Why Tugging at Your Bootstraps Won’t Solve All Your Problems

Someone in a difficult situation might be advised, “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” Here’s why this advice can fail miserably in the area of mental health:

1. Those with psychiatric symptoms are already trying hard. They’re tugging at their bootstraps as hard as they can. They’re working, going to school, raising families, all while struggling with certain symptoms. Even if they’re doing none of the above, just the act of facing another day in distress, as anyone with a psychiatric disorder can tell you, is effort enough. It’s hard to put forth more effort when all of your effort is used toward survival.

2.  We’re communal and need the help of others. Humans are gregarious creatures and aren’t intended to solve all of our problems on our own. Just as our prehistoric ancestors didn’t hunt and gather in isolation, approaching melancholy, panic, or a drinking problem need not be a solo effort.

3.  Sometimes, our symptoms prevent us from taking action. A person struggling with depression might feel so lethargic and hopeless that any action feels pointless or impossible. Someone in throes of eating disorder can be too malnourished to understand she isn’t intaking sufficient calories.

4.  Circumstances can be key triggers for mental health symptoms. Sometimes, we don’t have to keep grinning and bearing it, but we do have to take a long, hard look at the circumstances in our lives and decide if anything needs to be addressed. Unprocessed grief, an unhealthy relationship, or a dead-end job can all prevent us from achieving inner peace despite our individual efforts. Yet sometimes, it’s hard, if not impossible, to remove ourselves from these circumstances.

5.  Cultural influences suggest mental health isn’t just an inside job. Forces like bullying, racism, sexism, poverty, and weight-stigma all play a role in our inability to enact change on our own. In fact, suggesting that we fix our psychological difficulties ourselves, without cultural intervention,  blames the victim and perpetuates mental health stigma.

So, what’s the answer? Autonomy and resilience are important, but our symptoms and solutions don’t exist in a vacuum. We live in a community of positive and negative influences. Seeking out social support, getting professional help, and examining the concentric circles of influence on our functioning are important steps toward improved mental health functioning. And it is incumbent on our culture at large to examine – and work toward eradicating – the many forces that prevent individuals from reaching down and pulling themselves up.


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