20 Feb Psychological Health: The Path From Surviving to Thriving – Part I
What does “good” mean?
I begin many sessions with a simple question: “How are you?” The answer is often the same “I’m good,” to which I might reply, “What does good mean?” Sometimes, I’m good is just a filler, the kind of answer you’re supposed to give socially. I mean, who wants to hear if you’re not doing well? At other times, I might get a quizzical response, “Well, I guess I’m not bad” (or some variation of this). Defining good can be hard! You might want to be psychologically well but aren’t sure what that means, other than not being psychologically unwell. The focus on and aspiration to develop psychological health, what some call well-being, is one of the foundations on which the Chrysalis Center is built. So let’s dive into these complicated, but very important, waters together!
It’s rare that someone asks me, “Am I healthy doc?” More often, people ask, “Am I crazy doc?” This makes some sense, given the current narrative that you come to therapy only because you are not well. We also fear that we’ll be labeled and stigmatized for our suffering. The current narrative doesn’t allow much space for the possibility that, in addition to wanting to relieve our emotional suffering, we might also want to grow, know ourselves better, and develop more resilience for the arrows life slings at us. What if we turn this on its head and demand a different possibility—one that allows for taking care of our emotional and psychological needs?
Let’s call it psychological hygiene. Most of us engage daily in physical hygiene, sleep hygiene, and nutritional hygiene, not because something is imminently wrong but because we value our physical selves and want to take care of them. We should also make space to take care of our psychological well-being. We don’t have to settle for an artificial binary that says if we’re not doing well then we must be doing poorly. This means we can suffer in some aspects of our lives while also experiencing health, happiness, or well-being in others. Psychotherapy can help us reduce our suffering while also enhancing our well-being.
I do want to be clear that sometimes we are suffering greatly. My goal with this post is to point out that we don’t have to think of psychological experience or psychotherapy as only about suffering or only about growth and health. In fact, one capacity of psychological health is the ability to hold in mind different or even conflicting thoughts, feelings, or states.
Embrace the struggle
Rather than thinking of our psychological life from a model of disease, it’s helpful to think about our struggles with emotional suffering and emotional growth from a model of development. If we think of psychological health as a process of growth, then we can also expect to struggle. What do I mean by this? Growth always involves struggle. We may even need the discomfort or pain in our lives to push us to take risks and endure the struggle to grow. At every stage of transition in our lives, whether it’s as a baby transitioning to toddlerhood by learning to walk; the teenager spreading her wings, leaving home for the first time, and heading off to college; or the adult starting a new job, having a child, and so on, we encounter challenges, and it’s tough. Psychological development isn’t linear, either.
In fact, sometimes we struggle in anticipation of growth because we might feel conflicted about it. It reminds me of the experienced daycare teacher, saying how the week before the two-year-old kiddos were to move up to the three-year-old classroom, many of them who were potty trained began to have accidents again. Another example is how we may stall out right before we are about to finish something (like a dissertation or a blog post!).
Our Development is Complex
Development doesn’t stop when your childhood ends. It’s a lifelong process. The demands of life for people are not equal, either. Some people are asked to endure or overcome struggles more frequently than others, and we have to acknowledge this as we consider what it means to struggle or be well. Though a significant aspect of the ability to thrive can be influenced by individual factors, our environments, the ones we currently live in and the ones we have come from, also have profound effects on us. Sometimes, our environment or the systems we navigate also need to grow and develop in order to allow us to more fully thrive.
More to come…
Stayed tuned for Part II as we take a bird’s eye view of the current and historical ways of thinking about psychological health and well-being! Part III will try to bring all this together and describe how we, at Chrysalis, think about, understand, and strive for psychological health.
Zane Dodd, PhD