These are snippets that we hope you find helpful. A lot of these subjects are covered in more depth in our blogs and also in Anna's Life of the Mind columns in Prospect Magazine.
You Are Not Very Sane If…
You can't sleep, you are always frustrated with others, you are trying to fix someone else in order to be happy yourself, you are often angry, you feel you drink too much, you don't understand why you feel how you feel, you have rituals and rules that hold you together, you feel you spend too much time thinking about what you do/don't eat, you find the world isn't how you'd like it to be, you are self-harming, self-medicating, feeling suicidal or homicidal, you feel stuck in a bad situation, you feel it doesn't matter how you feel, you have flashbacks, you have phobias, you feel a constant sense of impending doom, you have circular thought patterns (that get called overthinking, but are actually a way of not thinking things through at all, but of getting stuck on a hamster wheel of rumination).
Own Your Emotional State - It Matters.
If you're upset about being poor or about drinking/eating/sleeping too much, or about the state of the world, or whatever - it's not the being poor, the addiction or the world that is really your immediate problem. It's how you feel about it. Angry at your partner, your job, your neighbor - again, the problem is your anger and how you deal with it, why you put up with situations that make you unhappy. It's important to get to the real root of the disaffection and to take your feelings seriously, rather than constantly airing them and doing nothing. If you are unhappy, change (both inner and outer) is going to be necessary and you have to be that change.
Look at your internal wall chart.
Everyone has one. In your mind is a star chart on which you give yourself good marks for perceived good behavior and x’s for perceived bad behavior. It's vital to think about what yours looks like and then assess whether it might need some serious adjustment. These charts are often formed in early childhood and once we can clearly see them, we can just chuck them out wholesale, replace them with a more relevant one or keep the one we've got if it works! So, you might give yourself silent points for not eating breakfast, for concealing your emotions, for not crying, not getting angry, for seeming saner than you feel, for humiliating others, for winning insignificant arguments, for making others cry, for having no needs, for being unassailable, invincible and without fear, without need for affection or reassurance and so on. You may give yourself x’s on your chart for the opposite behaviors. Ask yourself who is really giving out these stars and x’s? An unpleasant parent, teacher, sibling, institution? Do you really believe these behaviors are good and their inverse bad if you think about it now? Is God really going to give you points for pretending? Is it really that terrible to let yourself show?
You Have Stockholm Syndrome.
We all do. When you were tiny and vulnerable somebody told you; 'This is lunch time' (ie. a GOOD time to eat lunch), 'That is a cat', (ie. we do or don't like cats, depending on the tone), 'This is what you must wear for school,' 'This is how we do things and it is good. Better than other ways of doing things.' Some people are brought up in happy, loving households where the lessons taught both verbally and non verbally help them sail happily through life expecting, and therefore getting, the best. Others are taught very damaging lessons about their self worth, the worth of others, their looks, their abilities, their potential futures. What unspoken rules were you taught? Do you honestly believe them? Could you adopt other ones that serve you better? Whose voice do these rules remind you of?
You're Probably Projecting.
A (very) simple way of explaining this is: If you think someone doesn't like you, it's probably that you actually don't like them. That is, you are projecting your own feelings for them onto them and experiencing them chucked back at you. Or, you think they may feel your dislike and therefore want to punish you with their hatred. It's probably not true. If you think someone is needy, angry, incompetent, pathetic, you are probably seeing some unwanted part of yourself in them and hating it there instead of having to deal with it in yourself.
This place is a depressing shit-hole? You are depressed and feel shitty.
I'm sure he fancies me. You fancy him.
They want to fire me. You want to leave.
Okay, I know this is too simplistic, but have a think….
There's Nothing Wrong With the World.
A hard statement to back up right now, I know, but depressed people focus on the worst of the world as a way of justifying their pre-existing depression. Often they go to these places, live and work in them and then despair at how terrible the world is, how terrible people are. Yes, the world often seems to be in a pretty terrible place, but our own projections are also very strong. There was a study that showed (amazingly) that stable, happy people's mood changed very little even after a catastrophe such as the death of a child. So, if you're finding the world unbearable (more than briefly), there is something in you that you're finding unbearable and it's time to get help.
Fear and Anxiety
Many of us have fears and phobias. Fear of flying, of breaking any laws, of spiders, of elevators, of people who might tell us off, of being followed, even of being observed. This again is a projection of pre-existing, free-floating fear onto whatever is most convenient. We have learnt to be afraid in childhood usually, or through recent trauma, and that fear hasn't gone away but, in order for us not to feel insane and mistaken, we then attach it to whatever is passing. Very few people are afraid of extremely rare insects. We are afraid of things we often encounter because we are already scared, but the fear needs a target. Owning our fear and knowing it's self-generated can help to calm it, especially if we can look back and understand why we grew up afraid. The reasons can range from violent abuse and obvious trauma, to a general uneasiness around an emotionally unpredictable parent or the casual cruelty of a lot of teasing (even of what might be thought of as mild or 'funny'). Any trauma is likely to result in hyper-vigilance and anxiety.
If telling someone to look after themselves, to practice 'self care' worked, nobody would have any problems. If you feel guilty about your privilege, desperate to help in order to quash your own feelings of helplessness and if you must keep going to get the affirmation you need (a perform-to-be-loved syndrome) then you will not be able to follow self care instructions. We need to understand our unconscious motivations and to feel deserving of care before we can give ourselves any. Instructing people to reach out or to take time for themselves is like telling an alcoholic to drink less.
Many of us blame ourselves, even hate ourselves, for the behavior we manifest. From hiding behind humor, to smoking, to over or under eating, from being emotionally closed off to emotionally splurging. It's important to remember that all the mechanisms we have in place are there for a good reason - we develop coping mechanisms at a very early age because we have things we need to cope with and we don't know how to do it. One easy example of this is fearful the self-soothing that can then turn into full-blown sex/porn addiction. None of the ways in which we learn to bear things so as not to become totally overwhelmed is bad or selfish - they are all coping mechanisms and they've helped us survive. Upon examination, maybe our present reality means we might work towards ditching them, but that doesn't mean they are not all there for a reason.
People often come into therapy worried that it's all going to be about blaming their mother. Of course, our very earliest caregiver (whoever that is) will have been extremely important in framing the way we think and behave but, even if that person caused us real and lasting harm, it's not about blaming them. Therapy is not about blame, it's about understanding. Our mother was probably doing the best she could - she may have been exhausted, in a terrible relationship, addicted, mentally unwell, chronically stressed. Understanding our early world can help us be kinder to ourselves, but it's not about apportioning blame.
It's very common to think of 'sex life' as different from 'life life' as though we're totally different people in the sexual arena to the ones we are in normal life. However, sex is the main area in which the completely non-verbal communication of early infancy is present. If you are having sexual issues, they are very important. Some people say; 'I just don't like it,' and shrug. But why? It's worth examining and fully understanding. In therapy there is no 'just' anything! A cigar really isn't just a cigar. Are you having sex when you don't really want to? Are you unable to enjoy sex with someone you like and know well? Are you seeking sex as a quick fix dive into oblivion? Are you in a sexless relationship? A lot of us try to sweep these issues under the carpet, but really thinking about what we think and feel during and around sex can be extremely revealing. Please take it seriously.
Hiding Behind A Mask
This is a simple one, but so many people, especially in journalism and aid, pretend to be okay when they're not. Living behind a mask of coping can, of course, help us cope, but it's important not to get lost, not to forget how we're really thinking and feeling. Having two fully active personalities is absolutely exhausting and, contrary to popular belief, actually doesn't help us do the job better. It just means we're tired, depressed and less able to connect with the people we're trying to connect with. It is vital to be allowed a full range of emotions and not feel we have to zombify or go into a coma to survive.
Sexism. Nobody thinks they're sexist but a lot of us are. If you're female, do you prefer the company of men, do you deride other women and think they're silly and their interests and pursuits banal? A lot of us in these professions feel we have to be quite butch and to deny any of the more traditionally female things we may be feeling (the desire to have a baby or a partner as the most obvious examples). A lot of us, like it or not, are self-hating women who don't want to be a female mammal and don't like the other ones. One of the jobs of therapy is to start accepting and liking ourselves as we are.
When we get stuck in a life situation, it's often helpful to think about the advice we'd give to someone in our situation. What would we say to our sons, daughters, siblings, friends in the same situation? Often we're quite cruel to ourselves. A lot of people have inner voices telling them to toughen up, pull themselves together, slap a smile on their faces, bear it, make it to the finish line, try harder, work harder. A lot of us call ourselves cruel bullying names we'd never call anyone else. Try and write down the advice you'd offer someone else, someone for whom you'd want the best, in your situation.
Leaving the cult.
Abusive relationships with families, organizations, partners, friends and even the comfort blanket of illnesses are hard to leave. This is especially true of families. We grow up completely indoctrinated before we can even speak and therefore have a residual belief that whatever the rejected group thinks to be true is true, even when, rationally, we may not accept their thinking. Families are small (or large) cults in some ways, and it can be as hard to walk away as it is to leave the Amish or Orthodox Judaism. There is so much to lose and change is always loss. When we face big change we can only see what we are losing in that moment. What we will gain is in the unknowable future. That's why big change takes such a huge amount of courage and support. A line I like from a self-help book is; 'If God told you it was okay to leave, would you?' Doesn't have to be God, of course, but you get the gist. Why wait for permission from an unknowable authority source?
Many people find the real world so difficult to navigate that they long to be someone who is always on a completely even keel and has no real feelings at all (an ego ideal). These people come into therapy hoping that therapy will help them flatline and avoid all the highs and lows they work so hard to, but fail to, avoid. Of course, this is impossible. Nobody glides through life emotionless and serene - life is messy, chaotic and hard.Human interactions are hard. Therapy is partly about getting comfortable with feeling uncomfortable and accepting the highs and the lows as part of a normal day, a normal five minutes - it's unpredictable out here, but it's real. Acknowledging our own fantasies and stripping them out of the world and the people we experience is a vital part of feeling well. Crude example; 'My new partner is perfect.' No, she isn't. She's messy, annoying, clever, stupid, angry, funny, and so on. Much more interesting than perfect, but much more difficult.
Patients quite often say; 'Well, you're the expert,' as though I will know what their dream means or what their girlfriend/boyfriend meant by a text better than they do. Okay, sometimes I can have a pretty good guess, but therapy isn't a chat to an expert, it's a collaborative exploration of the self, of thought processes and ideas. I might be able to tease the truth out of your unconscious, but I don't already know it. You do.
Bearing things. A psychoanalyst once gave some advice on difficult teenagers; "You just have to try to bear it." I think that's true of people in therapy too - we need to feel that someone can bear us. Some people feel unbearable, feel their trauma is unbearable, feel their grief or pain would be unbearable for someone else. When we find that it isn't, that our therapist can and does survive it, we can feel very comforted, I think, and much less afraid of what is inside of us.
I think we don't usually get what we want out of therapy. We get what we didn't even know we needed. We might start therapy wanting tools to cope with something or someone overwhelming. We might come in because our partner wants us to be nicer, better, fixed. But we might end up moving away from what we couldn't cope with for something more nourishing, disappointing our partners with a transformation that wasn't on their agenda, finding things far more interesting, authentic and liberating than a quick fix.
Everyone comes out during therapy, as in, gives themselves permission to be who they really are without a mask, defences, shame and so on. It can take six months or it can take six years, but it happens and is a huge relief for the patient. If it's a simple, sexual coming out things are quicker and easier in lots of ways, if it's an unpacking of fortress-like defensive structures and masks so fiercely glued on they've become a part of the face, it takes longer. But afterwards, we are free.
Lots of people worry about being boring once they've had psychotherapy.
The argument starts with this question: If Dostoevsky had had psychoanalysis, would he have written Crime and Punishment? Obviously, we can't know the answer to that, but he might have written something more wonderful, more true, more timeless. Either way, what isboring and lonely and empty is feeling mentally ill. Feeling mentally well makes us able to hear others at last instead listening simply to our own, endlessly circular, deathly boring inner monologue.