“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.”
Marcus Aurelius’ Stoic response to adversity places responsibility for mental distress within the person, who chooses his fate by choosing his response to his circumstances. Whilst this is true in principle, one must consider the limits to which this can be reasonably applied to everyday life. The decline of western culture and its impacts upon our mental health, for example, is part of a social phenomenon that is heavily shaped by forces beyond the immediate control of the individual. Most of the power lies in the hands of the wealthy, the corporations and their alliances to government and the legal and civic instruments used to preserve this power, with a thin illusion of democratic control held by each citizen. The overwhelming majority support and compliance of the masses to such a system renders the individual citizen’s capacity to influence the social landscape profoundly limited. The resulting oligarchic structure of society is fraught with social injustices that conscientious citizens tolerate or suffer, often to their detriment.
From Emperor Aurelius’ position of wealth and material comfort, it is hardly surprising that his proposal of a change of mind as a solution to suffering doesn’t quite sit straight for someone struggling to overcome the effects of child abuse whilst living on a council estate on State benefits. Whilst a change of thinking can help, it’s of little use on its own in such circumstances, and as a sole solution is an indulgence often peddled from an ivory tower. It would be difficult for any of us to genuinely reframe our suffering cognitively whilst feeling the weight of someone’s boot on our neck, for example.
Those with a broader and deeper understanding of society would agree that the injustices afflicting the common person within a social milieu favouring the wealthy and those in authority willing to do violence to citizens who refuse to yield to control, are unneccessary in a world of abundance. The resulting hardship, daily stresses and dysfunctional social norms this situation forces upon citizens contributes to the very conditions that create mental and emotional disturbance and distress for increasing numbers of the global population. This disturbance being routinely managed for many by pharmaceutical drugs, alcohol, illegal substances, the escapism of entertainment, and the psychological self-manipulations required to adjust our minds to the unnatural.
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 can spend years 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 our attempts to find acceptance within the ambiguous socio-political enviroment of our ‘civilised’ society, that without common standards of conduct, our levels of cooperation would soon descend 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 to be ‘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 not be acceptable 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 overwhelmed as if at risk of losing our very sanity.
Psychotherapy and Authenticity
Psychotherapy – when grounded in the principle of personal authenticity (there are many that are not) – is the formation of an honest, open relationship that allows conscientious, motivated 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 an honest, candid relationship. Depending on the psychotherapist, his or her therapeutic orientation, experience and the skills he or she has developed, it is possible to reveal everything that you normally keep hidden away, without fear of rejection or attracting a label of being mad, insane or dangerous. Looking at what you normally keep to yourself can sometimes be enough to bring relief, clarity and understanding: a bit like writing out a maths problem versus trying to solve it in your head. Sometimes it requires more exploration and effort to regain a sense of power. In any event, the process allows you the opportunity to examine what is troubling you and to find new ways of being in this world.
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 within or upon us. 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. For often stress is the result of our suppression of our own power rather than allowing our power to flow in the service of meeting our needs and protecting our interests.
Out There, Not In Here
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 ‘cognitions’ or brain chemistry. Laing was pointing to the causes of much mental and emotional disturbance as lying out there in the world: in the normalised 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 as we disempower ourselves or assume the role of victim. 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 – perhaps increasingly often – it is the world we are trying to live in that is insane and that has to be changed. This too is something that you as an empowered individual may be required to do for your own sanity.
Adjusting to Injustice versus Validating the Truth
Many therapies are criticised because they effectively help the disturbed or upset individual simply re-adjust to the insanity or dysfunction of our world by ‘normalising’ it. This re-adjustment can sometimes imply that the dysfunction lies in the individual rather than the context in which the individual is attempting to live. Many of us are attempting to adjust to circumstances, people, memories and relationships that are far from acceptable or good for us. Seeing a psychotherapist who will help you recognise, understand, honour and validate your experience in a way that helps you recognise the veracity of your response to adverse circumstances is as important as learning new skills to help you better defend yourself against ‘the madness out there’.
Dodgy Brain Chemistry? Or Dodgy Society?
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; allegedly peddled by the Pharmaceutical industry, keen to convince a desperate public of the efficacy of its drugs. And whilst medication can sometimes be a helpful, temporary 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 and they don’t change our external circumstances.
It’s ok to hate the Circus
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 can more closely resemble a circus rather than an orderly, sane environment. Our society, our media, our systems of education, finance, law, employment, social status, people’s behaviour, and other fundamental elements that make up our society, can all be powerful sources of distress, disturbance and concern for many of us because these institutions tend to be rooted in a socially dysfunctional, socially unjust paradigm. Sometimes challenging and changing those so-called ‘normal’ circumstances and removing ourselves from the influences of toxic people 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.
Finding Clarity and Confidence
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.
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Photo: Sophie Scholl, political activist during World War II