Renowned Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing once said “madness is a sane response to an insane world”. We live in a world that promotes ideas of normality and abnormality and many of us are busy trying to figure out which category we fall into, adjusting our words, thoughts and behaviours in accordance with accepted norms, lest we be seen as ‘weird’, or lose credibility in some way. This is, of course, all part and parcel of a ‘civilised’ society, and without common standards of conduct then our levels of cooperation would also soon delve into chaos.
Or, so it would appear….
In reality, in our efforts to ‘fit in’ many of us end up constricting ourselves within what we imagine is ‘normal’. ‘Normality’ in this form becomes the straightjacket we make for ourselves. We can end up stressed and sometimes tormented by experiences that are ‘inside’ us but which we suspect would be unacceptable to the ‘normal’ world. If this stress continues we can sometimes begin to feel off balance, even to the extent that we start to feel like we’re losing our sanity.
The first myth of psychotherapy we need to clear up is the idea that in order to see a psychotherapist there needs to be something wrong with you. Or that if you are seeing a psychotherapist then, by definition, you must be mentally ill. It’s not true of course. Psychotherapy – when done properly – is the formation of an honest, open relationship that allows conscientious people to examine their lives and explore new possibilities without fear of judgement. The stuff that we keep to ourselves; hidden from ‘the normal world’ can be looked at safely within the privacy and security of a good psychotherapeutic relationship. Depending on the psychotherapist, his or her therapeutic orientation, experience and the skills he or she has developed, it is possible to say and be absolutely everything that you normally keep hidden away, without fear of rejection or attracting a label of being mad, insane or dangerous. Looking at the stuff you normally keep to yourself can sometimes be enough to bring relief, clarity and understanding. In any event, it allows you the opportunity to examine what is troubling you and to find new ways of moving forward.
Sometimes many of us can feel like we’re losing our sanity, because we’ve been trying to cope with too much stress, fear, insecurity, abuse, sadness or other pressures for too long. But this is very different from actually being insane or at fault in some way. Often the sooner you can begin to let some of this pressure out, via a safe psychotherapy relationship, the sooner you can begin to feel in balance with yourself again.
*Above video is an excellent illustration of how the child’s behaviour can be a reflection of its environmental influences (versus the notion of the child being inherently wrong or defective)
Ronnie Laing’s position also turns on its head the notion that being disturbed within ourselves must be our own fault, or a fault of our make-up, or genes, or brain chemistry. Laing was pointing to the causes of much mental and emotional disturbance as lying out there in the world: in the conditions we grow up in, live in and work in. This is quite a different perspective to some psychological approaches that suggest that it is our thoughts and habits that are the problem. Yes, sometimes our thinking habits are a substantial cause of our unhappiness. But try telling that to someone who was sexually abused as a child, or harassed in the workplace, or who has suffered some other traumatic life events completely beyond their control and outside of anyone’s realm of normal or ‘positive’ thinking. Sometimes it is the world we are trying to live in that is insane.
Many therapies are criticised because they effectively help the disturbed or upset individual simply re-adjust to the insanity of our world by ‘normalising’ it. But many of us are attempting to adjust to circumstances, memories and relationships that are far from acceptable or good for us. Seeing a psychotherapist who will honour your experience in a way that helps you recognise the validity of your response to adverse circumstances is as important as learning new skills to help you better defend yourself against ‘the madness’.
Similarly, there are some who believe that most mental health problems are the result of brain chemical imbalances, and that correcting these imbalances by the use of pharmaceuticals is the best approach to addressing undesireable behaviours, thoughts or feelings. But the brain chemistry approach is based on theories derived from models of laboratory experiments done on animals, not living humans. And whilst medication can sometimes be a very helpful aid to recovering from mental disturbance with other supports in place, it isn’t often a cure for the problems in itself. Come off the meds and often you’re back where you started. Even whilst on psychotropic medications, some people find no greater contentment. Pharmaceuticals also tend not to supply any new meaning to our minds.
My approach to people’s difficulties in life considers brain chemistry theory and cognitive theory, but more importantly takes its starting point in Laing’s worldview: namely, that when examined closely, our world, our society, our media, our systems of education, finance, law, employment, social status, and other fundamental elements that make up our society, can be a powerful source of distress, disturbance and concern for many of us because these institutions are rooted in a socially dysfunctional paradigm. Sometimes challenging and changing those so-called ‘normal’ circumstances is the most sane thing we as individuals can do.
What is often referred to as ‘normality’ within society also varies considerably over time and from culture to culture, and our willingness to conform to what most other people are doing tends to determine whether we are viewed as being ‘normal’ or not. If we don’t fit in, don’t behave as expected, then for those happy to conform it’s an easy conclusion to draw that there must be something wrong with us. But often, there’s nothing wrong with us. We’re just having a hard time accepting or conforming to an unhealthy situation or set of circumstances into which we are attempting to squeeze ourselves or into which someone else is trying to squeeze us.
The dysfunctional workplace, family, school, college, or university, partnership, friendship: all of these are situations that any one of us can find difficult or disturbing when they involve our having to go against our better nature or conscience in order to be accepted. When this ‘going against myself’ phenomenon begins to adversely affect our health and mental health, then it’s time to question what is going on. It may be something you are doing. Or it may be something that other people are doing that is the cause of the problem. It’s easy to assume that because ‘everyone else is fine with it’ then the problem must be yours because you are outnumbered statistically. But unfortunately, the majority have been proven wrong time and time again in a variety of situations throughout human history.
If you find yourself blaming yourself, doubting yourself or punishing yourself in some way because you aren’t finding happiness or fulfilment in a situation or relationship, then examining your place within that situation with a psychotherapist who is willing to be honest, open and genuine with you can help you begin to identify who is responsible for what. Once clarified, your options, choices and possible ways forward become clearer. There is no need to suffer in silence; to force yourself into living your life a particular way just because it seems ‘normal’ or convenient to do so. There are, after all, plenty of things that are considered ‘normal’ in our current society and the wider world that are certainly not healthy, good or acceptable if we speak honestly and openly about them. Psychotherapy can provide a safe space within which you can begin to explore and question these situations, relationships and conventions and your place amongst them, without the risk of being rejected, mocked, labelled, medicated or punished for it.