This month I’ve been talking about labels and their negative impacts. While the rest of the posts I keep it pretty general, this week I want to discuss a label I find particularly bothersome.

Snowflake.

People explain being a snowflake as someone who perceives themselves as unique and special. They are sensitive to triggers and require accommodation. Snowflakes are generally perceived as being ‘hyper sensitive’.  

It is a media favorite- especially when referring to the younger generations. In the ‘good old days’ people were tougher!

The glory of being tough

I have a problem with this idea for several reasons. First, because I fell for it. Before I started repairing my mental health, I bought in hard to the ‘mental toughness’ ideal. I equated denial and poor coping skills with mental toughness.

Let me tell you, they are not the same thing. Mental toughness is a skill in which you are fully conscious of, and managing productively whatever is occurring in your world. Think of the Dali Lama. Denial on the other hand is what most of us do in the name of mental toughness. We drink too much and pretend the bad thing never happened, while slowly spiraling out of control. Think James Bond.

Many of you are probably thinking James Bond is one pretty tough guy. The problem? James Bond is also one messed up dude. He spends all his time pushing people away, using people, ignoring his raging drinking problem and clear PTSD. Plus, he has no friends, no family, and at times barely a career.

Is he a ‘badass’ by our cultural standards? Hells yes. Does he make for a wonderful character in a book or a movie? Absolutely. Does he have a good life that you should emulate? No.

We presume to know

Our cultural understanding of being ‘tough’ means we dissuade people from saying what is wrong and asking for help. We tell people that its weak to complain when you are in pain or whiny to voice when you are struggling.

Sure, you may wish only to apply it to someone who is ‘spoiled’ or ‘entitled’. But cultural norms aren’t that targeted. You can’t ridicule people for ‘fake anxiety’ and then expect people with ‘real anxiety’ to feel supported enough to seek mental health assistance.

Further, you have no way of knowing who is actually struggling. A rich and ‘spoiled’ kid with a ‘perfect life’ is not exempt from suicidal thoughts or addiction. In my discussions with other mental health workers, I hear about how the ‘perfect straight A students’ are often the ones with eating disorders and tendencies towards self harm. People don’t cut and starve themselves because they are entitled!!

Telling anyone that they don’t have real problems is incredibly presumptuous. There are so many shadows we fail to see as outside observers.

We decide what is real

I have been called overly ‘sensitive’ on several occasions.

Sounds harmless right? Except this statement took away my control over what was real. It meant I allowed another person to dictate what I needed.

This was fundamental reason I didn’t seek to heal from emotional abuse for so long. I was just being ‘sensitive’. As anyone who has worked in the field of abuse will know, it is impossible for an outsider to understand the abusive relationship. A look, a gesture, a pause can all be incredibly damaging to a victim – because they know what it means. While an outsider may think nothing of a simple comment, the victim may know for certain that it means hell to pay.

But when we let others convince us that we are just ‘sensitive’, we give up our power to do what is best for us. We let others decide how serious our problem is, and whether we actually need help.

The terrible cost of being tough

I always use the example of running on a broken leg. Say you injure yourself. Someone looks at it and tells you it is just a sprain and you can continue to run. You feel certain it is broken, but you listen to them, not wanting to appear ‘whiny’. Sure, you can run on the broken leg for a while, but it doesn’t change the fact that your leg is broken. And in the long run, it will leave you with more damage.

We see this again and again with suicide.

The ironic part? We ask ‘why didn’t he get help?’ Because we told him that it wasn’t okay to get help. We told him that he was the problem- he was weak or sensitive or entitled. And as we have learned again and again, when the problem is an immutable label- there is no way out.

What about ‘real snowflakes?’

So, some of you out there are likely thinking, ‘sure Alison, but some of these people actually are just whiners.’

Again, I would argue this is unhelpful and a mis-categorization.

If I have learned anything in this world, it is that people behave how they do, not because they are shitty or whiny or entitled- it is because they have a problem and don’t know how to help themselves. This is a problem of skill and knowledge, not a character flaw.

A person who is constantly negative doesn’t know how to change their thoughts towards constructiveness. A person who is complaining about tons of small ailments doesn’t know how to manage pain or obsession. A person who doesn’t know how to take care of themselves, for some reason never learned and likely is terrified of figuring it out. A person who is constantly triggered doesn’t understand how to manage the state of being triggered or how to resolve the triggering event.

Again, these are questions of skill and knowledge. Ignorance doesn’t make you a bad person.

Some people might say, ‘oh she knows, she just chooses not to change’. Let me be clear. No one wants to be in pain, or triggered, or helpless, or ignorant, or needy. No 35 year old wants to live in their parents basement and feel like an abject failure.

Yes, people get stuck in difficult places. Yes, people will avoid doing things that scare them. Yes, people often will avoid change until things are unbearable. But again, this isn’t a special millennial character flaw – its human nature.

Why no one is a snowflake

You see, no one is a snowflake. The idea of a whiny, entitled brat, who is sensitive about nothing- it doesn’t exist. If you look past that label, you see a human being who is either stuck and doesn’t understand how to fix their problem; or legitimately has a serious problem they are coping with.

Either way, they deserve your guidance or your compassion- not your ridicule.