Tag Archives: mental

“Star Trek: Discovery”: How Michael Burnham speaks to my perfectionist, highly sensitive struggles

As I’ve stated in my SlashFilm review, I’ve always been a Star Trek fan ever since I watched Star Trek: The Next Generation with my dad about 20 years ago. But while Jean-Luc Picard will always be my favorite Star Trek captain ever (who can say no to Patrick Stewart and the way he commanded with calm authority?), Picard has to battle Spock for the title of favorite Star Trek character ever.

The reason? Because as a half human, half Vulcan, Spock has had to battle his reason with his human emotions, emotions that had the potential to get (and, in the reboot films, has gotten) the best of him. The battle between raging emotions and cold reason is a battle I face constantly. Never did I think Star Trek would continue to crystallize this struggle in such a poignant way, but the franchise succeeded again with Star Trek: Discovery‘s Michael Burnham and her relationship to her father figure (and Spock’s future father) Sarek.

I’ve stated many times on this site and in other publications about how much of my love for Star Trek stems from its ability to showcase varying struggles that exist under the umbrella of “diversity.” Thankfully, the franchise also includes psychological diversity as well, as is the case with the Vulcan race. The Vulcans have stood for many things to many viewers. Some see the Vulcans and their occasional misunderstandings as a way to thoughtfully approach the autism spectrum. Others see the Vulcans as simply uppity living cardboard figures. Speaking personally, the Vulcans have always shown a light on two of my big personal struggles–perfectionism and the highly sensitive (or even empathic) mind.

Sonequa Martin-Green as Michael Burnham. Photo credit: CBS

The running joke my sister and I have is that I’m a Vulcan. In fact, when I said it as self-deprication a few years ago, my sister replied thoughtfully, “You know what? I agree with that.”

I’ve always been a deep thinker, and too many times, that thinking has either gotten me in some type of mental trouble or made me appear as unable to connect with the “normal” outside world. Sometimes, I feel like I can’t connect with the outside world, because I’m so wrapped up in how other people feel, how I feel, and how to best convey those feelings to people who might not have emotions that run as deeply as mine do. As psychiatrist and Emotional Freedom author Judith Orloff accurately described, “It’s like feeling something with 50 fingers as opposed to 10. You have more receptors to feel things.”

Believe it or not, it’s not easy being a feeler, and our Western society makes sure it’s tougher than it has to be. As a society,we value loudness over softness, action over reflection, and doing over being. The stereotypes of a highly sensitive person make us out to be gooey bundles of mush that can’t defend ourselves because we’re supposedly so much weaker than the “average” person. That’s not the case–we aren’t weak. We’re actually quite strong. But you wouldn’t know it from how much emphasis people put on having an extroverted outlook and put down those of us who are reserved within ourselves.

All this leads to is, aside from a smattering of depression, a bad case of perfectionism. I call myself a “recovering perfectionist” now, but for a long time, I’ve been investigating where my perfectionism came from. I’d have to say that there are a lot of reasons for it, but one of them is because I’ve used perfectionism as a bad coping mechanism for the harsh world who can’t handle tears. I grew up comparing myself to others who I thought were better than me simply because they could they naturally handled emotions in a different way than I did. I didn’t realize that the way I handled my emotions was simply my nature–it’s as much an integral part of me as my black skin is. After growing into adulthood I’ve realized that there’s no reason to try to change myself, since my emotions work just like how they’re supposed to work. They are part of the inner strength that help make me a better version of myself each day.

Arista Arhin in Star Trek: Discovery (Photo credit: CBS)

Michael Burnham seems tailor made for this type of exploration of inner strength. I see in her what I’ve seen in me all the time. I see her struggle to adapt to her Vulcan upbringing and tamp down her human (i.e. emotional) self. I see her struggle to fit in with her Vulcan peers, possibly feeling a lack of self-esteem at not being like the others. I see the shadow of perfectionism that showed itself as cockiness when she first enters the U.S.S. Shenzhou–you can tell she thinks she knows everything about everything because she’s been the first human to graduate from the Vulcan academies and excel amid intense pressure and a stacked deck. I also see her struggle to understand that her humanness–her emotions–is what makes her great.

Her struggle against emotions is also apparent in Sarek and other Vulcans. Big fans of Star Trek know that Vulcans do, in fact, feel. As Memory-Alpha states:

“Contrary to stereotype, Vulcans did possess emotions; indeed, Vulcan emotions were far more intense, violent, and passionate than those of many other species, including even Humans. It was this passionate, explosive emotionality that Vulcans blamed for the vicious cycle of wars which nearly devastated their planet. As such, they focused their mental energies on mastering them.”

Vulcans, including human-born/Vulcan-raised members like Michael and Vulcan-human hybrids like Spock, always suffered with deep-running emotions. Here on planet Earth, there are tons of folks like me who always seem to be drowning in their own emotions, even as we attempt to tamp them down. The actual suffering doesn’t come from the emotions themselves, but from the attempt to control them. But if you unleash those emotions, then what? The fear of being out of control in any fashion is what, sadly, keeps the suffering going. It’s the Vulcans’ own fear of a lack of self-control that keeps them perpetuating what is essentially a culture of emotional abuse and intense perfectionism over and over. The aspiration to be the ultimate Vulcan, as it were, is what causes Vulcans to stay at war with themselves.

The Vulcan brain can also be a scary place to be due to their intense emotions. Again, to quote Memory-Alpha:

“The Vulcan brain was described as ‘a puzzle, wrapped inside an enigma, house inside a cranium.’ This had some basis in fact, as the Vulcan brain was composed of many layers…Unlike most humanoid species, traumatic memories were not only psychologically disturbing to Vulcans, but had physical consequences as well. The Vulcan brain, in reordering neural pathways, could literally lobotomize itself.”

The human brain can’t lobotomize itself (although it can block highly traumatic memories from ever reaching the surface), but his description of the Vulcan brain, especially the part about how much of a puzzle it is, fits the highly emotional mind as well. A mind that is constantly drenched in deep emotion is a mind that is mystery even to itself. The fact that there’s science spearheaded by the leading HSP expert, Dr. Elaine Aron, that show that the highly sensitive person has a hypersensitive wired nervous system and empathy-targeted brain is evidence that the highly sensitive mind is an overactive (and sometimes over-reactive) place. Also, like Vulcans, those who consider themselves highly sensitive or even empathic have extremely strong reactions to events as well as the mundane, due to the fact that–like Vulcans–we can usually sense the emotions of others.

James Frain and Sonequa Martin-Green as Sarek and Michael. (Photo credit: CBS)

However, with all of this going on, it’s fascinating that Sarek still saw the value in human emotions, so much so that he entrusted his ward to Capt. Georgiou in an attempt to give her the human experiences she never had. It’s also poignant to note that he only shows his true emotions to those closest to him, like when he does his best to hold back a proud smile as he introduces Michael to Georgiou for the first time. Or when he reveals to Michael through their mental connection his regret at not showing her the emotional support she needed throughout her life. His statements are made simply, but you can see the depth of feeling there. You can tell how much he loves Michael and does truly believe in her, like any good father would. Like any parent, he’s made mistakes in raising his child, and he’s emotionally intelligent enough to be able to admit that–and his emotional state surrounding this fact–to Michael. As we already know from Star Trek, Sarek sees a lot of admirable qualities in humans, so much so that he married one and had a child. Perhaps it was raising Michael that helped him open his eyes to the importance of having a balance between emotion and reason.

Showing Sarek reveal his emotional side to Michael, and Michael revealing her emotions to Georgiou, brings up another point about highly sensitive people, or at least, someone like me–it’s difficult showing your full self to the public. It’s much easier–and much more intimate–to show the full extent of your emotions to those closest to you, to those who understand you. Not everyone realizes that emotions aren’t there to be played with or used against the person; we highly sensitive people only feel safest revealing ourselves to those who mean the most to us in our lives. Those people have earned the right to know us as we are, and that is a coveted position to hold. In Star Trek terms, it is a coveted position to have a Vulcan as a friend, because they will probably be extremely loyal to you because of the position you hold in their life.

James Frain as Sarek. (Photo credit: CBS)

The scene between Sarek and Michael in the mind meld was extremely special for me. It hit home in a way I didn’t expect that scene to do. It made me feel like I finally have someone who understands my personal struggle on television, and she’s also a black woman. It showcases a different side to blackness that is rarely seen on television (so much so that tons of Star Trek fanbros are up in arms over Michael leading the series). She’s not loud or brash. She’s not sexually promiscuous. She’s not even funny, really. She’s a no-nonsense, yet naive woman who is still trying to find herself amid her place between two cultures. She’s ‘a puzzle, wrapped inside an enigma, house inside a cranium,’ and it’s good to see someone like her exist in our pop culture. She lets other black women like me, women with Vulcan brains, know that not only are they just fine, but they can–yes, I’m saying it–live long and prosper. 🖖🏾

#DifferenceMakers: Madeline Stuart and Rixey Manor’s Bridal Photo Shoot

Some photos from a bridal photo shoot have made the rounds, and they’ve got everyone talking. The photos, taken by Sarah Houston, feature Madeline Stuart, a model with Down syndrome, showcasing several wedding dresses in and around Virginia’s Rixey Manor, a popular wedding spot.

Rixey Manor’s owner, Isadora Martin-Dye, commissioned the shoot and told Huffington Post UK, “A lot of newly engaged women cannot see themselves as a bride because all of the images magazines use are of these tall, thin models. I think that being a bride is a life experience that every woman should be able to see herself doing, and defintely not stressing about the fact that they won’t look ‘perfect’ on their wedding day.” Houston wrote on her blog that she also wanted to showcase a bride’s individual beauty. “I honestly just wanted to show that no bride is cookie cutter, each one is unique and beautiful and Madeline proved that,” she wrote.

Madeline Stuart – Rixey Manor from Nugen Media on Vimeo.

Thankfully, the comments on Houston’s Instagram page and blog have been positive.  But, I’ve read this story on several different websites, and in almost every comments section, the comments almost always devolve into a dichotomy; either people feel the pictures and Stuart are quite beautiful and inspiring, or how they think that people with Down syndrome shouldn’t get married. The thing I took away from it is similar to what the Martin-Dye wanted people to take away from the photos—we should get ourselves accustomed to the idea of different types of brides, including brides with mental disabilities. We shouldn’t believe that people with mental disabilities 1) don’t want to get married or 2) can’t get married.

I did some reading before writing this post, because—in full disclosure—I myself have only ever been in contact with one person with Down Syndrome in my entire life. Even though I went to an elementary school that embraced both children with and without learning and physical disabilities, and even though that environment gave me much more exposure to people with different abilities (more exposure than most schools were doing even in the ’90s), I still never had much exposure to Down Syndrome. So writing this article was a learning experience for me as well.

Let’s take a look at some myths and debunk them.

• MYTH: People with Down Syndrome or other disabilities don’t want to get married.

Why it’s false: Just because someone has a disability doesn’t mean that they are instantly rendered helpless. But, in fact, there are many couples with disabilities out there. In a feature outlining Bill Ott (who has Downs’ Syndrome) and Shelley Belgard (who has hydrocephalus), a couple with disabilities, The Washington Post writes how while there are many couples like Ott and Shelley out there, the actual numbers haven’t been calculated. “Experts say it’s difficult to track the number of couples with intellectual impairments because they often enter into committed relationships without getting married,” Style writer Ellen McCarthy wrote for The Washington Post. “In many instances, a legal marriage could interfere with Social Security or health-care benefits.”

Legally in America, people with mental disabilities have the same legal right as anyone else to get married, as well as own homes, drive, and anything else. Slate asked University of Virginia’s Institute of Law, Psychiatry and Public Policy’s Dr. Richard Redding about this, and he said that mentally disabled people don’t need to pass any competency tests. But, state-by-state, things break down a bit different. Slate states more than 30 states either restrict or prohibit marriages between people with mental disabilities. “Such marriage laws are rarely enforced. But when they are, a competency hearing can be triggered by a guardian or family member who suspects manipulation or coercion behind the marriage.” Even though the laws aren’t enforced, the existence of those laws contributes to society’s ignorance about the rights and needs of mentally disabled people.

•Myth: People with Down Syndrome or other disabilities don’t want to get married.

Why it’s false: Many people believe the mentally disabled don’t want to get married because they see those individuals as being forever a child. But that’s not true, either. People with Down Syndrome have productive lives and want the same types of rich social interactions and relationships just like anyone without the disability.

Philip Davidson, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry, told The Washington Post that the stereotype should be disbanded. “There is a bias in our society that is unfounded—that just because you have Asperger’s syndrome or Down syndrome that you automatically cannot sustain a relationship,” he said. “But that’s just not true. These people are really not all that different than you and me. Their investment in the lives of other people are as significant as yours and mine.”

According to the National Down Syndrome Society, one in every 691 babies in America is born with the condition, making it the most common. “Approximately 400,000 Americans have Down syndrome and about 6,000 babies with Down syndrome are born in the United States each year,” states the site. So with those kinds of stats, it’s actually surprising we haven’t seen any more advertisement featuring people with Down syndrome. What this wedding spread is hoping to do is further incorporate people of all types into the country’s social fabric, and what we should do as consumers (and as members of society) is welcome more media like this since it only helps everyone in the long run. As the president of Global Disability Inclusion, Meg O’Connell, told the Telegraph, “People want to see people like themselves in fashion and advertising and marketing campaigns. People with disabilities by clothes and cars and houses. They want to be represented, like everyone else; disability has been the forgotten diversity segment.”

What do you think of the photos? Give your opinions in the comments section below!

Great blogs to check out:

Wife who tied the knot with disabled husband to become Britain’s first married couple with Down’s Syndrome dies aged 45 (Daily Mail)

Mental health, human rights & legislation (WHO)

Mentally Disabled Couple’s Legal Battle Ends with New Home (ABC News)