Free Speech May Improve Your Mental Health, Psychologist Says

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In a world of “safe spaces” and politically correct speech, clinical psychologist Chloe Carmichael says she believes that society needs more free speech, not less. 

Free speech can help individuals grow and learn as they explore and debate ideas with others, Carmichael says, adding that it even improves anxiety and depression. 

“I think that stopping people from having free speech is almost like a form of abuse,” she says. 

The psychologist recently wrote about free speech’s implications for mental health on her blog, and joins the “Problematic Women” podcast to discuss why she believes that limiting speech can be so damaging on college campuses and across society.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:

Virginia Allen: Free speech might just improve mental health. And here with us to talk about that is clinical psychologist and author of the book “Nervous Energy,” Chloe Carmichael. Thanks for being here.

Chloe Carmichael: Thanks Virginia. It’s great to be back with you again.

Allen: You recently wrote a blog post titled “Free Speech May Benefit Mental Health: The Importance of Open Dialogue.” We hear so much in our society about the dangers of hate speech and things like that. But you argue that free speech and debate actually are really beneficial for our mental health. Why do you see a need to write this piece and specifically to write it from the perspective of a psychologist?

Carmichael: That’s an interesting question, Virginia. I think free speech has come up a lot lately, with Elon Musk and [his attempt to buy] Twitter, for example. Or even in my own profession, there’s a lot of topics that are taboo. And it just feels like if you don’t answer certain questions in certain ways, then you’re labeled as, say, a toxically masculine person or a misogynist or a racist.

There’s so many things where just even the choice of words that we use, I think, can get pathologized to the point where people are afraid to talk, they’re afraid to be themselves. And cancel culture and all these things are coming up. And for whatever reason, it seems like there’s not a lot of psychologists that are speaking out about this issue, probably because it doesn’t feel politically correct to stand up for free speech, because as you said, there’s so much of an emphasis on hate speech and bullying and how we should limit speech.

And that, for whatever reason, seems to be a more popular topic among psychologists, to the point where even standing up for free speech, it’s as if you’re advocating for hate speech or as if you’re advocating for bullying. And I just can’t stand it when I feel like commonsense, obvious things are just not being allowed to be talked about. You and I originally connected because I was speaking out from a psychologist’s perspective about masks and children.

And to your point of why I am speaking specifically as a psychologist, [it] is because I do think that there are mental health factors that the general public might feel intuitively like, “Hey, open dialogue feels good, freedom of expression feels good,” but they don’t necessarily have the vocabulary to explain why from a psychology perspective.

Allen: Dive into that a little bit more, if you would. What happens in our brains when we know that we have the opportunity to speak freely and we can say what we feel and have that free exchange of ideas, versus when we’re told, “You have to only speak within the confines of these parameters?”

Carmichael: Well, a lot of things happen, Virginia. I think about what happens in our brain, and I also think about what’s what happens in our social relationships and to our self-esteem and all those things. But since you specifically asked about the brain, one of the things that I think is interesting is that psychology studies have shown that labeling feelings mitigates the amygdala hijack response. For people who maybe don’t know what that is, even though talk of the amygdala I think has become so popular in just consumer psychology that most people have a general idea that the amygdala is related to fear [and] that fight, flight, or freeze response. When we can put our feelings into words, that part of our brain actually slows down a little bit. And that’s good. We want it to slow down. We don’t want to be in a fight-or-flight situation over just trying to have a conversation and talk about how we feel inside.

So, on a very hard-wired level, it does affect the brain to be able to say what you think and what you feel. Also, from an evolutionary psychology standpoint, evolutionary psychologists have speculated that part of the reason our society evolved to such a sophisticated species is because of our gift of language, because we can exchange ideas and rapidly learn from one another and form bonds and learn, not only from one another but about one another.

And that enables things like teamwork and cooperation and the advancement of knowledge. Also, of course, social relationships. Psychologists talk a lot about the importance of social support. And how can we really have social support when we’re tied up in knots afraid to say the wrong thing?

Allen: I think we’ve all been in those situations before where you’re doing that song and dance in our mind with a friend or a family member who thinks very differently than we do. We think, “Wait, am I allowed to say this? Am I going to offend them?” And it’s amazing, then, the difference that we’ll realize when we’re with someone that doesn’t really care; even if they don’t agree, they’ll be OK with whatever you say. And just even the emotional and mental freedom that you’ll have instantly from that, it’s fascinating.

Carmichael: Totally. I would agree with you there, Virginia. And on the other side of that exchange is the importance, as you said, not only for the speaker to know that the other person’s … [that] everything’s going to be OK even if we disagree. But for the listener to know that he or she will be OK, even if he or she hears something that they disagree with.

This whole thing about, “Words are violence and we have to have safe spaces,” that’s actually a very disempowering position, not only to put speakers in, but to put listeners in: ro suggest that we are that weak that we could be violated by somebody who says something that we disagree with. It’s actually very disempowering and, I think, anxiety-provoking to live your life that way. God forbid you hear the wrong thing, and then your whole day’s going to be derailed or something.

Allen: It really undermines our strength as a person in many ways. You’re so right. Now, I love that you go so far in one place in your blog to say that people should have permission to say what you refer to as “stupid things.” And I think that that’s so great because we are all guilty of, at some point in our lives, saying many things that, later on, we look back and think, “Wow, that was dumb. Why did I say that?” But there’s actually a health benefit, you say, to allowing people, permitting people to say stupid things. Explain that a little bit more.

Carmichael: Absolutely. When we can say stupid things … Like you’ve said, I think we’ve all had the experience of hearing ourselves say something. And it is the process of putting our thoughts into words. In psychology language, what that does is it helps us to externalize them, to separate them, to realize OK, I have a thought or a theory or a belief and I can speak it and I can talk about it, but it’s separate from who I am. It’s a thought that I have versus the fabric of who I am.

So, speaking things actually gives people a little bit of a healthy separation and detachment from those things, ironically. And so, when we can hear ourselves say things in a relaxed way, we’re actually better able to evaluate them; to hear how they sound when we have the ability to just think them through. As a psychologist, it happens to me all the time when people are in my office.

And the classic example: somebody with OCD, and I’m [saying], “Well, why do you feel that you need to wipe every doorknob?” And they say, “Well, because I think if I don’t, I could pick up a germ and die.” And a lot of times, as they say it, they’ll even start rolling their eyes because they’re [thinking], “OK, as I actually think this through, I start to realize that maybe it’s not quite the same as it’s feeling in my mind.”

And so, that’s how being able to just talk our way through things, even if they are nonsensical, helps us to get that perspective and realize it.

Allen: That really leads in to my next question because you write that, “When we can separate our thoughts from our core identity, we can set the stage for growth.” How does growth take place in us when we can begin to realize that our identity isn’t necessarily exactly what we think or we’re saying?

Carmichael: As I mentioned, I was a yoga teacher before I was a psychologist. And in Buddhism there’s a big emphasis on being able to have a detachment from your thoughts. And actually, psychology has really picked up on mindfulness, which is this idea again that you observe your thoughts going by, and you realize that those are just thoughts that you’re having; those thoughts are not you, per se.

And the ability to have your thoughts and feelings change over time is essential to growth. That almost is growth. If you were to imagine some of the thoughts and beliefs that you had as a teenager versus the ones that you had in college versus the ones maybe that you have after you have children and you start to accrue other life experiences, that’s a process of maturity.

And of course your thoughts and your feelings and your beliefs change. But if we don’t allow ourselves to have that happen, because we feel we have to rigidly hold onto a certain belief, then it’s like we’re stunting ourselves from growing. And then, I personally think it gets even worse when we do change the beliefs, but only when we’re informed that it is time to change the belief. What is considered politically correct now is sometimes opposite of what was considered politically correct at a different time.

And if we don’t allow ourselves to think and feel our way through some of these questions about, say, racial dynamics or sex and politics dynamics or whatever it is, but we only update our vocabulary and our talking points when we read an article that says, “Hey, this is the way you’re supposed to think now,” then we’re really limiting ourselves from having our own growth. It’s like we’re shutting that down.

Allen: That’s so critical. Well, I would love to ask you about one of the statements that you make in this blog. And in my opinion, it’s probably the most controversial thing that you say. You write that “words are not violence.” But I know that many people in our culture would say, “No, words really can be violent because they can feel violent to us, or they can feel hurtful, they can cut deep.” So, what would be your response to that? And why do you write that we shouldn’t consider words to be violence?

Carmichael: Yes, words can cut deep. But that’s just a figure of speech. That’s just an expression. That’s completely different from having somebody pull out an eight-inch knife and plunge it into your stomach. I don’t mean to be graphic, but it’s a completely different experience than having someone actually physically harm you.

And I just think, as a psychologist—for example, when we’re assessing and evaluating people, part of a responsible assessment is to ask the person, “Do you have thoughts of hurting yourself or others?” And if I had somebody in my office who said, “Yes, I think about it, and I actually have plans to do it,” I would be irresponsible and probably doing something illegal if I just said, “OK, well, goodbye. Thanks for coming. We’ll talk more next week.”

Whereas if the person was in my office and they said, “Yeah, you know what? I have plans to tell off my neighbor. I’m going to really give my neighbor a piece of my mind.” Well, that’s fine, as a psychologist. In fact, I would probably be in trouble if I tried to have that person restrained because they said that they were going to tell somebody off and maybe use some bad words and say some mean things.

I would actually be out of my scope of authority if I tried to have that person restrained over that. So, I just think it’s really important that we understand words are not violence, for many reasons. I think it cheapens the concept of actual violence. And it also makes people afraid. Again, if you have people in a mindset where they believe that somebody is endangering them with words, we’re actually increasing people’s anxiety and depression, as well as sense of helplessness.

Because you can’t really ever control what other people might say, so you’re actually feeling more helpless. And you might then feel more entitled to respond to people with physical violence over the words that they are speaking. So, that type of framework, I think, actually sets the stage for physical violence, which is much more dangerous than verbal sparring.

Allen: You mentioned anxiety and depression. And of course we live in a culture and a society today where, unfortunately, so much of the population does struggle, to some degree, with anxiety or depression. And there’s so many different factors that we can point to for why that might be. But you argue that actually having free speech could help to lessen our anxiety and our depression within culture. Explain that a little bit further.

Carmichael: Sure, absolutely. For many reasons. But one thing is the matter of social support, which I mentioned earlier. If somebody’s coming to a psychologist because of pathological levels of anxiety and depression … And as a quick sidebar, I have to say not all anxiety is bad. My book “Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety” actually explores the healthy function of anxiety. So, not all anxiety is bad. But if somebody is in a sick place with anxiety or in a sick place with depression, and they’re coming to a psychologist, again, one of the factors that the psychologist is going to cover, it’s part of psychologists’ training, is you ask: “Do you have thoughts of harm to self or others?” And you also ask if the person has social support, because that’s been known to be a protective factor, a curative factor, a resilience factor …

And my thought is, how could anybody really have social support if they’re too afraid to open up their mouth and speak and talk to people because they’re really afraid of saying the wrong thing and getting canceled? Or they are talking to people but they’re actually keeping their real views private because they have a fear that they could be canceled or ostracized over those views?

In that situation, the person is not only not actually getting social support, but they could actually, I think, even be damaging their sense of self-worth and their sense of self-esteem by behaviorally demonstrating, through their self-censorship, that they themselves are not worthy of respect or connection with others if their true self were to be known.

Allen: That’s critical.

Carmichael: Also, one more thing about it is that when we do put our thoughts into words, it’s been shown to increase our sense of control. That’s one of the reasons why talk therapy is effective. Some of it is because of the techniques that we’re teaching. But sometimes, part of the technique we’re teaching is giving people [an] emotional vocabulary and encouraging them to speak their truth and put their experience into words; that that’s very empowering for people.

It increases their sense of self-control. And that doesn’t just happen in a therapy office. Ideally, that will happen with friends and family, unless there’s some kind of a verboten speech model situation going on.

Allen: Now, what advice would you give to, let’s say, a college student who’s listening to this and thinking, “I would love to feel free to speak my mind, but I am on a college campus where there are safe spaces and where there is a lot of emphasis on making sure that you say the right thing and not offending people.” For those that are agreeing with you, that want to take part and engage in free speech in a more active way, but maybe they’re in an environment where that’s challenging. What would you say to them?

Carmichael: I will answer that, Virginia. But first I have to say, as well, about the safe spaces—since you mentioned that word, and in the blog, I talk about this as well—which is that ironically, prohibiting free speech, I think, actually undermines safe spaces. Because when we don’t let people say things, it’s not that those viewpoints go away; it’s just that people hide them.

And I personally feel more safe when I can know somebody’s true feelings. If somebody hates women … every negative view that they might have about me, for whatever reason, I actually feel safer knowing that people will speak what’s on their mind and that I can then evaluate and assess how I feel around that person, rather than just having everything completely under wraps and it’s all just this big guessing game.

Allen: Makes sense.

Carmichael: But to your point, college campuses are tough, OK? So I’ll say, when I was getting my Ph.D. in clinical psychology, I used to laugh at professors’ political jokes that I did not think were funny. I had to sing their song and almost pass as somebody that would match them and their political views. Because in academia, there is this extreme dominance of a more leftist viewpoint. And it does affect your grades. It does affect all kinds of things about the academic choices that you have.

So, I just want to recognize it’s a real thing that people are going through. I guess, to answer your question, I think whatever you do, it’s really important that you find some people that you can talk to that you can be your real self with.

Because another issue that I talk about in the blog is that if we don’t have the chance to talk through things and we have to constantly stuff them down, we can actually lose awareness of our own views. We can suppress them and repress them to the point where we don’t even know them anymore and detach from ourselves. And that sets the stage certainly for anxiety and depression, but it also stops growth. So, definitely make sure that you have at least some people that you can talk to.

It’s also important to talk it through because, honestly, I think that stopping people from having free speech is almost like a form of abuse. And when we’re in an abusive situation, it’s really important to keep talking about that abuse so that we don’t unconsciously internalize and normalize the abuse and start to think that we’re bad for having these thoughts or that there’s something normal or OK about an institution, an academic institution, that wants to squash freedom of expression and healthy debate and things like that. So, definitely making sure that you have some kind of an outlet.

Now, if you’re feeling like you might even want to take it a little bit of a step further, and you’re thinking you might want to speak up in class or on campus and things like that, everybody has to find their own way. But [my] general thought is that there’s strength in numbers. So, you might want to consider asking an ally to come with you or to say, “I’m going to try challenging professor so-and-so on such-and-such. Would you back me up?” or whatever. Also in psychology, we can do what’s called “narrating your experience.” And that can help to soften things.

So, if you’re going to speak up, say, around a professor or a group of friends or whatever, you can narrate your experience by sharing your vulnerability by saying, “This is hard for me to share because I think we’re all so nervous about cancel culture and maybe being misunderstood or people who cannot tolerate a disagreement. But I really just want to share anyway, for the sake of open dialogue, because I think it would be really helpful and important. So with that said, here’s my thoughts about X, Y, Z.” So that way you’re at least reminding people that you’re a human being and you’re vulnerable, and you’re trying to come from a good place.

Allen: That’s so practical. Thank you so much for sharing that, because we hear sometimes the encouragement to, “Hey, speak out. Be bold.” But to actually have some practical tools for what that looks like, what that could look like, is super helpful.

Carmichael: Sure. One more tip on that too is to consider talking to your professor behind the scenes as well, to say, “I have some different viewpoints from some of the things that you’ve shared in class. And I want to speak up, but I don’t want to come across like I’m being disrespectful. Here’s some of my thoughts. Do you think this is the kind of thing that we could ever talk about in class?”

And it’s really sad, but I think a lot of professors would even frankly bully a student behind the scenes with something like that. But maybe at least some professors would realize, “Oh yeah, I should open up a little bit more.” Right now, Virginia, at the time that you and I are speaking, of course, I think it was yesterday or the day before, Project Veritas released these videos of school administrators in Cos Cob [in Connecticut] as well as Trinity School in New York.

And they’re just openly saying, “Yeah, we don’t tolerate viewpoints outside of our leftist liberal orthodoxy.” And I think one of the administrators from Trinity was [saying], “It really bothers me when the white boys think that they can answer back with their opposite viewpoints.” And so, if you’re dealing with a professor that is in that type of a mindset, to be honest, I would probably just sing their song and then collect my A and then go on and just talk about it with somebody else or something. I don’t know. Because it’s a tough one in college these days.

Allen: Choose your battles wisely. Dr. Carmichael, thank you for joining us on the show today. This has been a pleasure.

Carmichael: Sure. And if people want to read the blog, I’m going to have an easy way that they can get there, which is they can go to makeachange.us. Makeachange.us, and it will take them directly to the blog.

Allen: Excellent, thank you. And we’ll be sure to leave a link to your website and to the blog, in the show notes today. And of course, people can follow you across social media platforms. And we just thank you so much for your time today.

Carmichael: Thanks, Virginia.

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