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Good Mental Health Starts With Becoming Real

A man and his wife and small daughter go into a restaurant for dinner.   The waitress comes over and takes the orders of the husband and wife.  Immediately the five year old daughter pipes up and gives her own order:  “I will have a hot dog, french fries and a Coke.”  The dad immediately interjects: “Oh no you won’t.”  He turns to the waitress and says, “She will have the meat loaf, green beans and milk.”  Looking at the child and never changing her expression of the-ever-attentive waitress, the waitress says, “So, hon, what do you want on that hot dog?”   As an awkwardness descends on the table the little girl describes her desire for ketchup and mustard on her hot dog.  After the waitress leaves, the family is sitting in stunned silence.  The little girl turns toward her parents, eyes shining, and says, “She thinks I’m real.”

This story is told in the book Stories of the Spirit by Jack Kornfield and Christina Feldman. Good mental health means being real.   In this article I will try to explore what it means to become real.  We want to be seen as who we really are, but we wrestle with doubts about who we are – are we good enough?  Are we acceptable in our own eyes and the way in which we think others perceive us?

The problem of being real is a problem of adaptation.  We grow up using our wired-in adaptation responses to make us fit into this world.  First to fit into our family, then to fit into our peer group when we are young and then as law students and lawyers to fit into what we believe the culture around us demands.  What I mean by “fitting in” is not really an accurate description.  One can adapt by rebelling just as easily as one can adapt by conforming.  The behavior of adaptation creates different types of problems later in life, but the underlying issue is the same – we will, starting at a very young age, do almost anything to keep ourselves from feeling unworthy.

The challenge of becoming real is the problem of unlearning the adaptive defenses that we have acquired in life.  These depend on what your early childhood might have been like – perhaps you grew up in a very dysfunctional home with an alcoholic parent, where your adaptations may have been basic survival skills.  What becomes difficult later in life is leaving aside survival skills, when it is necessary to move beyond them to become a real person.  Giving up something that has saved your life, even though it is no longer helpful, can be extremely difficult to do.

Our observations of nature teach us that the process of growth and change is continuous.  At some point in our lives, we can begin to feel constrained by our adaptive responses and our urge to become real may present a demanding call.  In fact, it is not unusual for someone in mid-life to get into a funk or depression, because the psyche is pushing the person inward to take a closer look at what is preventing the individual from being him or herself.  Oftentimes, the initial feeling will be that there is something wrong with the law firm, or there is something wrong with my marriage, or, I would feel okay if I had just grown up in a different family.  All these things may have a certain element of truth, but the underlying reality is that the adaptive ways of dealing with these imperfect institutions and people have become barriers to the blossoming of the self.

When our psyche pushes us inward and quietly, patiently asks us to change, then we need to look at what is the nature of our own adaptive barriers to growth.  Often these are related to feelings of incompleteness.  Tara Brach, in her book, Radical Acceptance, lists ways that we disguise feelings of not being enough.  One of the signs that this may be going on can be a tendency to engage in self-help projects. One can go on an exercise program in order to get the perfect body.  One can go on a meditation regime in order to become spiritual.  One can undertake a whole range of activities to try to improve the self.  Of course, undertaking any of these activities individually is not a problem and is often very worthwhile.  But, in the context of evolving the real self, these may represent efforts to perfect the adaptive self, to become something we’re not.  The energy pushing for the change is correct.  But, the starting place for finding the real self begins with acceptance of who one is; acceptance, yes, even of the adaptations we don’t like in ourselves.  Our minds often form an image of what the perfect us might be.  Unfortunately, this is often the ego telling us what it would like to have us be to feel okay.  In other words, this is the adaptive self talking.  Much of who we are is not actually revealed in our consciousness at any given time.  Rather to get to the real self, we find that the first step is to relax and to accept ourselves exactly as we are.

As we get older, another strategy that often develops, to manage feelings of incompleteness that lie below the surface, is to pull back in our lives.  This means taking fewer risks to discover who we are, narrowing our circle of friends so our idea of who we are is rarely challenged, and tending to see life less as a grand adventure and more as an ordeal to be navigated.  As Homer Simpson said, “Trying is the first step to failure.” When fear pulls us back from engaging in life, we never take the first step into new arenas.  However, holding back can have its positive place.  Ironically, often a first step in the journey to discover who we are is to begin to hold back risking our adaptive responses so we can feel the pain of unworthiness that we have long sought to avoid.

Another way to avoid the pain of growth is to stay really busy all the time.  Busyness as a way of being is a way to prevent feeling.  It is when feeling comes that uncertainty with our adaptations arises and the need for change generates emotional dis-ease.  If we can stay busy enough, we can avoid these feelings.  Our culture gives us a great opportunity to do that.  And, practicing law does also, since we can almost never put in enough hours to do everything as a lawyer we would like to in a day.

We can also avoid feelings of restlessness and the tickling our psyche may be giving us by simply living in the future all the time.  If we’re constantly getting ready to do something that’s going to happen in the future, we become numb to our feelings and emotions about what is happening in the present.  This is an easy roller coaster to get on, since our entire educational/career structure is future oriented.  Everything will be great after I get into the right college.  Once I get into a good law school, I will be all set.  After I am in law school, the future task is waiting for the opportunity to get into the right law firm.  After one is in the law firm, it is waiting to become partner.  After one becomes partner, it’s waiting to be able to get the right house in the right part of town and the right vacation home.  After that, it’s waiting until the kids are through college.  It is very easy to live life so committed to the future that one very rarely participates in the present.

Finally, another way to avoid the natural process of growth is to retreat more and more into the role of the critical judger.  This is easy for us to do as lawyers because we are trained with good analytical skills.  We also each have our own internal scales of justice balance.  We believe we know what is fair and what is unfair.  However helpful this may be in our professional life, it can be deadly on a personal level.  The more inadequate we feel and the more uncomfortable it becomes to admit our faults, then the easier it is to criticize others.  Being judgmental of others is a way to avoid looking at ourselves.  The magnitude of the emotion by which we judge others is often a good indicator of how important it is for us to avoid looking at ourselves.

There does not have to be a history of dysfunction for problems of the adaptive self to arise.  It is a problem of the human condition.  The problem is illustrated in the Garden of the Eden story.  The adaptive self begins with the birth of self-consciousness.  With the birth of awareness of being a separated self, what is biblically called “the fall,” comes the conscious awareness which feels the need to adapt to feel accepted.  Emergence of the separated self is something that cannot be avoided, and it is utterly necessary.  We would not be able to develop into mature human beings without self-consciousness.  And yet, it is a fall into a kind of self-centeredness and estrangement.  Billy Collins, the former poet laureate of the United States, humorously captures the loss of innocence and the adaptive process in his poem, On Turning Ten.  Here is an illustrative portion of his poem.


The whole idea of it makes me feel
like I’m coming down with something,
something worse than any stomach ache
or the headaches I get from reading in bad light–
a kind of measles of the spirit,
a mumps of the psyche,
a disfiguring chicken pox of the soul.

You tell me it is too early to be looking back,
but that is because you have forgotten
the perfect simplicity of being one
and the beautiful complexity introduced by two.
But I can lie on my bed and remember every digit.
At four I was an Arabian wizard.

I could make myself invisible
by drinking a glass of milk a certain way.
At seven I was a soldier, at nine a prince.
But now I am mostly at the window
watching the late afternoon light.

Philosophy, religion, and psychology have, since the earliest time, devoted their energies to trying to understand how to deal with this problem created by the development of the adaptive self, and the estrangement of the real self.  The answers that come from all of these different sources are strikingly similar.  These answers all come under the rubric of dying to the old adaptive identity and being born to a new way of being.  William James in his seminal work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, notes how many cultures throughout history developed rituals in order to enhance the opportunity for sudden and dramatic rebirth.  He reports these remarkable rituals of psychological transition to be pervasively cross cultural.

Marcus Borg in The Heart of Christianity sets out how this theme occurs across the great world religions.  In the Christian tradition, the most notable example is the conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus.  And, while he exemplifies the sudden and dramatic process of rebirth, for the majority of Christians, this process is not so much a single intense experience, but a gradual and incremental process.  Similarly, in Judaism, the image of following the way involves a life centered in God.  One of the meanings of Islam is surrender.  Mohammed, the prophet of Islam, is reported to have said, “Die before you die.”  At the heart of Buddhism is the commitment to awakening from the trance of existence and letting go; a similar internal path of dying to an old way of being and being born into a new way to experience reality.  According to the Tao Te Ching, a text for both Taoism and Zen Buddhism, Lao Tzu said, “If you want to become full let yourself be empty.  If you want to be reborn, let yourself die.”

In psychological terms, Carl Rogers noted the curious paradox – when I accept myself just as I am, then I can change. The first step in the process of reconciling the adaptive self, and the issues it has created in one’s life, is a complete and full acceptance of oneself.  As most therapists know, the basic groundwork for change is first to support the client coming to terms with exactly what his or her problem is and accepting that on a deep emotional level.  The experience of being reborn, of having a new internal perspective on life, comes when there is this complete acceptance of who one is and one’s shortcomings.  Because of the numerous defenses the adaptive self has built up over the years, it can be extremely difficult for one to see oneself truly as one is.  For individuals who have used addictive processes to mask feelings of unworthiness, this inability to see oneself clearly is an identifying hallmark of the addictive illness.  It is commonly referred to as denial, but in reality, it is more delusion – the individual really does not see how he or she is being affected by the addictive process.  Good treatment helps break through the denial and is the first essential step for change to occur.  The importance of seeing reality clearly is seen in Alcoholics Anonymous’ salutation, where people say their name and admit they are an alcoholic.  This practice helps break through the delusion.

Just as important as it is for the person to see the reality of their adaptive self, their defenses, and the addictive processes that may have become part of their coping strategy, it is equally important, once this clarity has been achieved, not to fall into the trap of self pity and victimization.  (e.g. poor me, I had a difficult family to grow up in, or my law firm is too stressful, so I am depressed or drinking too much.)  As Carl Rogers points out, the key to change is acceptance.  The victim has never accepted.  Acceptance comes when one doesn’t see the accumulated baggage of the adaptive self as a burden or a problem to be wrestled with using self-help books, or years of life to be mourned (although there is often a grief process that is important); rather at some point, one sees that this is simply the way it is.  Your life has created you to be the person that you are.  Once acceptance comes, without any positive or negative judgment, then action can occur to deepen and enrich the reality of the true self.  The baggage of the adaptive self begins to easily slip away.  One can become, as the little girl in the story indicated, real.

Mid-life crisis is the catch phrase to describe a time in one’s life when one is particularly susceptible to having to address questions of who one really is.  What is really important?  Am I just defined by my achievements, my influence?  But, while this often happens in mid-life, it can happen at any time in one’s career.  The normal things that seem to give pleasure can give less pleasure.  The normal sources of joy in one’s life can become cracked and dry.  One can feel down.  These are signs to be heeded.  It is important to pay attention to these signs and realize that the process of letting go of the adaptive self and being renewed into who one really is, is a normal part of life’s process.

There are many coping mechanisms to help deal with this often painful transition.  There is good treatment, if the necessity for the transition is brought about by addition or depression.  One of the most popular treatment modalities for depression is cognitive behavioral therapy which helps ferret out the irrational ideas that have grown from the need of the adaptive self to feel okay in the world.  Similarly, one’s religious tradition may present a map and guidance for this transition to occur.  Many spiritual practices, outside of mainstream religion, such as yoga and meditation, also are focused on trying to achieve this same goal of renewal and return to the real self.  All of these approaches are normally complementary.  They may each aid the other.  When this call for change – to be real – comes in your life, do not let those adaptive processes which are destructive, or which lead to living in a small, lonely, isolated world prevent the normal creative process of renewal from occurring.  There is pain in the transition, but joy in becoming real.

-by Don Carroll

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