He Seemed So Happy

Published: July 12, 2022

Everyone carries a burden. We live in a world where showing your pain is a sign of weakness, so most people’s burdens are not visible. Stanford University uses a duck as the metaphor for invisible effortlessness. The objective is to make accomplishment look easy so imagine the water fowl gliding swiftly across the water while his webbed feet are paddling like mad, out of view, to move forward. Most people respond with “fine” when asked how they’re doing. Are they really fine?

Friends and family struggling with anxiety, depression, loss, failure, and tragedy often post happy images on their social media platforms. Granted, Instagram is not the appropriate place to share your woes. But where is? Therapists’ schedules are filled with clients who have no other place to safely process adversity. We create a ‘holding environment’ for them to both vent and problem-solve. Clinical offices are blessed with the protection of confidentiality so the typical consequences of sharing your deepest, darkest thoughts and feelings are shielded.

Imagine an ecosystem where showing pain was a measure of strength. In this universe, looking a problem in the eye and understanding its source would take priority over making the symptoms go away. We would be encouraged to struggle and surround each other with whatever support was needed. This would become the platform upon which coping skills would develop. We would learn to manage difficulty by having difficulty.

The advent of psychotropic drugs in the 1980’s ushered in an era of healthcare that focuses on symptom-reduction – shorter inpatient psych stays and fewer outpatient sessions approved. ‘Stabilize and refer’ replaced ‘diagnose and treat.’ Employers saved money, insurers made money, and families kicked the can of the problem down the road. Quick relief became the mantra.

There is now literally a pill for everything, and prescribers promise a happy, healthy life. Here’s the catch. If you just alleviate the symptom, the source goes unmanaged. As a result, the symptoms are certain to come back. You can drug them forever but they will aways return. More importantly, every time you medicate the struggle, you reroute your emotional and cognitive development trajectory away from developing healthy coping skills. The medicine makes growth unnecessary – until your symptoms crop up in other places, of course.

We see plenty of adults with child-like coping abilities. Tantrums aren’t very effective when things don’t go your way. On the other hand, naming the problem and locating the resources to solve it works pretty well. And like most things, these dialogues work better with a trusted friend, family member, or counselor than they do alone with a mirror.

So, the next time someone who cares about you asks you how you’re doing, tell them.

Photo of Steve Ritter, the co-founder of The Center for Team Excellence

Steve Ritter

Steve Ritter is an internationally recognized expert on team dynamics whose clients include Fortune 500 companies, professional sports teams, and many educational organizations. He is on the faculty of the Center for Professional Excellence at Elmhurst University where he earned the President's Award for Excellence in Teaching. Steve is the former Senior Vice President, Director of Human Resources at Leaders Bank, named the #1 Best Place to Work in Illinois in 2006 and winner of the American Psychological Association's Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award in 2010. Steve provides ongoing workplace culture consultation to many thriving companies including Kraft Foods, Advocate Health Care, Kellogg's, the Chicago White Sox, AthletiCo, and Northwestern Mutual Financial Network.