Stop Listening To These 5 Pieces Of Advice That Can Harm Your Mental Health

From a young age, we're told things like "Divorce is bad" or "You should put other people first," but both of these ideas can be detrimental.

If you’ve ever heard (or said) statements like “Don’t get divorced, just stick out your marriage” or “Put other people’s needs before yours,” you’ve likely come face-to-face with societal expectations and beliefs.

They exist to keep society in line, said Aparna Sagaram, a licensed marriage and family therapist and owner of Space to Reflect in Philadelphia. “I think it’s sort of a way to create that homogeny.”

Though certain societal expectations are right for some people, they could not be more wrong for others — like if you’re in an unhappy marriage but refuse to get divorced. When you follow societal beliefs that aren’t right for you, they can actually get in the way of your contentment and put you in damaging situations.

There are many societal beliefs that get in the way of your contentment, therapists say. Below are some common ones.

‘Happiness should be your goal.’

Happiness is a common goal, albeit a nebulous one, for many people. But experts say happiness should not be the prize.

“People are always trying to achieve happiness, and I don’t think it’s an attainable goal. The goal shouldn’t be happiness, because happiness is like every other emotion — you feel it, and then it goes away,” Sagaram said.

You should aim to be content, calm or emotionally regulated “so that you can feel those moments of excitement and you can also feel those moments of frustration and anger without it throwing you into a spiral,” Sagaram added.

Happiness as a goal is a belief that society puts on us and even tells us that certain things, whether a new relationship, kids or a high-paying job, will make us happy — but that doesn’t tend to be the case.

This is known as the destination trap, Sagaram said. “Basically what it means is we fall into these ideas that once you hit a certain goal, if you get to the next thing, then you’ll be happy, but that goalpost keeps moving.”

Then you’re in a never-ending cycle of happiness-chasing. Think about it: You think you’ll be happy once you make $100,000, but once you hit that salary, you probably just want to make more.

‘Divorce is wrong.’

Whether from religion or family pressure, it’s commonly thought that divorce is a “bad” thing. (For the record: It is not.)

Though there are things in a marriage that can be improved and fixed — like having date nights more often or splitting cleaning responsibilities better — core values, core belief systems and someone’s core personality can’t be changed, said Natalie Moore, a licensed marriage and family therapist in California.

If you’re with someone who has different beliefs regarding having kids or what a family structure should look like, you aren’t doing yourself any favors by sticking out the marriage.

“Sometimes it’s for the best of both people to be honest about that … and look at the relationship and say, ‘You know what? We gave it a good go, and it just isn’t working anymore,’” Moore said.

For some people, divorce is legitimately safer than staying married.

“And when abuse is present, it’s for the best for the safety of the person who’s being abused to leave the relationship,” Moore added.

“So, as much as a society we might push the value of sticking out a marriage, there are situations in which, even with the best of intention, even with the best-laid plans, it’s not realistic for that couple to be able to stay married forever,” Moore said.

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From a young age, we’re told things like “Divorce is bad” or “You should put other people first,” but both of these ideas can be detrimental.

‘Family is everything.’

For some people, family truly is everything, but for many others, family members have been hurtful or downright abusive.

If you’re from a tight-knit family in which open communication is prioritized, along with trust and support, it may be easy to believe this, Moore said, “but if you’re from a family that has a lot of severe mental illness that’s untreated, or abuse or boundary crossing or betrayal, or a lot of unresolved grief and estrangements … it’s hard to live out that belief of family is everything.”

What’s more, for certain groups of people, just being their true selves results in estrangement from their families, such as for LGBTQIA+ folks.

For many in the LGBTQIA+ community, chosen family are a much-needed support system if blood relations are no longer in the picture. So, being told “family is everything” would only be damaging, stressful and even shame-inducing.

“And so it can be this huge betrayal of ‘Oh, I thought family was everything — I’m expected to conform to the family to make people comfortable, but then when I actually expressed my true self and who I am, well, suddenly family isn’t everything because now nobody’s talking to me, nobody’s coming to my wedding, nobody is supporting me in this life transition of being myself and being my true self,’” Moore said.

The same goes for someone who is trying to establish boundaries with family for the first time but is dealing with pushback from loved ones, Moore said.

“What happens when your family is toxic? What happens if your family doesn’t heal? What happens if your family operates out of trauma?” Hill asked.

“Then ‘family over everything’ is the norm that you’ve adopted, but it’s not the healthiest,” explained LaWanda Hill, a psychologist in California.

In this case, family with boundaries is more sustainable, or it may be a good idea to cut out certain family members altogether, Hill said.

‘It’s important to put other people first.’

“So, this is a particularly damaging belief, especially for someone who identifies as a people-pleaser or perfectionist because they already feel a strong urge and need to prioritize other people over themselves,” Moore explained.

This unfair societal belief reinforces self-sacrificing behavior to a level that can be detrimental to your mental health and overall functioning, she said.

Think about it: If you’re lending money to a family member when you can’t afford it, you’re just denying your own necessities and peace of mind.

“This is also one that tends to get romanticized a lot. As a society, we tend to see putting other people’s needs first as heroic, we tend to put it on a pedestal,” Moore said, “When someone puts another person’s needs above their own, they tend to get rewarded a lot for it, whether it’s verbal praise or other types of reinforcement, and that makes the behavior so much harder to change.”

This is doubly hard for parents who sometimes do need to quash their own needs to care for their child (like sacrifice sleep in the newborn phase, for example). Though this is certainly necessary in some instances, it can’t constantly be the norm.

“It’s that classic trope of ‘Put your oxygen mask on before you put the child’s mask on’ because if you try to fumble and put the child’s mask on, you’re trying to put your child first. But really you’re not because then if you pass out, you can’t help your kid, right?” Moore said.

‘You should have kids by a certain age.’

From a young age, we’re bombarded with the idea that we need to have kids, Hill said. “Kids play with dolls from the beginning of time, kids play house, those are their toys. So they’re being socialized so early on, they’re born into a family, and we have this capacity to reproduce, so it kind of becomes this thing that is expected for you to do.”

Depending on your culture and upbringing, you then probably create an expectation around when you should start having kids, whether that’s by 25, 30, 35 or 40, she noted.

“That pressure, if you’ve internalized those beliefs, that ‘I should be doing this by this age … if not something’s wrong, I’m outside of the norm,’” Hill said. This can lead to shame, guilt and confusion, she said.

And if you don’t want children, you may feel trapped by the societal expectation of having kids altogether.

Instead of abiding by societal beliefs that may not be right for you, consider what makes sense.

When you don’t feel like certain societal beliefs are meant for you, it can feel shameful, Hill said. But she stressed that many people feel the same way as you, but these just tend to be things that aren’t often talked about.

You don’t need to go through life following belief systems that don’t make sense for you. It’s important to understand what beliefs you currently hold and which ones you actually want to hold, Moore added.

To figure out your beliefs, Moore suggested that you think about the primary messages you received during childhood from parents or caretakers about what’s important in life.

“And taking an honest inventory of which of these things do I actually agree with now as an adult looking back,” Moore said. From there, you can shift your belief systems to reflect how you feel today.

Your beliefs also come from how you choose to live your life, Sagaram said. “If you take an inventory of your day-to-day and how you make decisions, how you interact with people … what are the things that do bring you joy? What are the things that make you really angry?” Sagaram said. “If you start to analyze those parts of your life, it’ll start to shape your beliefs.”

While you can subscribe to the societal beliefs that are right for you, you can also reject the ones that are wrong.

“Just recognizing that you have the freedom to not subscribe to those things, and you may experience discomfort and backlash, and that’s OK,” Sagaram said.

To cope with that pushback, Hill said, it’s important to seek out support from a therapist and/or a community of likeminded people.

“You need to find your community of other people so you feel less isolated — and that can be a little bit of a journey because you’re trying to figure out ‘Who are my people who feel this way?’” Hill said.

No matter what societal beliefs are right for you (including the ones above!), it’s paramount that you go through life making choices that fuel your spirit.

“I think it’s just really important that if you’re in your 80s and you look back and you’re like, oh, I wish I did this, or I wish I didn’t do that … you don’t want to be in a position where you’re regretting things because you thought that’s what you were supposed to do,” Sagaram said. “Because no one’s gonna give you a gold star for subscribing to societal beliefs.”

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