It’s a phrase we’ve all heard, in some shape or form, directed either at us or to someone within our hearing.
“It’s all in your head.”
“Get over it. It’s just in your head. It doesn’t matter.”
“You’re making it up.”
“You’re just imagining things.”
“You’re taking it too much to heart.”
"You're overthinking things."
It’s a phrase used to describe anything that may only exist in someone’s mind – assuming that people are kind enough to assume it exists at all.
In its most invalidating, wounding form, people use it to describe their assumption that our experience actually isn’t our experience – they can’t see it, they don’t feel it, therefore it doesn’t exist, and we must be ones out of touch with reality.
Slightly less dismissively, they assume that it’s an idea that is only or too much in the mind, rather than being actually materially present, and is therefore automatically suspect or less important or relevant.
We can also use the phrase when attempting to read other people’s emotions and social behaviour: “I thought she didn’t like me, but once we talked about it, I realised it was all just in my head.” It can also be used to describe the power of our own internal voice and thoughts that dictate our emotional state and self-perception, “I think I’m a failure… but is that just in my head?”
Bluntly, of course, we must admit – of course it is in our head. Without a head, we have no brain; without a brain, we have no ability to be aware, to think, or to perceive the world. But this isn't quite what the common use of the phrase captures, is it?
I confess, this is one of those few ideas that is guaranteed to wind me up, particularly in the context of mysterious health problems, or, indeed, any internal distress that is by nature mysterious to the observer. Sufferers are sometimes regarded with suspicion: “Is the experience real or just a figment of your imagination?” So they can be left feeling as if they’ve been labelled as a basket case; over-reacting, over-sensitive, hysterical, crazy, faking, malingering, hypochondriacal. (Personal disclaimer - while I have suffered mysterious health problems, I have been extremely fortunate to not have been treated in this way. Many of my friends and clients have not been so fortunate.)
For someone experiencing chronic pain, for example, the fear associated with this label can make them more likely to embrace any “medical” treatment of their condition, in order to have some sort of validation of their experience, even if the treatment doesn’t work (and successive failed attempts can then in themselves cause damage and pain!).
Or, the fear can make people shy away from any non-medical or psychological assistance, because it can appear to affirm the idea that it is “just in their head” (and therefore crazy, over-reacting, faking, etc.) – and so they don’t get help to live a full and meaningful life despite the problems. It breaks my heart. And makes me furious!
DOCTOR: All the tests are negative. I can't figure out what's wrong with you. I think it's due to psychiatric problems. PATIENT: Oh, I'm sorry to hear that, Doctor. I'll come back after you've been to a psychiatrist.
Honestly, though, have you ever wondered how modern understanding ever got to this point? Come back next week. (Hint: It has to do with a man, a machine, and a burning stake.)
This is part one of a four-part series on this topic. If you don’t want to miss it, please subscribe to my site, www.krystynakidson.com, to be the first to know when it's up.