting that positive feedback about her being beautiful. Being out of control like this made her feel unsafe. And so, she took control back by controlling her own body. Ruth started severely restricting her food intake, even to the point of starvation. She would misuse laxatives, diuretics and diet aids. She became addicted to enemas. And she would exercise so excessively that she lost her periods. Ruth has been diagnosed with anorexia nervosa. But what we are calling anorexia, is just an adaptive strategy to try to deal with the specific unsafety that Ruth experienced in her life.

There are so many strategies, procedures, processes, techniques and behaviors that people employ in order to try to protect themselves and ensure their own wellbeing when they perceive there to be a threat to their wellbeing. Just to give you a tiny list of examples, a person might isolate, become defensive, go into denial, run away and avoid, become combative, become controlling, catastrophize, worry, micromanage, fawn, bully, romanticize the past, slip into an overlay, become pessimistic, become optimistic, dissociate, become manic, take drugs or medications, spend compulsively, self-harm, sleep, be promiscuous, project, deflect, binge, become passive aggressive, play zero sum games, become self-righteous, lie, become overly friendly or be guarded etc.

It is essential that you understand that any of these adaptive strategies that you might look at and not understand at face value or call maladaptive (because they don’t seem to keep a person safe, in fact they seem to make them more unsafe) are still strategies the person is using to keep themselves safe. Most of the time, when a person uses a ‘maladaptive strategy’ to self-preserve, it is because they perceive themselves to be in a lose-lose situation. They perceive themselves to be choosing between something painful and something else painful. They are merely choosing the less painful option. For example, a person might use the strategy of cutting to self-preserve. They are choosing the pain of the physical harm of a knife and the interpersonal consequences that come with having cut themselves over the pain of the severity of their distress being unseen. Or over the distress of being held captive by rigid and inflexible rule structures about emotional expression and therefore being unable to express anger or despair. To understand more about this, you can watch my video titled: There Is No Such Thing as Self Sabotage.

Long story short, when a person perceives that their own wellbeing and best interests are threatened, even at a subconscious level, they perceive themselves to be unsafe. And this perception of unsafety causes people to employ protective strategies, procedures, processes, techniques and behaviors. These strategies often make people behave in ways that seem not sane. They cause people to behave in ways that are unsafe to other people. And this becomes a vicious cycle. 

This dynamic naturally occurs within people. But this dynamic is greatly amplified during any time of collective unsafety such as a war or a pandemic or a financial crisis or a famine or a natural disaster. This is what is happening in the world today. People are behaving more ‘mentally ill’ than ever because the unsafety they feel is causing their protector personalities to take over and employ protective strategies, procedures, processes, techniques and behaviors that cause them to behave in less than sane ways… Ways that make other people around them more unsafe. And the more unsafe they make other people, the more those people employ their own protective strategies, which makes them more unsafe and double down on their strategies and so on and so forth until what we are looking at is an ‘inflamed world’. A world that is genuinely unsafe and genuinely insane because of the very strategies people are all using to try to stay safe and preserve or bring about their own wellbeing. Just be careful not to fall into the trap of believing people when they justify their own self-protection strategies by saying it is something they are doing to “keep other people safe”. When people are in this mode, they employ very self-centered strategies. Even if they fight for someone else’s safety, it is because keeping that person or those people safe, somehow preserves their own safety. 

To give you an example of this dynamic in the world today, imagine that Jenna perceives that a virus is going to kill her and those she loves. Jenna might have persistent thoughts and images of herself in a hospital or of helplessly watching someone she loves struggle to breathe. She might try to mitigate that unsafety by watching the news day and night (because information makes her feel safer), by isolating in her home, by obsessively washing her hands and by becoming combative online with people who aren’t taking safety measures seriously. Jenna starts to perceive that the people who are not taking measures are a threat to her and to those she loves. The way Jenna behaves now, starts to make other people feel unsafe. One of those people is Crystal. 

Crystal has been friends with Jenna for 10 years. But lately, Jenna’s obsessive compulsive and militant behavior has been making Crystal feel unsafe. As a yoga instructor and doula, Crystal has always seen the deep-rooted problems within the medical and pharmaceutical establishment. She is a natural health freak. She feels like Jenna, and the people like her, that are both establishing and supporting the mask wearing and lock downs and vaccination measures are against her best interests and the best interests of the world. She sees herself losing the choice about what happens with her own body. She sees the consequences of isolation. She imagines that she and the world is headed towards a totalitarian regime. She might try to mitigate this unsafety by texting Jenna passive aggressive memes, by ignoring the news all together, by reading about her constitutional rights, by submitting scathing letters to her local government, and by investing in a gun (something she thought she would never own). The strategies that Crystal is using to try to mitigate her unsafety makes Jenna feel more unsafe. And the more unsafe Jenna feels, the more extreme her protective strategies become. And this makes Crystal feel even more unsafe. And the more unsafe Crystal feels, the more extreme her protective strategies become. Sound familiar? Because this is happening at a global level. And it continues to escalate and the social atmosphere of humanity continues to become more inflamed.      

By understanding what is really going on in the world, you may feel called to change your approach to what you are doing in the world and to how you are interacting with other people. And if people would understand that what we are calling mental illness is really just adaptive strategies for mitigating unsafety, it would completely change the approach we take with regards to mental illness.


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