There are a few words in the English lexicon that appear to draw a lot of power.
Sport is a good one. Lots of things claim to be sports, and saying something isn’t a sport is often very controversial; so much so that pretty much any type of physical competition is now considered a sport. Hell, even activities that aren’t competitive take on the moniker, like hunting or fishing.
Somehow, we have deemed “sport” to be the word with the most honor bestowed upon it, and words like “competition” are deemed to sit below it.
Art is this way as well. People clearly not making art claim to be artists all the time, like restorative painters. And people that sit well outside the traditional visual, literary, musical, or thespian arts claim all the time to be creating art.
Hell, I’ve even said that once in this space.
Any professional painter will tell you they are an artist, even if they have never once sold a creative work. How many teenagers in garages claim the title of musician? To tell them otherwise is heretical, of course. Anyone working within a creative field is an artist, regardless of what they actually do, and anyone creating anything in any field can claim to be making art. Apparently “painter” is far too lowly. Apparently creating an incredible work of engineering isn’t enough. Those things sit below the lofty status of art.
There are a lot more, but these examples all take a similar form. The question is why? Why do we deem some things as more desirable ways to describe something?
There has been a shift in public perception regarding mental illness over the last decade. And this shift has created this kind of hierarchy of language, but with mental health terms.
No one says they are nervous anymore, right? They are having anxiety; anxiety about the test, anxiety about that speech, anxiety about going to the doctor.
Anxiety is not the same as being nervous, in fact, they are almost opposite of each other. Nervousness is a normal response to an outside stimulus. You can be nervous about a test, but not anxious about it. Anxiety is an overarching feeling, often includes physical symptoms, and prevents normal daily functioning, and is often unrelated to outside stimulus.
Social anxiety is probably where this confusion crept in and changed the lexicon. Listen, a lot of people get nervous about parties, or meeting new people. They worry about what to wear and if they are boring or dorky or whatever. That is all very common, and it isn’t social anxiety. It also isn’t social anxiety to prefer to stay home or not go out. Social anxiety is when you physically cannot leave your house without experiencing heart attack-like symptoms.
You see the difference?
No one seems to be sad or blue or gloomy or down or ‘just kinda out of it’ anymore either. Everyone claims to be depressed.
So why have anxiety and depression come to sit on top of the hierarchy of emotional words?
I really don’t know. I imagine it has something to do with why sport and art sit there as well. Society has placed a level of respect to these words, and people want to claim that as their own, even if it isn’t deserved.
The most cynical version of me cannot help but believe this is all mired in egotism.
‘I will say I’m depressed because that is worse than just sad and people might look at me funny for posting on Facebook that I’m just sad. I need to ramp this up to make it worthy of this public forum’
The most dumbfounded version of me cannot help but believe that these words are just in the lexicon, and people have shockingly small vocabularies. They only know the most popular way to say ‘sad’ or ‘nervous’.
The most frightened version of me cannot help but believe that these people believe they are experiencing these things, not understanding how much more destructive these emotions can become in someone with a mental illness.
What scares me the most about that last option is that you wouldn’t believe how common the phrase “we all get depressed sometimes” or “we all experience depression from time to time” is. I hear it all the time. I read it twice today in two different social media postings on two different platforms from two different people.
No, we don’t all get depressed. We don’t all get anxious. We don’t all participate in sports. And we don’t all create art.
That doesn’t mean what you experience or do or create isn’t significant, or is somehow less significant than those things. All it means is that you experience or create something other than those things.
There is no reason to co-opt these terms, and there is no reason to believe you are somehow less authentic for not fitting one of those definitions.
They are just words. Your experience is what matters.