Unless we are mindful and deliberate in leading lives of conscious action, our fate is determined largely by our inborn temperament; that is, what we find rewarding. The majority of people live lives of unconscious reaction. They are not mindful of their thoughts, feelings, or actions, or the consequences thereof.
For people living with mental illness, this tendency is particularly devastating and self-reinforcing. To the person suffering from alcoholism, it is far more rewarding to pick up a bottle than to endure painful withdrawal symptoms, seek treatment for underlying psychological issues, confront the emotional baggage that led to drinking, part ways with drinking buddies, and essentially create a whole new life. To the person with major depression, it is far more rewarding to curl up in bed all day than to muster the Herculean strength it takes to drag through yet another meaningless day. To the person with borderline personality disorder, it is far more reinforcing to engage in numbing, soothing self-injury than it is to learn and utilize distress tolerance and emotion regulation skills, to come to grips with the abuse history and self-loathing that fuels urges to self-injure. To the person with anorexia nervosa, it is far more rewarding to fast and restrict. The avoidance of discomfort, the physiological euphoria, psychological sense of mastery, and the brief respite from the torturous inner voice make restricting and fasting far more rewarding than consuming a normal quantity of food and keeping it down. To the person with OCD, it is far more reinforcing to engage in compulsions and rituals that create a sense of safety and security than it is to sit with the incredible discomfort that arises from not engaging in these behaviors.
Most people never have to face their greatest fears consistently, repeatedly, and for prolonged periods of time in order to move through hell into the realm of so-called health and normality. This is why recovery from mental illness is so difficult and so heroic. Psychotherapy can help to illuminate patterns in a person’s life and help her come to grips with her own unique neurochemistry, temperament, and life history in a way that is empowering and useful. Psychotherapy can teach coping skills and psychological tools to help people deal with their unpleasant thoughts and feelings. Psychotherapy can provide a supportive, nurturing, unbiased relationship in which personal issues can be explored and understood. Psychotherapy helps to rewire neural pathways, setting into effect new patterns of thinking and feeling and acting.
And as for the rest of us? It is far easier to live lives of unmindful, unconscious reaction than it is to create deliberate, mindful lives of conscious action. It is far easier to absorb the beliefs and ideas of our parents, our teachers, our bosses, our political leaders, our priests and ministers and rabbis, than it is to think and speak for ourselves. It is far easier to assimilate passively the so-called truth we are fed by the media than it is to think critically and creatively. It is far easier to conform to societal norms, to agree with popular opinion, to be complicit and docile, than it is to be the change we wish to see in this world.
Join me in stepping off the beaten path. Join me in blazing a new trail and guiding others to come along. Do you dare?