On Having the Courage to be Big

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We are too much for ourselves in our hunger and our desires, in our grief and our commitments and in our loves and our hates, because we are unable to include so much of what we feel in the picture we have of ourselves. Adam Phillips

In his essay Against Self-Criticism for The London Review of Books, psychotherapist Adam Phillips references controversial French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, saying Christ’s injunction to love thy neighbour as thyself is ironic, because if we loved our neighbours in the way we loved ourselves, it would be with a “good deal of cruelty and disdain”.  People hate themselves says Phillips and writing in this week’s The Guardian, George Monbiot  says they are also lonelier than ever before.

Monbiot states loneliness is strongly associated with depression, suicide, anxiety, insomnia, fear and the perception of threat.  Physical illnesses, such as dementia, high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes, lowered resistance to viruses, even accidents, are more common in the chronically lonely.  Loneliness enhances production of the stress hormone cortisol, which suppresses the immune system. It therefore has a comparable impact on physical health to smoking 15 cigarettes a day: it appears to raise the risk of early death by 26%.

Both Monbiot and Belgian psychologist Paul Verhaeghe point the finger at social change, specifically neoliberalism, an ideology that sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations.  In What About Me: The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society, Verhaeghe draws on his clinical experience as a psychotherapist to show the profound impact social change has had on our identities.

As far back as the fifth century BC, the Greek philosopher Empedocles view of the world was that two cosmic forces work upon the four elements – earth, air, fire and water – in both creative and destructive ways. Love is the force of attraction and combination, whilst strife is the force of repulsion and separation.  Freud too purported that two forces work upon us: the primal urge of Eros, the life instinct which seeks to dissolve in love and Thanatos the death drive which aggressively seeks separation.

Verhaeghe argues that the urge for autonomy is now a necessary characteristic – we must “stand on our own two feet” and “make something of ourselves”. Dependence is spineless.  In exploring the origins of  “the perfectible individual” he shares how the expression “survival of the fittest” has been incorrectly attributed to Darwin, but was in fact coined by Herbert Spencer, a contemporary of Darwin’s. Whilst Darwin used the term “fittest” to mean “best adapted to an environment”, for Spencer “fittest” meant “most successful” – that is the “strongest”.

Few of us need a Belgian psychologist to tell us what the perfectible individual means – we share our success through status updates; the picture presented is through the perfecting effect of the Instagram filter.  The demand society places upon us to perfect ourselves requires that we isolate the bits of our self we find disdainful, unattractive or not fitting in with our view of what success is, who we are and what’s normal.  The perfectible individual is a lonely individual.

The self can be described as a person’s most authentic identity, the most elementary and distinct part of our being – our core.  Sometimes its called the “ego”, but it’s the bit of us, that  permanent element that experiences the flow of thoughts, feelings and sensations. For some the self is a conscious experience, for others it may be latent until some super-conscious experience stimulates awareness of it.  Italian Psychiatrist, Roberto Assagioli defines the super-conscious as “our higher potentialities which seek to express themselves, but which we often repel and repress”

Assagioli, a representative of Freud’s in Italy at the beginning of the 20th century, noticed that a great deal of psychological pain, imbalance, and meaninglessness are felt when our diverse inner elements exist unconnected or clash with one another. But he also observed that when they merge into successively greater wholes, we experience a release of energy, a sense of wellbeing, and a greater depth of meaning in our lives.

Dissatisfied with psychoanalysis, Assagioli developed his own system – psychosynthesis, which seeks to evoke wholeness through “synthesising” or integrating the separated elements of our personality.  What We May Be  by philosopher and psychotherapist Piero Ferrucci, a student and collaborator of Assagioli’s, is a beautiful introduction to psychosynthesis.  Ferrucci’s easy-to-follow exercises, techniques and meditations are practical and ground psychosynthesis in a way that makes it accessible in a way other guides to spiritual development are often not.

The daughter of a mathematician-father and an artistic mother diagnosed with schizophrenia, I know well what it means to exclude what we feel in the picture we have of ourselves.  Over-identifying with my father’s logic-based intelligence led to a career in finance and deriving my authority from a spreadsheet.  Fearing the woman I might become led to a friend describing me as “way too alpha”.   I felt disconnected from myself and, having kept my mother’s illness a secret, totally alone.

Back then I had not heard of psychosynthesis, but how to integrate the feminine, when my version included delusions, psychotic episodes, suicide attempts and being sectioned under the metal health act?

In his book Better Than Normal: How What Makes You Different Makes You Exceptional, psychiatrist Dr Dale Archer considers the 157 disorders listed in the American Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM, 5th edition) and reduces them to eight traits of human behaviour, offering an empowering framework for redefining what constitutes mental health.

Archer suggests we all fall on a scale of the eight traits of adventurous (ADHD); perfectionist (OCD); shy (social anxiety disorder); hyper-alert (generalised anxiety disorder); dramatic (histrionic); self-focused (narcissistic); high energy (bipolar) and magical (schizophrenia).  Trying to conform to what’s termed “normal” by denying our traits or trying to medicate them out of existence, will Archer argues, result in you losing what makes you who you are, your uniqueness and the foundation of your own personal greatness.

Reframing disorders in this way provided a way for me to think “out of the box”.  Who wants to be in the box called normal anyway? That box, argues Archer is too small – it is certainly too small for the exceptional individuals I regards as role models. Terrified that I would end up a medicated, I worked on building up my courage muscles instead.

3 years after my mother’s death I’m still learning how to “be”.  I am thankful for the moderating effect that my father-inherited IQ provides, but have been working hard on integrating the “gifts” (see the reframing I did there?!) from my mother – namely the positive aspects of magical thinking such as imagination, intuition and faith in something greater than myself.

Consistently feeling comfortable in the skin of this me is not always easy. New situations, especially ones that I sense as having great possibility, can leave me feeling scattered, as my imagination takes flight. Joining new social groups, communities or teams is hard as I can feel hyper-connected to people very quickly.  Explaining the decisions and choices I’ve made to those that feel no connection to something greater than themselves, can leave me feeling they’re concluding I’m utterly irresponsible. I love strongly.  I can end up feeling that I am simply too much.

And yet, I know how it feels to be the small version of myself.  I can’t go back to the “either / or” me – “I am large, I contain multitudes”* I do contradict myself and so embrace the paradoxical nature of human existence.  The paradox of this era, said sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, is that we have never been so free and yet we have never felt so powerless. We have never been so connected, and yet we have never felt so lonely.  We might look outwards to ideology, to the government, to this selfish capitalist society, to reclaim our power and our hard-wired need for connection. Vive la revolution.  Or we might have the courage to look inward and connect.  Paradoxically, the antidote to loneliness is being comfortable alone, with ourselves.

Psychologist Rollo May said in our society, the opposite of courage, is not cowardice, its conformity. Stay small and conform to normality or be big and be exceptional. Our choice.

*Walt Whitman
Double Flourish Grey



Also published on Medium.

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