Pillars of Mental Health: Morality

Continuing with the series I started a couple of days ago; another aspect of mental health that I believe to be very important is the topic of morality. Now, morality gets almost no mention whatsoever in psychology textbooks and again I’m highly suspicious of this. The suggestion here is that morality is somehow outside the purview of psychology, however, I would argue that morality, or its lack, is actually at the heart of a lot of what we call mental illness. Consider how many times you hear about criminals pleading insanity in court to justify their crimes. Psychologists are often brought in as expert witnesses to give weight to such claims. Yet, why the lack of mainstream academic discussion among psychologists about morality and it’s relationship to mental health?

The first issue is of course defining what morality is. In the simplest sense, morality is about doing the right thing based on a set of rules. There are two major competing schools of thought about what rules count as moral: one that is very popular in academic writing and trendy social circles, and the other which is considered by many to be old fashioned, out of date, and ridiculous. The popular definition is that morality is socially defined, it is a set of rules that have no objective basis to them, they are just adhered to by people because of traditional and political authority. This is subjective morality, while the supposedly out dated version of morality is called objective morality and the argument here is that morals are not mere popular whims, but come from reason and are universal.
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Three Types of Narcissists

When it comes to the topic of narcissism, you might be surprised to learn that psychologists still hotly debate what narcissism actually is. Some say they have very high self-esteem, others that they have very low self-esteem. Others that they are self-aware and clever, others that they’re cognitively deficient and barely aware of themselves as active participants in their lives at all. Object relations theory suggests something is fundamentally wrong in their perception of objects both internal and external. Some say they don’t have any empathy, others that they have empathy, but they just don’t care. More importantly for a therapist; some say they can be treated successfully, but others that they are completely beyond rehabilitation. Then there are countless others who take up various positions between those ranges, and some additional views that I haven’t even mentioned. The only things that psychologists seem to agree on regarding narcissism is that they’re very difficult people to get along with; they tend to avoid therapy, they’re very easily offended, they are horrible parents, they’re almost never happy, and they’re controlling and destructive.

So when I talk about narcissism it is important that I am clear about what I am talking about, but also I often think with all the debate and disagreement among experts in the field maybe I should use a new term altogether in referring to them. I tend to use the term “tyranni” to refer to narcissists because for me the most distinctive aspect about a narcissist is not their supposed “self-love”, which is hotly debated, but their pervasive desire to dominate and subvert all their relationships: to act as little tyrants so to speak, hence I call them tyranni meaning “the little tyrants”. For this article I will use the term narcissism, but rest assured if I ever write a book about them I will probably call them tyranni instead.
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The Psychology in Mythology: Apollo and Daphne

On a whim last week I picked up a copy of (Thomas) Bulfinch’s Mythology from Costco. Purely for the inspiration it might give me for my writing. However, after reading out a story to a friend it occurred to me it might be amusing to share my analysis of the characters from a therapist’s perspective. This is at the risk of coming across as one of those people who can never detach themselves from their work and just relax! Anyway, because this post relates to both my writing and the therapy work I have decided to post to both of my sites.

My professional website: philosophicaltherapist.com

My writing blog: sophisticatednonsense.blog.

Apollo and Daphne

The first line of a story is important. It sets the entire scene. In fact, the first line of a story should be the last line the author writes in my opinion. The first line of this fable tells us this: “Daphne was Apollo’s first love.” Here we have the word ‘love’ used and it is important to keep in mind that ‘love’ is a weasel word. It can mean almost anything to anyone. It might mean, “like” in the context of “I love ice cream”, it might mean sexual lust, “I love that babe in the swimsuit over there,” and it might mean a willingness to self-sacrifice, “the soldiers died for the love of their nation.” In fact love can mean just about anything a person wants it to mean: “if you loved me you would say ‘yes’ to me” versus “it’s because I love you that I say ‘no’ to you.” What does it mean that Daphne was Apollo’s first love? The reader should keep this question in mind all the way through this fable. Continue reading

Why do we have feelings?

david-detailGrowing up I used to watch Star Trek.  Both the original 1960s series and the 1980s Next Generation series feature main characters who supposedly have no emotions: Mr Spock and Mr Data.  Spock considers emotions to be a weakness and actively suppresses them so as to be more logical; meanwhile Data has an apparent desire to fulfil his creator’s wish to build an android that is as human-like as possible, so Data seeks to have emotions.  While as entertaining as these characters are, the series never actually explored emotions, what they are, why we have them, and what their meaning is in any depth.  Rather, one gets the impression at times that the sole purpose of emotions, as far as the creators of Star Trek are concerned, is for personal amusement; they make life interesting but we don’t really need them.  However, emotions are far more important than just mere novel reactions of our nervous systems to particular stimuli; they are what makes life alive beyond the organic/material level.  Consider that each individual cell in your body is a living organism in its own right, additionally, the collective activity of the billions of cells that make up your entirely body is a secondary level of life, and finally the thoughts and feelings that make up what we call, for lack of a better term, “our mind” is a third tier of life built on top of the previous two tiers.  But why do we have feelings at all? Continue reading

Three Things Therapists Do

woman-thinkingThere is a funny meme that one can look up by going to Google Image Search and typing in “what people think therapists do”.  I can tell you that I do relate to a lot of these.  The “what people think” meme is one of my favourites because it concerns my one of my favourite subjects: empathy.  Agree or disagree with what some people put in these memes it nonetheless challenges one to think about how differently people see the same thing.  I have worked as a therapist/mentor/behaviourist for several years now and I’ve picked up that few people understand what a therapist does and why these things are important.  This list of three functions of a therapist is what I consider to be the most important things that I do as a therapist.  Keep in mind that other therapists would possibly disagree and that maybe their approach suits their clients.  This list is ordered by the importance I place on them; here are the three things I believe therapists should do:

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Hope for Agoraphobics

living-in-fearMood dependent behaviour refers to the state of mind when a person can only take action if they feel capable of it, even though they are otherwise completely capable of acting. It might be putting off doing an assignment, it might be procrastinating about preparing a healthy meal, it might be as simple as waiting until the house is empty before emerging from one’s room. It can be hard for a person to understand this if they have never felt so small and miserable before to find such ordinary daily activities so overwhelming. Ridicule or condescension are common reactions when opening up to someone about facing such struggles. Failing to find a compassionate ear results in an unwillingness to attempt to open up again in the future, adding an extra layer of loneliness and despair to the experience. When one is this powerfully affected by one’s mood, it can feel preferable to hide alone or to starve rather than to ever face the terrifying world that lies beyond the front door. Continue reading

The Philosophical Case Against Anti-Depressants

Anti-depressantsWhile one often comes across articulate and well-argued articles criticising anti-depressants from a medical or efficacy point of view, one seldom comes across the philosophical argument against anti-depressants. It was, in fact, the philosophical case against anti-depressants that convinced me as a teenager that I would never, ever take them for myself, a decision that has been beneficial to me ever since.

I am against their usage both on medical grounds and on philosophical grounds, but I accept that anti-depressants are likely here to stay. Indeed, I would argue we have always had anti-depressants, for what else should we call caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, and opium but traditional remedies for our emotional ailments? People who are feeling low in motivation often indulge in coffee for the caffeine hit. People who lack courage often indulge in alcohol to shore up their nerves. People who are miserable will often indulge in excessive amounts of sugar to give themselves a rush. Everywhere, we have people self-medicating on different substances in attempts to battle their moods and unwanted feelings.   Anti-depressants are not anything new, they’ve been with us all along.

In this piece, I am going to ignore all the medical and efficacy arguments, not because I do not think these discussions are not important, but because I believe the philosophical argument is the strongest of the three. For the sake of argument, I will assume that anti-depressants actually work precisely as intended: that they alleviate sadness, depression, grief, and malaise effectively and without significant side effects. I make this assumption not just for the sake of simplicity, but to better illustrate why we should be wary of them. I believe the better anti-depressants work, the stronger the philosophical case against them. Continue reading

The Good in Feeling Bad

The good in bad feelingsOne of the most misleading and confusing distinctions people often make with emotions is to divide them into two groups: good feelings and bad feelings. Good feelings might include joy, pride, curiosity, warmth, confidence, concern, or trust and bad feelings might include anger, fear, jealousy, guilt, despair, grief, or hate.  While certainly there is wisdom in distinguishing between the pleasant emotions and the unpleasant emotions, calling the unpleasant emotions “bad” is quite incorrect. All of our emotions, and the combinations of emotions that we can experience, have some survival benefit. This point is important: if any of our emotions were hazardous to our survival, then they would not be passed onto future generations.

The fact that so called bad or negative emotions such as pain, fear, grief, sadness, and guilt exist indicates that they are very important for facilitating human survival.  There is a rare genetic disease where a person is born without the ability to feel any physical pain.  The life expectancy of these people is typically only about 20 years.  They often die from serious burns that become gangrenous, and because they don’t feel any pain, they do not realise they have even burned themselves until it is too late for treatment to save them.  Here it becomes clear that having a painless life will in fact also be a short life.  Likewise, a person who never feels guilt will quickly find themselves locked away in prison or hated and scorned by the community, while those who do not feel fear will end up a delicious meal for a bear or in a serious accident because they did not take proper precautions.  There are clear survival benefits for having pain, fear, and guilt.  However, for the emotions of sadness and grief, the link between these emotions and increased chances of survival is a bit more complicated to understand. Continue reading

Why Honesty Matters

thomas-jefferson-quote-honesty-wisdomWhen asked what the most important component of mental health is my first three answers are honesty, honesty, and honesty. More specifically, I am talking about self-honesty, honesty about other people, and honesty to other people. However, the biggest challenge in any relationship is to be completely honest with another person. The feeling of “walking on eggshells” around someone close to you is so common that it’s hard to find anyone who does not relate to being too scared to be open and honest with someone close to them. Why is honesty such a big deal? Why is honesty so hard? How can honesty improve one’s life? How can honesty improve one’s relationships?

In Isaac Asimov’s 1950 book, I, Robot, a manufacturing mistake created a telepathic robot. Because Robots were strictly illegal on Earth, the company was concerned for the public’s reaction if it ever got out that robots could now read minds, so they hushed it up and allowed only a handful of specialists to examine the robot to figure out what had gone wrong in its manufacture to create a mind-reading robot.

Three researchers interviewed the robot, which they named Herbie. One found it to be a mathematical genius, the other a mathematical imbecile, and a third, a female psychologist was informed by Herbie that a man she had a crush on secretly admired her. The psychologist was jubilant to be told by the robot that it had read the mind of the man she liked and all her romantic fantasies were true: He wanted her, he admired her, he was single, and wanted to start a romance with her.   Later, the psychologist was devastated and humiliated to discover that this man did not actually think any of these things. The telepathic robot had lied to her about everything.

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The Lost Cause of Depression

I know someone, a man who is deeply unhappy. He is miserable and, judging from how well he takes care of his body, he is someone who does not care if he ruins his health and dies early. He has suffered from depression for years and often talks about how he will overcome it. However, I have not seen any real effort on his part to overcome his depression. Despite his stated intentions to get better, I cannot help but wonder if maybe there is something important that he is getting from depression, something so valuable that he does not want to take the risk of losing it? What benefit of depression is he getting? What incentive does he have in fervently avoiding anything that would help improve his condition?

In many cases, depression is a result of fighting a battle that cannot be won. Trying to get meaning out of a meaningless job, trying to appease an abuser, trying to change a person into someone else—these are common examples of unwinnable battles people fight for years that drive them into depression or “learned helplessness”. In essence, the problem with these cases of depression is not that the person has given up, but that they have not given up. If they gave up on their impossible task, they could focus their energy on something far more productive and likely to fulfil them. Continue reading