This post is part 28 of a series of posts on the psychological and practical benefits of daily practice. In this series, I’ll explore the elements of daily practice, varieties of daily practice, challenges to daily practice, and strategies for meeting those challenges. Please join me in learning more about this important subject! Complete information can be found in The Power of Daily Practice.
It’s impossible to talk about a daily mental health practice without addressing the problems presented by the current dominant mental disorder paradigm that asserts that if you have certain thoughts and feelings or behave in a certain way, you have a thing called a “mental disorder” or a “mental disease.”
If you genuinely do have a “mental disorder,” then you would be obliged to deal with your mental health in one way. If, however, you don’t have a “mental disorder” but rather are dealing with some other sort of challenge—a life problem, a feature of your original personality, significantly changed circumstances, a blow to your self-esteem, chronic loneliness, etc.—then you would naturally deal with your situation in a very different way.
This isn’t the place to deal with the extremely troubling questions that those of us in the critical psychology and critical psychiatry movements endeavor to address. I’ve addressed many of them at length in Rethinking Depression, The Future of Mental Health, Humane Helping, and some of my other books. Here, let me present a few headlines and, if these issues interest you, send you off to investigate for yourself.
One headline is that the leap from you reporting “I’m very sad” to me replying, “You have the mental disorder of clinical depression,” is a completely illegitimate one. That leap, which is currently being made millions of times over, occurs without any scientific or medical justification whatsoever.
You come in with a self-report that you are feeling a certain way, and without me providing any medical tests, any rationale, or anything solid, I declare that you have a mental illness. That isn’t right and that should stop. It won’t, of course, as just about everyone has bought into the existence of this pseudo-medical-sounding thing, “depression,” and because the forces aligned in support of the mental disorder model — mental health professionals, pharmaceutical companies, academia, and the mass media among them — are just too powerful.
A second headline is, if these aren’t genuine medical conditions, what is the rationale for calling the chemicals that psychiatrists prescribe medications? In the absence of a medical condition, how can a chemical be medication? Should a child who is bored and restless be given powerful chemicals to sedate and control him? Should an artist who is sensitive, intelligent, and compassionate, and therefore made sad by the state of the world, be given chemicals to help flatten her mood? Should anyone be prescribed a chemical with powerful effects, including powerful negative side effects like an increased chance of suicide and an increased likelihood of addiction, when there is no medical justification whatsoever?
But, as I say, you will need to investigate all of this for yourself. Here, let’s take a look at how these contemporary complications are likely to play themselves out in someone with an interest in improving his mental health. Take John. John was willing, even eager, to inaugurate a mental health practice to help with his depression. But he couldn’t picture what he ought to be doing. John felt that he’d always been depressed and likely always would be depressed, so what exactly was he supposed to be doing for that half-hour or hour each day devoted to his “mental health?”
“I’m certain that I was born with this depression,” John reported. “I was born with a pair of tinted glasses that I can’t remove that makes everything look dark. It’s not that I’m sad, it’s more like I’m wearing a tremendously heavy overcoat. Those glasses and that overcoat – they define my life. So, what could I possibly do each day that might help, given that I have a mental disorder? Sit there and smile like an idiot?”
“Let me ask you something,” I ventured. “Would you say that you’ve giving life a thumb’s up or a thumb’s down?”
He shook his head. “I have no idea. I’ve never given that any thought.”
“Okay,” I nodded. “How about this. Would you say that you’re a sensitive person?”
“A creative person?”
“If I could tolerate sitting there and working on my screenplay!”
“Would you say that you’re intelligent?”
He laughed. “Am I allowed to say that about myself?”
“Okay. Aren’t those three things, taken together, a complete explanation for your despair?”
He sat straight up. I could see him taking that in.
“Meaning that maybe you don’t have a thing called ‘clinical depression.’ Maybe you’re despairing because you’re a smart, sensitive, creative person with more than enough reasons to despair.”
It took him a long time to reply. “I don’t know,” he whispered. “I don’t know.”
“No. But that could be the focus of your mental health practice. Spending a few minutes every day just sitting with a wonder about alternative explanations for why you’ve always felt low. You wouldn’t be ‘doing’ anything. You’d be daydreaming about the truth of the matter.”
“I don’t know,” he said again. “I just don’t know.”
I nodded. “That’s exactly right,” I said. “You don’t know.”
It’s quite likely that you, too, don’t know. Maybe that becomes the heart of your daily mental health practice, wondering aloud about what’s really going on. If you decide to believe that you have a mental disorder with a name like depression, bipolar, OCD, ADD, borderline personality disorder, etc., then your practice will have one flavor. If, on the other hand, you decide that something else is going on—that, say, you’re sad, lonely, bored, upset, angry, etc.—it will have a very different flavor. The first might involve daily medical compliance and the second might involve making inner and outer changes aimed at reducing your loneliness, battling your boredom, or airing your grievances. Isn’t this worth your consideration? And your daily practice?
In this series, I intend to explain the elements of daily practice, the varieties of daily practice available to you, and what to can deal with the challenges to daily practice that inevitably arise. If you’d like to learn more about the psychological and practical benefits of daily practice and better understand the great power of daily practice, I invite you to get acquainted with The Power of Daily Practice. It is available now.
This post was previously published on Psychologytoday.com.
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