Broken vase theory as a metaphor for mental health

Imagine you’ve just dropped a vase. You can sweep the broken vase under a rug, or use a rug to cover the broken vase — because, for whatever reason, you cannot deal with it right now.

Days, weeks, months and years may pass before some unpredictable force — a pet, a stranger, a relative, a child — starts talking about/references a broken vase in their own life, and you suddenly remember your own broken vase under the rug.

“Maybe it’ll turn to dust,” you think; after all, this is what everyone says. Glass is just sand struck by lightning, so won’t turn back? The broken vase will fade away, and you won’t have to look at it or think about how it’s under the rug anymore.

Time passes. Paranoia sets in. Socially acceptable pressure sets in — messy houses are unforgivable, regardless of any science behind clutter and intelligence. Conform or be ostracized.

Your mom/dad/grandparent is coming over. You’re obviously hiding something from them — that broken vase you’ve swept under the rug is going to be revealed soon enough.

It’s not. Relief passes as you’re all in the doorway, prepared to leave.

They pause, mention something about someone else’s friend’s broken vase. They shake their head. They applaud you for not having any broken vases of your own. They leave.

You return to the area of the broken vase — the rug hiding that which you can’t even bear to look at. Looking at it means you have to deal with it and figure out how to deal with it. No one ever taught you how to handle a broken vase — where do you even begin? Do you treat it the same as trash? You lift the rug slightly, place your hand under — the sharpness of the glass grazes your skin, and you rush for the first-aid supplies. At least this is something you know how to manage — disinfect, apply healing ointment, and finish with a bandage.

You decide to, as people suggest, “forget about it and move on”, though it’s really hard. It’s always in your mind, always making you worry when/if someone is going to find out about your broken vase. I mean, it’s right there in the open — if only people would stop for a moment, take in the scenery, and consider that you might be having a hard time, too. In some some ways, you want them to find out about it, regardless of any and all the shame that may follow, because at least then you open up your chances of getting help. At least then someone might know how to handle the broken vase.

More time goes by. The more and more thinks that use the rug — people, pets, that vacuum that even catches on its own cord — the more and more it wears…and tears.

A piece of glass grazes your bare foot. You have no other rug to put in place of the old one. You can’t even pick up the old one without making the glass go everywhere. It took residence in that old rug ’till it started tearing holes. Now, not only do you have this broken vase, you have this worn rug. And you have absolutely no clue what to do, because the broken vase alone was overwhelming — no one ever taught you how to deal with it!

Except…what about that bathroom rug? It’s not perfect, but…shouldn’t it be fine? Who will even know the difference? They always thought of you as a little bit crazy, anyway — it should be fine. It works. It looks good. You tend to the glass in your foot.

One day, while scrolling through Facebook, you see a post about how broken vases are only broken because you think they’re broken. “Stop thinking of it as broken and move on with your life.” You look over at the broken vase under the rug, remember how it hurt you. But it is broken, you say. I can see it with my own eyes. All the symptoms, when paired against each other collectively, are there — obvious. Why don’t other people get it?

More posts — worse than that other one — happen upon your feed. You stop viewing it; it’s too much. Why are you suddenly so aware of it?

Your cat starts limping. You pick him up, examine his foot, and find a piece of the broken vase. You rush him to the vet, who removes the glass. “Is anything broken at home?” she asks. You pass it off as something your cat experienced while you took him on a walk, saying that’s the last time you bring him with you on your neighborhood walk. Later, you apologize to your cat. You work even harder to hide the broken vase.

On a trip to the grocery store, you and the vet are standing in the same aisle. She’s talking about the broken vase support group’s efforts to increase the need for empathy on the phone to someone until she sees you and ends the call abruptly. “Sorry, that’s—” is all she gets out before you say, I have a broken vase, too.

Everything changes.

You meet people, of every background known to humankind, who know what you’re going through. Some have blogs, which have sub-communities of their own, thus helping increase efforts to stress the need for empathy. “You can’t just sweep it under the rug,” they say. “Throwing it away doesn’t resolve anything.”

You learn how to talk to your friends and family about this broken vase of yours.

You develop courage and strength from no longer having to work through this alone.

This group of people on your team help you pick up the pieces, navigate the cleanup process.

Knowing how to handle the broken vase more safely helps you prevent it from harming the lives around you.

As you examine the pieces, you determine which ones you’ll abandon and which you’ll keep.

The pieces you keep, you’ll form into something brand new.

Not everyone understands, and that’s finally okay. Their shaming doesn’t hurt you so much anymore. You have people now who get it, who understand regardless of whether they’ve experienced it themselves.

My new something is called Jane, and she’s still in progress. 💓


This post was written in observation of World Mental Health Day, on the 10th of October every year. Mental health is a vital part of life, and everyone has it. It’s not something as simple as resolving by “praying it away”, because not only is there more science to it than that, but no one would have negative mental health if it was as simple as having faith and/or choosing to think about other things. I also wanted to stress how signs and symptoms, when viewed collectively, point to a greater issue at hand that bears serious consequences if continued to be ignored; as well as how someone’s mental health, which they’re pressured by society and even the people around them to remain silent about and feel ashamed of, can affect the lives of those around them.

While I experience a multitude of mental health conditions that contributed their own influence, I wrote this post with mainly anorexia in mind. I do think, also, this metaphor could be used for generally anything that makes people feel ostracized and shamed into silence. Regardless of the reason for silencing someone, and/or shaming them for speaking out, it’s never right and always leads to more harmful behaviors you could never dream of unless you’ve been there. There is neither love nor kindness in that.

I really like Rachel Platten’s “Stand by You”, because I feel that the lyrics illustrate the importance of being some light in someone’s life, especially when they’re going through the hard times. It’s about getting on their level (but also caring for your own mental health) and empathizing with how they feel and what is going on for them. It’s about being the Christina Yang to their Meredith Grey. It’s about being a beacon of light in their darkness.

For more information, visit who.int’s page for World Mental Health Day 2018.

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