Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


It’s Not You. It’s the World.

The power of being distressed in a disordered world.

Key points

  • Humans evolved to survive, not to be happy or calm.
  • Our discomfort, despair, rage, guilt, and fear are necessary alarms in an endangered world.
  • After listening to and validating the distress signals from their body and mind, an individual can better navigate and heal the world.

I’m not supposed to talk about myself. It’s been trained out of me. So has reacting, desiring, hurting, hating, and really, being human. Freud Botoxed the faces and hearts of generations of psychiatrists by preaching that we become “blank screens” for you. We must be neutral so we don’t interfere with your process. Who I am on the other side of the couch—with my muted heartbreaks and stifled rages—only obstructs my purpose: I’m here to help you.

Turns out, though, that whittling us into well-trained robots doesn’t create great doctors. Nor does it arm us to heal a diseased world. And ignoring and pushing down all the messy feelings inside awards us many mental health symptoms (I’ve earned more diagnoses than degrees behind my name by now). So, I’m relearning how to be human—and giving myself permission to frown, sob, giggle, and say “No.”

You’re likely not a psychiatrist, but I wonder what’s been trained out of you. Perhaps you’ve learned to push things down to cope in a scary world, whether you needed to please, serve, protect, or survive. And maybe you’re now depressed, anxious, sick, or finding yourself numb with all the things society throws at us to tranquilize that voice in our head that screams, “Danger! This is not okay!”

Source: John Ditchburn/Inkcinct Cartoons
"It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society." — Jiddu Krishnamurti
Source: John Ditchburn/Inkcinct Cartoons

Cure the Coal Mine to Save the Canaries

Our world isn’t okay right now. If mental health symptoms are the canary, then our coal mine is toxic. Our world is collapsing and combusting all around us, and if we don’t adapt to this challenge fast, it might very well be the end of the world.

So, no, you’re not broken or doing it wrong. You’re human. And being human is inherently painful for all of us. Especially now. We’re designed to feel this distress. It’s our alarm system to survive a dangerous world.

This idea might send many of you into existential angst, as I’m asking you to abandon the comfort of believing—or more accurately, the socially applauded epidemic of chastising ourselves into believing, in the name of "self-improvement"—that if only we were to just do x, y, and z, or to just be a, b, and c, then we could avoid all the pain and flatline on happy.

Maybe I’m losing you already with no promises of quick fixes. Or maybe you’re noticing relief. Relief that you’re not the only one who hurts, not the only one who lives in your head trying to ruminate a way out of it, who tries every escape hatch possible—for we are exceptionally creative at finding new ways to numb out, despite it only making things worse. Relief that we’re all in this painful, uncertain mess together. Not that misery loves company, but that shame thrives in silence. Relief that, as Brenè Brown titled her first book, I Thought It Was Just Me, but It Isn't.

Being Human Is Painful on Purpose

Being human is hard. The Buddha called it ‘dukkha’ (in Pali) in his first Noble Truth, describing the inherent discomfort of everyday life. Freud’s greatest aspiration was to transform hysteric misery into common unhappiness.[1] Evolutionary psychologists teach that we’ve evolved to survive, not to be happy or calm.[2]

Think back to our predecessors, living thousands of years ago, looking out in the distance, and thinking, “Is that a big, scary beast that can eat me or just a bush?” [3] It wasn’t the chill, effortlessly confident ones who survived. Those naturally selected to become our ancestors were the stressed-out buzzkills who could imagine the worst in any situation. The most anxious, untrusting, and pessimistic people were the ones who managed to pass on their genes to the next generation.

We’re also wired for connection. So threats to our social status—getting kicked out of the tribe—are equally threatening to our survival. Feeling “not enough,” comparing ourselves to others, and fears of rejection—these have also been naturally selected for survival. (Yes, I’m saying my insecurity means I’m highly evolved.)

It Makes Sense That You're Distressed

When dialectical behavioral therapy’s (DBT) creator, Marsha Linehan, began counseling clients as a new, eager clinician, she quickly realized that the more she threw advice and change strategies at her clients, the worse they fared.[4] What she realized she missed was validating their pain—simply communicating, “Ouch. That makes sense you’re hurting," which is now a foundation of DBT.

We invalidate when we oversimplify the problem (“Why don’t you just think positively?”; “Just breathe”) or reject someone’s inner experience (“There’s nothing to be upset about”; “Just let it go.”)

So, I’m not going to oversimplify our problem. Healing the world is the battle of our lives. And to do so, we need to relearn how to be human, in all its intensity, pain, and turmoil. We need to feel deep distress when our world is endangered. Because right now, it is. Our discomfort and despair, our rage and fear—these are the appropriate smoke alarms to a world on fire.

Our Symptoms Are Important Signals for Survival

Before we learn strategies to soothe our symptoms, we need to listen closely to what they’re signaling. We’re not stressed because we’re malfunctioning. Our bodies and minds are doing exactly what they’re supposed to—protecting us by setting off alarms or short-circuiting in toxic environments. This is how we’re built to survive.

We often blame ourselves for being damaged or doing it wrong when we struggle. It’s more comfortable than sitting with the heavy reality that the world around us is broken in overwhelmingly complex ways. If it’s just us, it’s easier to fix. I wish I could tell you to just meditate and think positively and you would magically be cured of this pain, that everything would be fine. But it’s not you that’s the problem.

Our alarms are blaring because we are exposed, relentlessly, to imbalances in our societies that constantly assault us with toxins and traumas, whether social, psychological, biological, chemical, ecological, historical, or political.[5] Silencing these alarms doesn’t make the distress go away, it just transforms it into louder signals, like sickness in our bodies or mental health disorders in our minds.

We need to feel distress to survive. If we retrain ourselves to listen and validate what our bodies and minds are signaling, we can more clearly navigate and heal the toxic systems we live in. And when our world begins healing our alarms can finally rest.


[1] Freud, S., & Breuer, J. (2004). Studies in hysteria. (N. Luckhurst, Trans.). New York: Penguin Press.

[2] Nesse, R. M. (2019). Good reasons for bad feelings: insights from the frontier of evolutionary psychiatry. New York: Dutton.

[3] Adapted from: Siegel, R. (2014). The Science of Mindfulness: A Research-Based Path to Well-Being. The Great Courses.

[4] Linehan, M. (1993). Cognitive Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder. New York: Guilford Press.

[5] Marya, R. & Patel, R. (2021). Inflamed: Deep medicine and the anatomy of injustice. New York: Straus and Giroux.

More from Joanna Cheek M.D.
More from Psychology Today