Back when we used ink, I began to put my thoughts about mental health and recovery on paper. At the time, I didn't know this would eventually morph into books about psychology and secular spirituality, published in 2019. My wife, D'Lane, the cyberqueen, suggested some blogs to more concisely present the essence of various chapters. The full scope of the blogs (26 and counting) is available on "The Blog" page at edchandlerandbeyond.com, but here are a dozen that are perhaps most germaine to your needs. Hope you enjoy reading as much as I enjoy writing.
Build your coping skills, your inner peace and understanding of yourself, and your relationships with others. Read Psychomechanics: Tools for Self-Regulation of Emotions
Blogs by Dr. Chandler
* Elbows, Bumps and Pandemonium
* All You Need Is Love
* Inner Parenting
* Mindful or Mindless
* Wisdom of Vulnerability
* Environmental Spirituality
* Am I Crazy?
* Managing Sadness and Depression
* Anxiety and Avoidance
* Managing Anger, Frustratin and Vulnerability
Elbows, Bumps and Pandemonium
The elbow has never competed with the brain, the heart, the stomach, or our gonads for favorite body part awards. But it has gained ground on its more popular rivals recently, on the strength of its newfound survival value. The recent battle between humans and viruses for control of the planet has left handshakes, hugs, and kisses sidelined, replaced by elbow bumps and other greetings. We have seen foot tapping, peace signs, thumbs up, waving, quasi-shakes (moving your unextended hand up and down as if shaking hands), and other awkward gestures. “Namaste,” the traditional Hindu greeting, with the hands pressed together accompanied by a slight bow, has escaped our local yoga studios. “La bise” (the traditional barely kiss-each-cheek greeting) is plunging into the deep freeze, perhaps to be replaced by air-kissing, sometimes without the kiss even being finger launched! Sacre Bleu! What has our world come to? In a word, survival, our most basic motive, fueled by death anxiety, our most basic fear. The coronavirus has invaded, an invisible alien, spreading from Area 51 in Wuhan, taking over our fellow humans, infecting invisibly, so we don’t even know who is who. Are thee friend or foe? It is safer to regard everyone outside of our tiniest circle as a threat, though we debate the cost, like insurance underwriters.
Our needs compete. Survival, health, and safety are more primal, and typically trump our needs for attachment, affiliation, and affection, though we seek compromises. We have largely divorced ourselves from nature in recent centuries, as we congregate in our concrete jungles, but now social congregation itself is a risk. How can we tolerate social distancing? On the other hand, how do we keep our amygdalas on leashes, so we control our anxiety, instead of letting the internal demons take over? How do we prevent a pandemic from escalating into pandemonium? The word “pandemonium” was coined by John Milton in his classic poem, Paradise Lost. He combined a pair of roots, “pan” (meaning: all) and “demonium” (evil spirits), to form a word that now describes all hell breaking loose. How apt.
A certain amount of anxiety is inevitable and beneficial in response to a survival threat such as COVID-19. We all want to minimize negative emotions (e.g., anxiety, sadness, frustration, anger, guilt, shame), though these emotions have positive functions as well. They alert us, like physical pain if we get too close to a fire, that our emotional welfare is endangered. Anxiety signals a threat, whether real, imagined, or exaggerated. Sadness is a response to loss, frustration invites us to question our expectations, and anger is a sign of injustice (again, either real or manufactured). But negative emotions can also multiply out of control, as sadness yields to depression, anger metastasizes into violence, constant worrying escalates anxiety toward panic, and group panic spurs pandemonium. Thus, each negative emotion has a healthy and an unhealthy version. We can get ourselves in trouble at either extreme, by suppressing healthy negative emotions, or by manufacturing extreme ones. With COVID-19, we can ignore the threat, be crushed by it, or cope with it.
Anxiety motivates fight-or-flight maneuvers (social distancing = flight) intended to guarantee survival or at least reduce an emotional threat. Loneliness motivates affiliation, the urge to connect. Particularly nowadays, feelings of anxiety and loneliness clash, as do their underlying motives, safety/survival and attachment.
Our anxiety motivates corrective action, to limit our exposure and risk. On the other hand, uncontrolled worrying escalates anxiety. Thoughts influence feelings. Thus, expectations set up frustration, blaming begets anger, and worrying (a thought process) drives anxiety. The Serenity Prayer is helpful here. It makes no sense to worry over something we can’t control, and it makes perfect sense to attack problems that we can control. If only we can muster the wisdom to distinguish between what can and cannot be controlled, the choice forks toward taking charge or letting go. Changing any habit requires two steps: creating a Plan B (e.g., the Serenity Prayer), and catching the lousy habit early, before it gains momentum. Catch yourself worrying, and transfer your energy into planning and action to reduce your threats, via social distancing, safe social contact, brainstorming income alternatives, developing sanitation strategies, etc. But tolerate, get used to, and even embrace the uncertainty, taking pride in your resilience. There is a large portion of our dilemma that is unpredictable, and beyond our control as individuals. We do much better when we accept that which we cannot control. Mindfulness techniques invite us to accept some anxiety as a normal response to threats. Notice the anxiety, accept it without judgment, and watch it float downstream, at least for now. When we try to suppress inevitable negative emotions, we sometimes find them multiplying instead (“What you resist persists” is shorthand for the Carl Jung quote). But idle worrying and catastrophic thinking are worse than a waste of time. Catch them, and move your mind toward something you can control. Limit your news watching to perhaps a half hour a night, to stay informed without becoming a captive of the media. Remember that stressors have two components: the external threat, which we often don’t control, and our internal response to that threat, which we can. Focusing on the uncontrollable leaves us feeling helpless and anxious, while taking action toward controllable goals is empowering. Our choice of responses can either minimize or multiply the stress. We can train ourselves to become more conscious of our passive or active role in responding to stressors, and more deliberate in our choices. Otherwise, mindless preoccupation with the external stressor, such as nonstop worrying or news watching, leaves us feeling more helpless and anxious.
What else can you do? Breathe. Breathing is your most primal interaction with the world. When you are anxious, or entering potentially dangerous environments out of necessity, breathe deliberately, slowly, deeply, and mindfully before entering. Exercise. Aerobic exercise is particularly helpful in reducing stress. Walk, run, bike, check out online yoga, nurture your body in ways that minimize your viral exposure. Upgrade your nutrition, and protect your sleep. Spend time outside; get some sun, safely. If you smoke, now might be a good time to quit, so your lungs are in better shape to fight the virus, though you will need other, healthier ways to soothe yourself. Take the time to review your lifestyle for self-nurturing upgrades. Start up that hobby you’ve been wanting to get off the ground.
Death anxiety is our most primal source of anxiety. William James, the prominent American psychologist, described death (in The Varieties of Religious Experience,1902) as “the worm at the core” of the human dilemma. Our civilization provides improved protection from predators, but we cannot eliminate the certainty of death itself. Our evolution has provided us with increasingly complex brains, which allow us to envision the future, including a future without us in it! Presto: existential death anxiety, our fear of eventual death. No one gets out of here alive. Death is the ultimate disconnection. As the death toll of COVID-19 mounts, our death anxiety rises, like a caboose on the virus train. We disconnect socially in order to reduce the risk of ultimate disconnection (death), but we end up lonely, seeking more attachment.
Mental health requires connectedness, both internally (it helps to like oneself and one’s body) and externally. Externally, we can connect socially, romantically, environmentally with nature, and spiritually (either with religious spirits or a more secular group consciousness, merging with life, love, humanity, etc.). Connect with nature. Tend to gardening in your back yard, nurturing the life force of plants, while creating a pleasant environment where you and your family can safely commune. Lay on your back and check out the night skies. Find Orion, and its bright blue binary star, Rigel, as well as its red giant, Betelgeuse (which would engulf Mars and perhaps Jupiter if it traded places with our Sun). Feel your place in the immensity of the universe. If you are religiously inclined, feel God’s presence, in everything. Connect to your loved ones, via random acts of love and kindness, and phone calls to whomever you hold dear. Engage your family in games and creative interactions. Get to know your lover better. Pick a year of his or her life, in childhood or the teens, and ask them to describe their experience, good and bad. Open yourself to emotional intimacy, to counteract disconnection. And practice gratitude. As we face threats and losses, count your blessings, for the gift of life, the presence of love and friendship. We tend to take things for granted until we are close to losing them, but the threat of death can invigorate our appreciation of life, and spur our loving behaviors. Resist divisive rhetoric that invites you to view the other as the enemy, even as you protect yourself. Review your self-chosen life purposes, and the sources of meaning in your life. What can you do to pursue them with more gusto? As we temporarily disconnect from friends and perhaps work, we can find creative ways to restore our attachments in other ways. We are all in this together. Thank you for listening, and for cooperating in our species-wide response to the viral threat.
All You Need Is Love
Happy Valentine’s Day to you and yours! On this day when we formally celebrate love, let me take you back a bit. Imagine today is June 25th, 1967, a ridiculously quick five decades ago, in the midst of the Summer of Love, but in London, not San Francisco. You’re seated on the floor of a recording studio, and as you look around, you spot some familiar faces. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Stones no less, and OMG, there’s Eric Clapton. They have all assembled to participate in the first worldwide satellite broadcast, dubbed “Our World.” The broadcast will reach 400 million people in 24 countries around the world, though true to character, the Soviet bloc has boycotted the event to pout over Israel’s victory in the Six Day War. Elsewhere across the planet, earthlings are treated to appearances by icons such as Pablo Picasso and opera singer Maria Callas, as 14 countries contribute performances, interviews, live video footage, or other reflections of their national character. Here in London, Keith Moon, arguably the best drummer on the planet, sits idle near the drum kit of his more famous colleague, who takes his seat. His three band mates rehearse a bit while the tape is rolling, and 13 orchestral musicians enter the room and take their seats. The producer, George Martin, announces, “Here comes the tape.” The opening notes of the French National Anthem, La Marseillaise, are broadcast inconguously from English soil, and you hear “Love, love, love” coming from the Fab Four, who are framed by flowers, balloons, and friends. John Lennon begins, “There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done,” and you quietly clear your throat, preparing. Moments later, you are singing the chorus with a roomful of allies, led by The Beatles (Lennon and McCartney, 1967): “All You Need Is Love …”
Okay, it’s idealistic. Love, like peace, is an ideal that characterizes us at our best, though hatred and war are all too common, and indifference often rules. And admittedly, in Maslow’s hierarchy, physiological and safety needs trump love and belongingness needs. But tell that to a starry-eyed lover. We all want love, and it is one of a handful of spiritual emotions (along with awe, existential joy and dread, gratitude, and humility). Spirituality celebrates both consciousness and connectedness. Love involves connecting via shared consciousness. Thus, love, at its best, can be a very spiritual experience. But what is it, and how do we find safe love?
Perhaps it’s easier if we differentiate between different types of love. Let’s start with lust, versus infatuation, versus more mature love. Pat Love (The Truth About Love, 2001) addressed various misconceptions about love. She noted that you can be sexually attracted to many people, but infatuated with only one at a time. During lust, conversation is a vehicle to get sex. But when you are infatuated, you lose time in conversations that can last for hours. The infatuation, or “falling” in love stage, is fueled by powerful brain chemicals. As Love noted (p. 30), “Under the influence of nature’s love potion, non-touchers touch, non-talkers talk, and everybody feels happy, and we haven’t even got to the erotic part yet.” Research on the various neurochemicals mediating the different components of love has been accumulating for a few decades, and more recently, brain imaging studies are providing more insight into the biological manifestations of love, infatuation, and mature love. From a more psychological perspective, Pat Love noted that love requires three ingredients, chemistry, compatibility, and commitment, though the lovers populating classic “love” stories, such as Titanic, only attain the chemistry of the infatuation stage. She reminds us that infatuation is merely the first stage of love. If we mistake it as true love, we run the risk of disillusionment when the intoxication dissipates, and we may abandon the struggles of the less heady later stages of love. Some are so convulsed by withdrawal from cerebral love potions, and their partner’s lost halo, that they forsake lasting love in favor of serial infatuation. They fall in love with falling in love. Others realize that falling in love is a precious but temporary stage, and that a more full-bodied, lasting love can be developed and maintained only by more deliberately continuing the loving behaviors that were initially fueled effortlessly by infatuation. Love becomes a daily choice, a set of behaviors, not just a feeling that you fall out of.
John Gottman and his research team have conducted the most extensive marital research on the planet in recent decades. It includes live video recording and coding of facial reactions and dialogues, and physiological recordings of couples interacting and discussing conflicts in his Seattle “Love Lab.” For years, I have recommended his Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (2000) as a marital improvement primer. He also addresses the stages of love, and provides research-based gems for making relationships work. On the negative side, he cited the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse,” specifically criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling, as particularly corrosive behaviors that progressively sabotage a marriage. He contrasted criticism, involving an attack upon a partner's personality, with complaints, which address a more specific behavior. Contempt goes a dangerous step further, and involves a poisonous expression of disgust. How you argue clearly matters. Gottman found that the “masters” of relationships (couples who eventually succeeded) showed five times as much positive emotion compared to negative emotion during conflicts, while the “disasters” (couples who later broke up or remained together unhappily) displayed a roughly even (0.8 to 1.0) ratio. My take is that it helps to remember that you are in love when you argue, instead of devolving into a view of your lover as an adversary to be defeated. Gottman and Love each encouraged us to take the challenge of finding the longing for love inside a partner’s complaints (look for their need for love and hurt feelings beneath their anger, and ask what they need). Likewise, Gottman focused on the value of win/win alternatives, in contrast to zero-sum games, and the need “attune,” in part by accumulating positive emotions. What you do in between conflicts matters. Building a positive emotional bank account allows you to give your partner the benefit of the doubt during negative moments (“positive sentiment override”). In this vein, Gottman noted the importance of responding to often subtle “bids” for attention and relatedness. These can be blatant, but are often just comments that seek conversation or validation (e,g., “What a cool car,” or “I think I’ll buy a bathing suit”). How often do you ignore such bids, or respond with a “But…,” rather than positive attention? Gottman tracked newlyweds’ conversations during dinner, and found that couples that eventually divorced turned toward each other’s bids 33% of the time, while couples that remained married did so 86% of the time!
Some of this sounds like work, and it often is, requiring manual rather than automatic pilot, especially if we haven’t developed healthy relationship habits during the course of our childhood and earlier relationships. Infatuation is far more intoxicating, and makes positive behavior flow effortlessly, but is transient. It helps to remind yourself that love is a behavior, not just a feeling.
Gottman, John. (2015). Principia amoris. New York, NY: Routledge.
Gottman, John, & Silver, N. (2000). The seven principles for making marriage work. London, England: Orion.
Love, Patricia. (2001). The truth about love: The highs, the lows, and how you can make it last forever. New York, NY: Fireside.
Humans are among the most vulnerable creatures on Earth at birth. We are totally helpless, dependent on a nurturing mother for survival. Our emotional vulnerability and dependency continue for well over a decade, and to a lesser extent, throughout our lives. Attachment is crucial to the welfare of mammals, and although it dances with the complementary skill, autonomy, throughout the lifespan, our emotional welfare plummets without healthy attachments. If we are lucky, we are blessed with loving, nurturing parents and grandparents, and become healthy enough to attract a healthy lifelong romantic partner. If not, we struggle.
Even if we do have parental, marital, and social connections to nurture us, we sometimes experience losses and insecurities that leave us feeling raw and needy. If we have developed religious faith, we have an ever-present divine source of nurturance available to soothe us in times of need. God, however we conceive of Him or Her, is a higher power whom we can turn to for love, wisdom and guidance at whatever hour, 24/7. All we need to do is maintain a close relationship, via frequent prayer, and proactive moral initiative, to have ready access to this incredible resource. But some of us are troubled by faith. We seek evidence before believing, and find it lacking. As a result, our ability to access God’s gifts is compromised. What are we to do?
Secular spirituality, otherwise known as spiritual atheism, is a sometimes poorly understood nonreligious approach to spirituality. Concisely articulated, it can be viewed as a celebration of consciousness and connectedness. It focuses on the spiritual emotions of awe, gratitude, humility, love, and existential joy. We count our blessings for the gifts of life, consciousness, love, and an awesome universe to unfold our life within. We connect with lovers, friends, and the “All,” without the need to connect with unproven spirits, or the belief in disembodied consciousness (spirits such as gods, ghosts, and souls).
Our mental health, and spiritual connectedness, both require solid attachments. We must attach both externally and internally. We benefit from nurturing external attachments to our parents, friends, and a healthy lover, and a feeling of connectedness to humanity, nature, and the universe as a whole. But internal attachment is crucial as well. Self-esteem is a fundamental building block for a healthy personality. If we were not nurtured by our parents sufficiently, or experience abuse or frequent rejection elsewhere, our downloading of this external negativity may leave us feeling adrift, disliking and disconnected from our self. Our religious friends, facing similar circumstances, can pray, and bathe in God’s love (unless they conclude that even God doesn’t love them). We must find an alternative route: self-nurturance.
We can acknowledge that prayer works for our religious brethren, but question its supposedly theological mechanism, and suggest an alternative psychological explanation of its effectiveness. From a secular angle, prayer can be viewed as an export/import business, where the raw materials of self-love and internal wisdom are exported to the supernatural factory, where they are dressed up in infallible divine garb, and then re-imported with confidence. This is a divine end run around self-doubt, and a means of substituting an illusory external connection for a deficient internal connection. From this viewpoint, prayer is a confidence booster that provides an unwitting, indirect access to distrusted internal wisdom and untapped self-nurturance, cleverly disguised as infallible divine guidance and love. From this secular perspective, we have all that we need within us to soothe ourselves when distressed, or to access our intuitive and rational wisdom when facing difficult decisions or dilemmas. The question is how to access these internal resources, or, stated differently, how to harness the power of prayer internally. Allow me to digress for a paragraph or two in the service of this question.
If you haven’t been sufficiently loved and nurtured by others, it is difficult to do so for yourself. It is hard for us to nurture people we dislike, and hard to internally self-nurture if we dislike our self. The task is to develop self-compassion. Notice that when we dislike someone’s behavior, we tend to become more tolerant when we discover their early injuries, and understand how their damage produced their objectionable behavior. We all produce objectionable behavior of our own, all the more so if our childhood injuries have been intense. If we can muster compassion for the injured child within us, we can become more understanding and nurturing to our self, and improve our internal attachment.
But we are all motivated to reduce internal pain, and therefore we tend to suppress those negative emotions, and the memories that drive them. It is not unusual to hear victims of childhood trauma tell me that they have little recall of events before their teens, and they sometimes do so in a monotone voice, having suppressed their memories and numbed their feelings from being abused and traumatized. Other times, their emotions are out of control, when unresolved issues get triggered and suppressed emotions surge up and flood consciousness. The need for self-soothing is obvious, but the ability to do so is compromised, especially if they have self-protectively cut themselves off from the trauma victim, their childhood self. Short-term benefits (e.g., numbing negative emotions via suppression) are often followed by long-term deficits (e.g., being disconnected from the part of yourself that most needs healing). This is where trauma survivors need courage, to face the feelings and memories associated from their trauma, and to re-own and love the child-self within. Those of us who have suffered only garden-variety trauma, without any major abuse, are more fortunate, but still may need to learn self-nurturance if we harbor low self-esteem or practice negative self-talk.
The inner-child route to self-healing is an ego-state approach that attends to three ego states or subpersonalities, and improves the interaction between them. We all like to feel that we are unified, though we all have different sides or parts of self. The inner child ego state contains our true feelings, needs, and desires, our childlike spontaneity and playfulness, and our childhood memories and injuries. Our codependent self includes our defenses against these injuries and vulnerabilities, and our recognition that others have feelings and needs as well. The higher parent is the internal equivalent of a higher power, containing wisdom, love, and understanding. The higher parent guides a healthy balance between the self-centered inner child and the other-centered codependent self, to avoid the extremes of narcissism or codependent negation of the self. The higher parent understands and nurtures the wounds of the child self, appreciates the efforts of the codependent self to deal with those wounds, but seeks healing strategies that are less defensive and less self-defeating.
Regardless of whether you are doing full-scale child within work in a therapeutic setting, this approach can be used for self-nurturance. The trick is to be aware of your ego-states, and to access your higher parent in times of distress, allowing this part of yourself to soothe your vulnerable feelings (child self), substituting this self-nurturance for any defensive acting out, compulsive behavior, or self-attack. But some of us are far better at nurturing others than our self. If so, the trick is to respond to our self as if we are someone else, someone we care about deeply. Maybe you are a parent, or can at least imagine yourself as a parent. Think about or imagine yourself at your best as a parent, very much on top of your game, exuding love and wisdom as you respond to your child’s distress. Now you are in your higher-parent ego state. Imagine now that your own child self is your actual child, that you have been separated from him or her years, and you are coming back to soothe wounds suffered in your absence. Feel the compassion you exude as you hold and soothe your child. Yes, he or she may have made mistakes while responding to distressing events, but you will guide him/her toward better choices, and toward self-acceptance, because we all make errors when reacting to abuse, rejection, and novel circumstances. You forgive him/her, and encourage self-forgiveness, while developing better skills for the future. If you can do this for your child, at least when you are at your best as a parent, then you can do so for yourself (even if you have to first pretend that your child self is your own beloved child). Gradually, you will learn how to identify and shift into this higher-parent role when needed, just as your religious friends learn to use prayer to shift into the flow of God’s love.
Thus, we have two ways to access nurturance and wisdom in times of emotional vulnerability and distress, religious and parental. In the absence of religious faith, we can use the parental route. After all, a higher power is simply a projection of the higher parent in the first place. Our own experience of parental love, or, our ability to soothe our own child, is the core skill to be accessed when we need self-soothing. If our religious brethren can take a different route, more power to them. We all have to get there, one way or the other.
Mindful or Mindless
By now, we’ve all heard about mindfulness, and we’ve been warned as children about mindlessness, but how can they each add to our spirituality? Both meditation practices, and “higher” spiritual practices, can be categorized in different ways, and understood from different perspectives. One such perspective is whether they expand our consciousness, as in mindfulness, or whether they narrow our consciousness, as in concentrative meditation. Meditation is one gateway to higher spiritual experiences. The distinction between concentrative meditation and mindfulness meditation can be understood by examining the difference between introvertive and extravertive spirituality. Introductory meditation typically narrows our conscious focus, concentrating on our breathing, or a single external object, such as a candle flame. We attempt to gently dismiss distracting and intrusive thoughts that could hijack our focus and take our minds elsewhere. Concentrative meditations aim to suspend thinking, to turn off language-based verbal linear thinking, and thereby restrict awareness, while developing concentration. Likewise, the Buddhist goal of “nonattachment” seeks to temporarily suspend desire, to reduce craving. In contrast, mindfulness seeks to increase awareness. Mindfulness meditations emphasize an awareness of oneself in the present, in the process of openly observing and non-judgmentally accepting the objects of one's consciousness (thoughts, feelings, impulses, and external phenomena). Concentrative meditation uses a telephoto lens to narrow attention, while mindfulness uses a wide-angle lens to broaden awareness, though both cultivate acceptance. Concentrative meditations are a more introvertive practice seeking mindlessness via subtraction, while extravertive practices increase awareness and invite mindfulness.
Walter Stace (1960) distinguished between introvertive and extravertive mysticism. Extravertive mysticism looks outward, and finds unity with the world, an “all is one” experience, whereas introvertive mysticism looks inward, experiencing pure empty consciousness, singularity in the absence of perceived objects, no-thing-ness, or union with an abstract God. At first glance, extravertive spirituality seems more accessible, easier to manufacture on a day-to-day basis. That is, it seems easier to find unity with the world, in an “all-is-one” experience, than it is to access pure empty consciousness. We are more familiar with being than nothingness, more practiced, at least informally, in mindfulness than mindlessness. We become casual extravertive mystics when we access awe and contemplate the puzzles of infinity and existence by gazing into the universe on a starry night, or when we experience, at sunset or sunrise, the magic of light and heat from our own star 93 million miles distant. This spiritual experience is more robust if we allow ourselves to feel gratitude in these moments for our gifts, of nature, life, love, and consciousness. It is amazing how things are, but even more amazing that things are. Spirituality is about connectedness, both external and internal, and about consciousness, particularly the emotions we experience as we contemplate consciousness. Thus, we can access ordinary extravertive spirituality by deliberately connecting to nature, to people, or ourselves, and to our emotions as we contemplate consciousness. The existence, beauty, and complexity of the material universe, and the incredible internal landscape of consciousness, both leave us dumbfounded and awestruck, inviting humility, and existential joy as well. The further we get from the self, and the more we “lose our self” in the All, the higher we travel spiritually. We become more connected to the universe, less connected to our own separate identity, more ego-transcendent, more spiritual.
While extrovertive mysticism utilizes sensory input and conceptual awareness, targeting an “all-is-one” experience, introvertive mysticism seeks a different form of unitary consciousness, whereby sensory data and ideas have been transcended/eliminated, leaving nothing but a void or empty consciousness. Both types of spirituality aim to transcend ego boundaries to the point where, temporarily, the self no longer exists, either by joining everything, or by retreating into nothingness. Extrovertive spirituality is more pantheistic and finds oneness amidst the multiplicity and connectedness of the universe, while introvertive practices seek oneness in and with the void. Introvertive spirituality seeks nothingness rather than unity, by subtraction rather than addition, minimizing awareness rather than seeking heightened awareness of being and connectedness. It is more mindlessness than mindfulness, more nonbeing than being, more unknowing than knowing, yet it is formless awareness, “pure consciousness” rather than unconsciousness. It is also more difficult to attain, and thus to some, like Stace, it is considered a more developed, higher form of spirituality. This is, of course, a value judgment, which you are entitled to make for yourself, if you are able to develop such spiritual states sufficiently to compare them. There is a fair amount of controversy as to whether “PCEs” (pure conscious events) even exist, though discussions of such introvertive emptying experiences can be found in both Buddhist and Christian literature.
If you are unfamiliar with meditation and mindfulness practices, Ronald Siegel’s The Mindfulness Solution (2010, Guilford) is a good starting point.
Siegel, Ronald. (2010). The mindfulness solution: Everyday practices for everyday problems. New York, NY: Guilford.
Stace, Walter. (1960). Mysticism and philosophy. London, England: MacMillan.
Wisdom of Vulnerability
It is natural to avoid pain, because it is, well, painful! When we experience emotional pain, it is natural to try to eliminate that pain from the mind so that we can feel happy and pain free. None of us enjoy feeling sad, guilty, ashamed, anxious, fearful, etc. Who wants to feel vulnerable? We typically seek out positive feelings, wanting to feel happy, excited, joyful, humorous, content, serene, and untroubled. In our zeal to create positive feelings while minimizing negative feelings, it is easy to perceive negative feelings as enemies to be neutralized as quickly as possible. By suppressing negative feelings, we can banish them from our conscious mind, and thereby regain a more positive or neutral emotional state, at least temporarily. But that’s the rub: the benefit is temporary. By suppressing negative feelings, we add to a natural divide in the mind, conscious versus subconscious. If the mind were simply a bottomless pit, we could discard negative feelings like garbage, dropping them far enough below consciousness that their stinking fumes never touched us again. Unfortunately, the mind is not a bottomless pit, feelings do not disappear forever, and the problems that generate such feelings are not resolved by suppressing them from consciousness. Feelings resurface when they are triggered, or when the problems that generated them reappear. Eventually they must be dealt with. Otherwise, the subconscious mind resembles a toxic waste dump whose fumes repeatedly poison our well-being. And the poisonous subconscious mound grows as we disown and discard more emotional “garbage,” creating an increasing emotional stench and threat below the surface, until these feelings are addressed and resolved, or we explode emotionally.
Examined from another angle, our minds want to resolve and eliminate pain, both at the moment, and permanently. The problem is that these two goals conflict, and often require opposite approaches. On the one hand, we want to eliminate pain at the moment, and suppression, as well as other numbing techniques (e.g., distraction, substance abuse), are often quite effective for immediate pain relief. However, permanent pain relief requires an understanding of the problem that creates the pain, and a strategy for resolving that problem, both of which require us to approach, experience and explore our painful feelings, as well as the thoughts, memories, and events associated with these feelings. In other words, temporary pain must often be tolerated in order to reduce and prevent more lasting pain.
Furthermore, emotional pain can even be considered our friend, in the sense that it provides abundant feedback regarding the nature of our problems, which can potentially lead to solutions for such problems. When you accidently touch a red-hot stove burner, the alarming, painful burning sensation alerts you to quickly pull your hand away to prevent more severe injury. Likewise, listening to our painful feelings helps us understand the nature of our emotional problems and the solutions needed to allow us to feel better in the long run. Feeling and exploring our sadness helps us understand the nature of our losses, inviting us to explore what needs to be done in order to grieve and/or replace these losses. Listening to our fear and anxiety allows us to understand external and internal dangers and threats, real and imagined, that need to be examined, as well as obstacles to be courageously overcome in our lives. As John Bradshaw noted in Homecoming (1990), “To put it very simply, our emotions are our most fundamental powers. We have them in order to guard our basic needs. When one of our needs is being threatened, our emotional energy signals us” (p. 68). Negative feelings are the source of useful feedback, as well as the source of significant pain in our lives. By mindfully approaching yet containing such emotional pain, we can achieve a healthy balance, minimizing both temporary and permanent pain, rather than sacrificing one for the other.
Thus, while emotional pain may often feel like an enemy, it is likewise our friend. In a way, it is our immediate enemy and our long-term friend, as negative emotions are painful at the moment, though an awareness and understanding of such emotions can lead to steps that reduce our pain in the future. There is wisdom to be found in vulnerability within relationships as well. One cannot be emotionally intimate without being vulnerable. Allowing oneself to love requires allowing oneself to risk being hurt. We all want safe love, but we must risk safety in order to obtain love, or risk lack of love and loneliness if we demand too much safety. Sharing uncomfortable feelings with a partner or friend helps develop emotional connectedness. Indeed, emotional intimacy could be defined as shared vulnerability. Without risking vulnerability, we remain armored, safe at the moment perhaps, but distant and disconnected. As with other psychological dimensions, it pays to develop skills at both ends and in the middle of the safety/vulnerability dimension, so we can adapt to any situation or relationship by choosing the right mix of safety and vulnerability at any given time. One would not want to be permanently vulnerable, nor irreversibly safe, armored and untouchable. There are times to be vulnerable, and times to protect yourself, and the ability to do each, at the time of your choosing, depending on your needs at the moment, is adaptive. But if we cannot safely share our more vulnerable “negative” feelings, our sadness, fears, guilt, shame, and frustrations, with a partner who understands, validates, and supports us, we cannot have true intimacy. And if we cannot take the risk of being rejected and hurt, we cannot open ourselves up to the love that magnetically attracts us all. Thus, we must balance our needs for safety and love by wisely determining which situations safely allow for vulnerability, and which ones require self-protection. Wisdom is essential in determining how much vulnerability is appropriate in particular situations and relationships.
Thus, there is wisdom in selective vulnerability, both in our relationships, and when dealing with nonsocial issues involving strong feelings. We must learn to approach, experience and express uncomfortable feelings, and to control and manage them, both in good measure.
References: Bradshaw, John. (1990). Homecoming: Reclaiming and championing your inner child. New York, NY: Bantam.
Why is Thanksgiving special? What makes it special for you? As a psychologist, the holidays are often difficult for my clients, because they stir up family issues that are more easily avoided at other times of the year. For some, it’s a felt obligation to visit family, requiring immersion in unresolved conflicts. For some it’s wet grief, intense sadness over the loss of a very special person. For others, it’s dry grief, the flat sadness that someone who should have been special wasn’t, and now that they’re gone; that dream is dead. Thanksgiving, like mental health, is about connectedness. It is a time of year when we remind ourselves to count our blessings for what we have, and have had. Which is why those whose attachments have been lost, or mired in conflict, fare more poorly during the holidays compared to those fortunate enough to have solid connectedness to loved ones in the present, or at least gratitude and wet grief over losing them in the past. There are several targets for our gratitude at Thanksgiving, but the gift of life, and the beauty of love (our attachments) are usually on the podium.
Like Christmas, Thanksgiving is one of the more spiritual holidays. In Beyond Atheism, I suggested that spirituality is about connectedness, both external and internal, and about consciousness, particularly the emotions we experience as we contemplate consciousness. We can deliberately access these spiritual emotions (they are also called virtues, because we aspire to feel them). The short list of spiritual virtues/emotions includes awe, gratitude, humility, and love. At Thanksgiving we focus on gratitude.
We experience gratitude when we count our blessings for these gifts of life, nature, and our connections with our mate and other loved ones, present and past. We access existential joy and dread when we contemplate our own life and eventual death, and serenity and gratitude when we move our minds toward accepting this precious but brief gift as it is, without greed for immortality. We count our blessings for what we have, rather than longing for, missing, or craving what we have not. Thus, gratitude can give life meaning, by venerating life itself as a gift. We can also contrast each of the spiritual virtues, or positive spiritual emotions, with their opposite. Gratitude allows us to move beyond negativity, entitlement, and greed. As an antidote to envy and greed, gratitude dampens our preoccupation with what others have that we do not, and our desire for more, more, more. Likewise, experiencing awe allows us to rise above the going-through-the-motions boredom associated with desensitization to our surroundings. Humility moves us beyond the narcissistic trap of pride, while love conquers alienation and anger.
Thanks-giving is our way of reminding ourselves of our good fortune in life, while tempering our frustration, disappointment, and unmet or runaway expectations. While we formally count our blessings at the Thanksgiving table on a day culturally designated for celebration of blessings, religious parents pursue a similar ritual when they teach their children to give thanks to God during their prayers. Sometimes we count our blessings when we see bad fortune befall others; other times we manage our own traumas by reminding ourselves of what we still have, and that we could be worse off. As we work through our grief, we gradually transition from a focus on who and what we lost, to gratitude for the presence of the deceased loved one in our life.
But what if we accessed our gratitude more frequently, and deliberately? Consider using the Three Blessings exercise each evening, as a component of meditation or prayer, to end the day. Allow yourself to think about three things that happened during the day that pleased you the most, and why you believe they happened. Emmons and McCullough (2003) found that doing this exercise on a daily basis for just one week resulted in increased joy and a sense of well-being, while also decreasing depression. Moreover, this improvement was still evident six months later. Try keeping a gratitude journal, in which you write down what you are grateful for, on a daily or at least weekly basis.
In a closely related vein, “savoring” is a term used to describe thought practices that increase our awareness and appreciation of positive experiences in our lives. It involves an application of mindfulness practices. We have the option to set aside time for savoring, for example, carving out time in our busy day to watch the sunset. But we also can learn to catch opportunities to savor experiences on the fly, being mindful rather than mindless. We can wolf our food down while watching television or while driving to our next appointment, thereby practicing time management via multitasking, and proving that we have mastered the English, German, American emphasis on goal-directed productivity. Or we can be mindful during our meals, and savor the flavors with each bite, while experiencing gratitude that such a meal comes so easily nowadays, without having to hunt, gather, or farm ourselves.
Which reminds us that spirituality is largely experienced in the present. Yes, we can appreciate those who have passed, or imagine a reunion in the future, and these connected moments are spiritual, but most spirituality is experienced in the present. It is also accessed by being rather than doing, by contemplating aspects of life, and our own consciousness of it, and the wonder of both, rather than mindlessly marching through our daily doings. We are more spiritual as a human being than as a human doing, contemplating the bigger picture, in the present, with awe, humility, existential joy, gratitude, and connectedness to the “All.” Gratitude dovetails nicely with these other spiritual emotions, of humility, awe, existential joy, and love.
As I approach this Thanksgiving, I am personally mindful of my gifts of life and health, that is, my mere presence within the “All,” and my 69-year-old, still active body. I’ll feel older later, when I can no longer dance or ski. But I’m more focused on my human gifts. In the present, these include my wife and three enthusiastic, competent daughters, and the grandsons they are nurturing and enjoying. I will spend Thanksgiving in West Virginia with Lauren, Mikaela, and Karyn, while Teddy and Lucas run about, and Marsden gathers oohs and ahhs with his winning smile. My human fortune also includes good friends and our shared experiences (watching LSU maul Bama, and tribute bands aplenty), and my camaraderie with staff as we help our clients struggle through the very holidays we are celebrating. In the rearview mirror, I celebrate my grandparents, Elsie and Ed (pictured up topside holding my oldest, Lauren, as an infant). If not for them, your humble narrator would be a mess (okay, I hear you - a bigger mess). Elsie was the embodiment of unconditional love; I will celebrate her legacy by making her tasty peach tarts for my grandsons next week. Gramp was the storyteller, whose humor, sociability, caring, and enthusiasm for life inspired us all. In their absence they continue to give to us everyday. We don’t just remember them, we channel them, and pass their love forward, seeing downstream generations through their eyes. May you do the same, next Thursday, and on all other days that you can muster the mindfulness to count your own blessings.
Chandler, Edward. (2019). Beyond Atheism: A Secular Approach to Spiritual, Moral, and Psychological Practices. Available on Amazon.
Emmons, Robert, & McCullough, M. (2003). Counting blessings versus burdens: Experimental studies of gratitude and subjective well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 377-389. https://doi.org/10.1037//0022-35188.8.131.527.
Our western world has succeeded in creating scientific reasoning and amazing technology. We organize and plan for the future, and pursue our goals with a determined work ethic, but often at the cost of diminished joy, wonder, satisfaction and playfulness in the moment. Without reason, planning and technology, we risk getting outgunned and taken over by other nations or cultures. We have done much of this taking over ourselves, and we tout our muscularity and superiority. But then we wonder about meaning and purpose, spirituality and values, and whether we have our eye on the proper ball. One could make a case that our technology quotient far outstrips our spiritual quotient, and that this discrepancy fuels much of our modern malaise.
Spirituality involves a celebration of our consciousness, gratitude for the gift of life, and immersion in our connectedness to the “All.” We all need to belong, to attach, to connect to something beyond and larger than ourselves, something “trans” personal. We can connect to a lover romantically, to friends socially, and to broader tangible entities such as humanity, the environment, or the universe. We can also connect to invisible spirits, such as God or the souls of deceased loved ones. But we must connect somehow, lest we feel alienated from our surroundings, lonely, isolated, and adrift. We can become so preoccupied with the self and our hedonistic pursuits, as well as our day-to-day mundane tasks, that we lose sight of our core spiritual needs. How can we re-center ourselves spiritually? From one angle, we can pursue various spiritual emotions, such as gratitude, humility, love, existential joy, and awe. Why is there something, rather than a void of pure nothingness? Yes, we can marvel at how things are, but we can also access existential joy and awe, celebrating that things are, that we are, and that we have the gift of consciousness to appreciate the All of existence. Searching for a label to describe his secular spirituality, Zuckerman (2014) ultimately designated himself an “aweist.” Spirituality requires transcendence of the boundaries of self, attachment to something beyond and larger than oneself, and humility regarding the small status of oneself amidst the All. Environmental spirituality, or eco-spirituality, requires these same virtues vis-à-vis nature, and an awestruck attachment to the universe, to the whole of nature.
Einstein (1930), maintained, “The most beautiful emotion we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed” (p. 194). While awe can be inspired by various sources, including human creations, such as moving works of art and music, awe is more robust when inspired by nature, the focus of environmental spirituality. Eco-awe is connected to humility and gratitude, to our willingness to feel dwarfed by nature, and grateful for our short gift of life living within it: within, not over. We typically stand in awe of our superiors, not our subordinates or victims. Yes we are bright and clever, and we have figured out how to control some facets of nature, for better and for worse, but are we really all that superior and powerful? A stray asteroid, a fourth down toss of the nuclear football, or another few decades of ozone depletion could reduce mankind to an instructive footnote on the ash heap of history. A little (actually a lot) more humility would contribute to both our spirituality and our survival. It behooves us to temper our anthropocentrism (our tendency to see ourselves as the most important and superior component of nature, and perhaps indestructible given our supposed creation by a protective God), and to stand in awe of the power as well as the wonder of nature.
In contrast to many indigenous peoples, we “civilized” folks are far more divorced from nature, and thereby spiritually malnourished. How has this come to pass? With the growth of civilization and culture, we are more prone to live amidst concrete than nature. We have learned to farm and domesticate, and we now delegate our food production to conglomerates, safely distancing ourselves from the emotional impact of the kill, the harshest reality of nature. Thus, hunting can be a spiritual endeavor, reconnecting us to our primal and competitive interaction with nature. Sometimes it helps to return to our early primal powers, as children. A childlike state of mind is more awestruck, curious, and filled with wonder than the adult mind, more present, less trapped in the future, more connected with the world in the moment. Eco-heroine Rachel Carson (1965) lamented, “A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood” (p. 44). By necessity, we desensitize to familiar elements of our surroundings as we age, attending to the novel, the threatening, and the more demanding elements of our environments. We build habits to improve our coping, behavioral habits, but also habits in our perception, so we aren’t distracted by the commonplace, and don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day. Habits are helpful overall, but carry a hidden cost: decreased fascination with our surroundings. Thus, it helps to periodically stand back, and recapture our ability to be amazed with the myriad wonders around us. Thus, Carson suggested an antidote to desensitization: “One way to open your eyes is to ask yourself, ‘What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?’” (p. 59). We are more appreciative of the uniqueness of the world when it is novel to us.
Stargazing is another avenue to eco-awe. Lying on our backs at night, gazing into the immensity of the universe, we surrender to the puzzle of infinity in time and space. Our egos become lost in space. Earlier, just before nightfall, what do you experience? The sun sets. It descends from the sky and drops below the horizon, right? Now try a different, more accurate mode of perception that grounds you in the three-dimensional space of the universe. Feel the spin of the Earth as it, and you, rotate away from the sun. Feel the massive distance, the 93,000,000 miles between you and the atomic furnace that somehow, incredibly, warms us from this massive distance. Immerse yourself in this awesome reality, and feel yourself on this Earth, rotating, while circling this single star, moving in tandem with it through the Milky Way galaxy. Feel the immense space of the universe, and the presence of billions of stars comprising countless galaxies, as the billions of neurons in your brain allow you to perceive and appreciate the vastness of the universe. Take time to examine the veins of a leaf, to appreciate the complexity of the human body, and the other myriad wonders of our existence. Put time aside to celebrate your connection with nature, and the gifts of life and consciousness. The trials of daily life must be attended to, but are often dwarfed by higher wonders, if we take time for existential awe and joy. Carry out your plans and objectives, but stay present in the here, in the now, in the presence of your gift, and your connection with the All. Your state of consciousness is an ongoing, ever-present choice.
Carson, Rachel. (1965). The sense of wonder. New York, NY: Harper and Row.
Einstein, Albert. (1930, October). What I believe. Living philosophies XIII. The Forum, LXXXIV, 193-194.
Zuckerman, Phil. (2014). Living the secular life: New answers to old questions. New York, NY: Penguin.
Am I Crazy?
This is a loaded question if there ever was one. It is the provocative version of the question, “What is normal?” No one wants to be “crazy,” and most of us would prefer to be considered normal. On the other hand, most people want to be “unique,” not a cookie-cutter clone of some middle-gray cardboard portrait of normalcy. We all want to be competent, yet special and one of a kind, capable of managing our thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and relationships, but not so common or standardized that we are boring and b-flat. But how do we determine what is psychologically normal? What is mental health? We can approach these questions from a variety of angles, some of which are quite subjective, involving obvious or subtle value judgments.
For starters, we can distinguish between statistical normal and healthy normal. Statistical normalcy requires a mathematical comparison between you and the masses. Healthy normalcy requires a judgment based on some criterion of mental health/illness, but how do we decide on these criteria? Statistically, do you do what other people do? If most Nazi soldiers followed orders and marched the Jews to the gas chambers, did that make it normal? What percentage of people are depressed? What about depression after the death of one of your parents? Is it normal then? How depressed? How commonly do people hear voices? Voices telling them to kill others, the voice of their recently deceased mother saying she's okay, or the soothing voice of God answering a prayer? Do most people have panic attacks? How about anxiety in a dark parking lot late at night? How about such anxiety in the aftermath of a parking lot assault last week? Is this statistically common? Is it healthy? As you can see, discussions of normalcy can quickly degenerate into controversy, whether we are comparing people statistically with each other, or deciding what is healthy. In a roughly sketched cultural portrait, we tend to share a notion as to what is psychologically healthy. However, both the statistical and the psychologically healthy criteria for normalcy can be criticized as being somewhat dependent upon subjective values, cultural and religious norms, and a relatively ordinary, nontraumatic set of childhood and adult experiences. Statistical comparisons simply tell us what is common, but we must decide what is psychologically healthy.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM, current version DSM 5) of the American Psychiatric Association (2013) is the professional standard for classification of mental illnesses, and is used by clinicians, insurance companies, and researchers. By this standard, you are mentally ill if you have any of the disorders listed in this compendium of psychopathology. From this perspective, your odds of being crazy are increasing, as the number of mental disorders in DSM increased from 106 to 297 between 1952 and 1994, raising the dark specter that our great grandchildren will all be crazy! That march toward madness was dialed back in DSM 5, but the previous steady increase in diagnoses says more about our perspective on mental illness than it does about the true statistical frequency of psychopathology. Critics have insisted that our concepts of psychological normalcy and abnormality, and our diagnostic labels, are less facts about people than social fabrications, with DSM being more a social than a scientific document. From this angle, mental illnesses are not discovered, but invented. They are social artifacts that serve the value system of those in power, designed to maintain the social order. Back in 1961, in The Myth of Mental Illness, Thomas Szasz shook up the psychiatric world with scathing criticism of such psychiatric bias, and controlling psychiatric interventions (e.g., involuntary hospitalization, lobotomies) based on such diagnostic inventions. Comparing modern day psychiatry to the Inquisition, he provocatively asserted, “In the past, men created witches: now they create mental patients.”
The most glaring example of a socially-biased mental “disorder” is homosexuality, which was deemed a psychiatric disorder by DSM in 1952, but then depathologized in 1973. In the same sexual vein, we might note Szasz’s criticism of psychiatry for its campaign against masturbation during the late 19th century, after centuries of religious condemnation of this common sexual behavior. But there are many examples outside of the sexual arena as well. Take antisocial personality disorder as another example. Many of the DSM 5 characteristics of APD, reflecting “a pervasive disregard for and violation of the rights of others,” particularly criterion #A1, “failure to conform to societal norms with respect to lawful behaviors …” are based on social values. But the antisocial individual may view these same behaviors as clever and effective strategies that provide a competitive advantage in the social jungle. APD is clearly a social construct, reflecting prevailing social values, norms, and rules, rather than a mere set of facts about individuals. It has social utility, but should not be seen as a solely internal condition, existing independently of its social context and prevailing social values. Furthermore, descriptions of behavior can be elevated, via circular reasoning, into causes for that behavior. Thus, “antisocial” describes antagonistic, exploitive, or selfish social behavior, but then a diagnosis of APD is used to explain the cause of that behavior.
Similar issues involving the psychiatric imposition of societal values arise for conditions such as schizoid personality disorder. If you have no interest in people, but are not bothered by this, are you abnormal? Yes, most people who consistently go against or away from other people are more distressed than people who successfully go toward and attach to other people. But not all of them. Some people are comfortable in the jungle or in their cave. To be fair, DSM does require “clinically significant distress” for most diagnoses. If you yourself are disturbed by a certain set of your thoughts, feelings, or behaviors, we are clearly on more solid ground when talking about a mental illness. But then again, some of us are so far into denial that the man in the moon knows we’re sick more than the man in the mirror. So are there any rough guidelines or criteria for mental health/illness that we can fairly apply?
One criterion for mental illness is loss of control. If I have lost control of my perceptual apparatus and hear voices or see people that no one else hears or sees, I am likely to be diagnosed as psychotic, which is large “C” crazy. Likewise, if my beliefs are out of control and I spout delusions (e.g., the rabid dogs that I hallucinate were sent by the CIA because my brilliance is a threat to national security), we can talk of a psychotic loss of control. And if my behavior is out of control, not just in your opinion, but in my own opinion, and I’m upset about it (e.g., I start fistfights during arguments, or get so drunk that I drive dangerously), we can diagnose a mental illness - crazy with a small “c” (out of control but not psychotic). So loss of control over perceptions, beliefs, and behavior, or even memory (dementia), or any function of the mind, is one yardstick for mental illness.
Emotions are another such element of the mind that requires control. Thus, one angle on what is psychologically healthy or normal is whether you experience primarily positive or negative emotions (the clinically significant distress noted above). Do you frequently experience sadness, guilt, anxiety, frustration, anger, etc., without much pleasure, joy, love, gratitude, etc.? This criterion of mental health is commonly applied, simply because feeling good, and not bad, at least most of the time, is important to all of us and drives much of our behavior. And it is not only the degree of positive versus negative emotion that is at issue here, but also our control over those emotions. Uncontrolled crying, severe panic attacks, and unbridled anger are problematic for most people who experience them. But if I am overwhelmed with grief and unrelenting tears when my beloved spouse suddenly dies, am I temporarily mentally ill, or crazy? What if I am emotionally numbed in the same tragic circumstance, and experience no negative emotions at all? Does this make me more normal or healthy? The context always matters.
A rather different, integrative view on normalcy is the notion that mental health involves combinations of opposites, and requires the ability to shift up and down any given dimension to find the behavior that is most adaptive to your situation. If we look at self-esteem as an initial example, healthy self-esteem involves a combination of opposites, specifically, valuing oneself coupled with humility. We are each unique and special, yet mere specks of dust in the vast universe. Without humility, we become narcissistic and self-aggrandizing, though if we cannot value ourselves, our low self-esteem may form the bedrock of a persistent depressive state. To be healthy, we need simultaneous complementary talents, in this case, self-esteem tempered by humility. Most of us have well developed skills on one end of any given dimension, but how are your skills on the opposite end of that dimension?
From yet another angle, normalcy may involve connectedness. Human beings are a very dependent species. We raise our young until age 18 or later, which is rare in the animal world. We are quite dependent upon our connections with others. Thus, our degree of romantic, social, and family connectedness, or our degree of satisfaction with such relationships, could be one criterion of mental health or normalcy. Spiritual connectedness, feeling connected with God, or a more secular connection with the universe as a whole, is important to most of us as well. Without it, we feel lacking. And then there is internal connectedness. Self-esteem is a crucial building block of personality. Liking oneself, i.e., being connected to oneself in a positive way, is essential to happiness. Thus, our ability to be positively connected both internally, to ourselves, and externally (romantically, socially and spiritually), might be considered an important criterion of psychological health. But who gets to decide? If I’m a schizoid hermit or an antisocial hellion, and I’m okay with that, despite a lack of spirituality or close relationships, am I abnormal?
Just feeling crazy can make you crazier. Crazy carries a stigma. Mental illness and sexual difficulties, that is, insanity and impotence, give rise to far more shame than most other problems. A broken mind, a limp penis, or a missing breast is far more disturbing than a broken arm or a gallbladder stone. Such shame can be poisonous to our self-esteem and identity, which each need to be solid for good mental health.
As a psychologist conducting psychotherapy, the context and origins of your negative feelings, behavior, and relationships is very important to me. Many clients feel “crazy” in the street sense of the term, and indeed, they are quite abnormal, both statistically, and in terms of most criteria of mental health, if you compare them to the general population. But if you compare such clients to other people who have been through a similar degree of trauma (e.g., growing up with alcoholic, violent, or sexually abusive parents), their level of emotional distress, relationship difficulties, and behavioral disturbance suddenly looks quite “normal,” at least statistically. An early part of recovery involves acceptance that such difficulties are “normal” consequences of such an abnormal or unfortunate past, thereby improving self-esteem by depathologizing behavior. By accepting such behaviors as normal consequences of abnormal environments, while working on altering these same behaviors, we become more normal. Our past trauma hopefully becomes something that happened to us, rather than something that defines us. Additionally, we need to support and nurture our core identity, even if we reject some of our behaviors.
Finally, there is the well-known lay definition of craziness, that is, repeatedly engaging in the same behavior despite the same old negative consequences. Or, perhaps you’d prefer to simply apply U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s threshold for obscenity (“I know it when I see it”) to mental illness. For practical purposes, most of us do have an internal sense of psychological health. But all of this is subjective, and what makes me feel crazy may be entirely different from your craziness. Thus, we might hesitate before we judge others as crazy. The stigma of mental illness itself is crazy-making, and can be counteracted by compassionate tolerance. Ultimately, we are remarkably fragile as human beings, and could benefit from more support and understanding from each other when we are troubled. If you haven’t personally experienced such fragility, you might take a moment to count your blessings.