A Commitment to Reality

There is a semi-famous quote from M. Scott Peck, psychiatrist and author of the best-seller The Road Less Traveled, that goes like this: “Mental health is a commitment to reality at all costs.” That’s a pretty succinct little definition, and one worth thinking about. If it is true that mental health is “a commitment to reality at all costs,” then is the opposite also true – that mental illness is some form of non-commitment to reality? The answer is: well, sometimes, yeah.
To begin with, we should probably nail down what is meant by the term, “reality.” There has been much discussion about what reality is, and whether or not it is subjective to each individual, or an absolute, and so on. I’m not going to get into that, because it’s beyond the scope of this article, and besides, I find that particular discussion uninteresting. I’m going to define reality as, “what is,” and although we might not always agree on what is, most of the time we can. Besides, I’m not concerned with slight variations of opinion about reality, because that’s usually not a problem. Two people can have mildly different interpretations of reality without either one of them being mentally ill. What I’m more concerned with might be called gross distortions or avoidance of reality.
So how does one distort or avoid reality? You’ve probably heard the quip, usually in response to someone who is obviously avoiding reality, “Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt.” Denial is a refusal to read the writing on the wall, to accept the reality that seems obvious to everyone else. A common example of this is the individual who is in denial of the reality of their spouse or significant other’s behavior. For instance, a battered wife (or husband) might make excuses for their spouse with statements like, “You just don’t know him like I do; he has a tender side.” Whether or not this is true, making excuses for another’s abuse is a form of denial. One can also be in denial about any number of bad behaviors on the part of their significant other, like infidelity or immaturity or general disrespect or drug addiction, etc. Parents can be in denial about their children, and children can be in denial about their parents – even adult children. And, of course, one can be in denial about one’s own behaviors.
Self-denial is common when one’s behavior is causing problems that the individual doesn’t want to acknowledge, mostly because acknowledging the problem would cause emotional pain. For instance, one might deny the existence of an addiction, or a tendency to get overly angry, or any number of bad behaviors, because acknowledging the problem causes feelings of shame. Shame is a very unpleasant emotion, and therefore, one we wish to avoid. One of the most common ways to avoid shame is to tell oneself and others that one’s problematic behaviors “really aren’t that bad.” This is particularly true if one engages in black-and-white thinking, wherein any acknowledgement of bad behavior on one’s own part is tantamount to admitting that one is a completely horrible person.
Here’s a reality: things aren’t always black-and-white. This is particularly true of people. Human beings are complex creatures, and most of us are neither saints nor monsters. We’re a mix of good qualities and not-so-good qualities. Admitting you have an issue doesn’t make you a bad person – if it did, we’re all bad people, so you’re in good company. A commitment to reality includes the ability to look at oneself as objectively as possible. If we do that, we’re not going to like everything we see. This is not a disaster, it’s normal. Some of our issues aren’t that big of a deal, and some might be causing real problems. It’s no fun to acknowledge this, but if we’re going to live in reality, then it’s a must. As the cliché goes, “Admitting you have a problem is the first step.”
As long as we’re taking an honest look at ourselves, we might as well take a good look at mom and dad while we’re at it. They’re not perfect, either. All parents make some mistakes. A statement I hear a lot regarding parents is, “Well, they did the best they could with what they had.” There are two potential problems with this statement. One, whether one’s parents did the best they could is far from certain. Even parents who make relatively few mistakes with their kids can still mail it in from time to time, which means there are probably some parents who rarely actually did the absolute best they were capable of doing. Second, even if parents did do the best they could with what they had, it doesn’t change the fact that they made mistakes and their children suffered as a result. The statement, “They did the best they could,” often carries with it an implication that goes, “So as a result, I don’t have a right to feel angry or disappointed in them.”
Here’s a fact about feelings like anger and disappointment: it doesn’t matter if we think we have a right to them or not. We feel how we feel whether we like it or not, whether we approve of the feelings or not. Telling oneself one doesn’t have a right to a particular feeling doesn’t make it go away – it just drives it underground and throws guilt on top of it. Which brings us back to the original proposition, that mental health is a commitment to reality at all costs. “Reality” includes the reality of our feelings, even if they are painful. A commitment to reality means accepting the troubling fact that we might have conflicted feelings about people we love. Again: we can’t make painful feelings go away by telling ourselves we shouldn’t feel that way. It absolutely does not work.
If you do accept the reality that you have conflicted feelings toward someone, feelings like love and anger at the same time, then this has the potential to create discomfort, often in the form of guilt. It might feel bad or wrong to have two such contradictory feelings, and that feeling of wrongness might compel you to try to get rid of the “bad” feelings. (I put that in quotes because I don’t believe there is such a thing as a “bad” feeling. Anger might be unpleasant, but it is a normal feeling we all have.) However, as I have pointed out, we can’t get rid of feelings by disapproving of them. So how does one solve the conflict created by mixed feelings? By accepting that the feelings are valid, and you have a right to them. In other words, it’s perfectly normal to have mixed feelings. Many people think ambivalence means apathy, but it means having simultaneous conflicting feelings toward someone or something. We all experience it, particularly in regards to family members.
Once we are okay with the reality of ambivalent feelings, does this mean we have to passively live with the feelings of anger and disappointment? No, it doesn’t. Most of what therapy is about, is working through painful feelings. The main task of the individual in therapy is to give a voice to the feelings that couldn’t be expressed at the time they were first created. Because we couldn’t voice the feelings back then, we had to stuff them down and do our best to function in spite of them. Human beings have an amazing capacity to accumulate emotional pain. We’re like the lint screen in a clothes dryer, except instead of lint, we are trapping pain. And, like a clothes dryer, if the screen is not cleaned regularly, then it gets clogged up and the machine doesn’t function at its peak. Therapy is cleaning our lint screen.
Most people have a passing familiarity with the Serenity Prayer, which goes like this: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” Whatever your spiritual beliefs, this request makes a lot of sense. It can be extraordinarily difficult to accept some of the things we cannot change, such as the behavior of every person on the planet who is not you. If we want to commit to reality, then we have to come to terms with the fact that there are limits on our power, which means we’re not always going to get our way. When my father was diagnosed with cancer, I tried to compensate for my helplessness by playing this little game: While driving, I would tell myself, “If I can make it through this intersection before the light turns yellow, then my father will live.” So I would speed through the intersection, and then have to do it again at the next light. It took me awhile to accept the fact that my father’s health was completely unaffected by how I drove, which meant I was powerless to keep him alive. The name for this kind of behavior is bargaining. It is a type of magical thinking, and it serves the purpose of avoiding the painful reality that sometimes bad things happen and there is absolutely nothing we can do to stop them. It’s a painful reality, but it is reality. (I don’t include prayer as a form of magical thinking. Not everyone agrees with this.)
Here’s a partial list of hard truths:

  • No matter how hard you try, not everyone is going to like you. This doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.
  • Everyone dies eventually. It’s usually nobody’s fault.
  • Things don’t always go as planned.
  • Other people don’t always behave the way we think they should.
  • You are not always going to behave the way you think you should.
  • You’re not always going to get your way.
  • Bad things happen.
  • You’re never going to be perfect in this life.

I could go on, but I’m sure you get the picture. Most of the time, when bad things happen, it’s not a catastrophe. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to accept. If acceptance were easy, therapists would go begging.
Here’s another truth: Every single one of us could use a little help every now and then. There’s no shame in that. A commitment to reality can be costly, because facing the truth can make us very sad at times. So the cost of this commitment is grief, and, as I’ve said before, the only cure for grief is to grieve.

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