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Rethinking our lonely heroes

Why do Western cultures insist on individual struggle as the path to psychological growth?

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Everyone loves a lone hero (or so the story goes). The hero’s journey is one we all know: a solitary protagonist overcoming a series of personal struggles to reach self-actualization. In Western culture, this is the tale we read to our children, the story we tell ourselves when life gets hard. The problem with this narrative — one that has come to permeate modern marketing machines and self-help books on “healing your inner child” — is that it endorses individualism as the only path to psychological growth. Instead of allowing suffering to be a collective problem that can be addressed in community settings (as it is in many Eastern cultures), we continue to privatize our pain. Our heroes are largely tasked with the responsibility of healing themselves; their strength is measured by their ability to weather the storm alone.

I first realized that suffering could be a collective endeavor when traveling in East Asia, where I frequently found locals I barely knew sharing their personal struggles. In Vietnam, the mother of the family I was working with cried into my arms after we had known each other for less than 24 hours, and then almost every day after that. She’d recently lost her husband and was struggling to manage her children and workload. This was the first time I’d seen grief so freely expressed, uncontained by the privacy of a bedroom or psychologist’s office.


Although we rarely publicize our suffering, most of us understand that doing so in some form can often ease its burden. As social beings, we are innately predisposed to functioning as communities, not as solitary individuals. Yet despite our fundamental inclination to operate within groups, the notion that healing can be a collective process has barely taken off in the West.

Collective healing invokes one’s personal and extended community as an essential component of psychological recovery. Individuals are expected to share their vulnerabilities; the pain becomes lesser for being shared, and the community can offer a litany of potential strategies to ease one person’s struggle.


Examples of such community remedies for psychological malaise can be found in almost every Eastern culture, from mantra singing in India to communal bathing in Japan. Collective healing is the Eastern motif, and because their narrative centers on “we,” rather than the heroic “I,” individuals are rarely relegated to isolated clinical pathways. In these countries, people also are far more comfortable telling their troubles to both strangers and loved ones. Throughout Asia, I’ve found myself privy to strangers’ intimate problems, whether it was having a sick mother or a marriage that was falling apart. These problems weren’t considered secrets. They were shared freely, and it was obvious that the burden was lessened for being out in the open. I was once given a cashmere shawl by a tired shop owner because my eyes reminded her of her sister’s. She proceeded to tell me of her sister’s long struggle with depression. I stayed with her and listened, knowing that all she expected in return for the shawl was to be heard.

Women Collective Kenya hosted an outdoor Jam Session in 2022. Such sessions are designed to promote connection and collective healing.

In contrast, in the West, the standard remedy for suffering is a consultation with a psychologist or counselor. In most countries, though, this remedy is often unavailable or unaffordable. As a result of considering clinical treatment as the be-all of psychological care, we have created a general reluctance to ask or receive help from anyone other than a clinical professional. It’s not that those suffering do not have friends or families to consult; it’s that consulting one’s loved ones and members of the community is not considered a valid form of treatment.


In part, our disinclination toward public vulnerability is a result of capitalist frameworks that present ambition and competitiveness as assets critical to personal success. These frameworks have conditioned us to think individualistically; we all want to be strong main characters. And our aversion to public suffering has left us with a dearth of social contexts that allow personal suffering to become a collective problem.

Some exceptions exist: Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is a powerful example of how a community can function as a vessel for personal healing. The AA model has been adopted in over 180 countries and is widely accepted for substance addiction. Yet beyond psychological troubles involving addiction, there is a notable absence of community settings to encourage individual healing.

Only in times of disaster have we allowed ourselves to deviate from the convention that personal struggles ought to be private struggles. The pandemic marked the first time in recent memory when it was socially acceptable to suffer out loud. Employers normalized not being OK (albeit often superficially), and “How are you?” did not have to be answered in the positive. Yet despite the mental toll these years took on many, our individualistic thinking around psychological care has barely evolved. Government responses have focused on increasing funding for psychological services. These responses, despite the good intentions underlying them, seem to ignore the critical lesson from our social isolation era: Community was the remedy for psychological suffering. Although institutions have started encouraging conversations around mental health, there remains a lack of functional social infrastructure for these discussions. Yes, we can acknowledge that poor mental health exists, but where do you send people who want to talk about it? Very rarely can spaces be found where people can safely seek out support in a collective context, sharing and hearing from other people.


Because standard approaches to psychological care are hard to access in the West, creating communities for individuals to share their suffering will be critical. Instead of encouraging a litany of “self”-healing processes, we need to establish social frameworks that allow personal pain to be publicized. This starts with rethinking our lonely heroes and acknowledging that suffering, like all universal human experiences, is best shared.

Amira Skeggs is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge who researches mental health and neuroscience. She is also the founder of Kindred, a nonprofit that offers mental health services for young people.