The Line Between Healthy and Unhealthy Is Not As Distinct As You Think
How a series of life lessons made me realise that if you don't correct your behaviour, they will become more extreme
I was watching a documentary about a high-security psychiatric hospital recently and it got me thinking about how too often in the psychology world, we divide people into the sane and insane and once we label people as such, it becomes next to impossible to remove that stigma. It’s one of the reasons I stopped training in traditional psychology and looked for more holistic approaches that were less focused on diagnoses. One of the studies that proved this is “Sane In Insane Places” by David Rosenhan.
It is one of my favourite studies because it proves behaviour in isolation is neither healthy nor unhealthy but there is much more complexity to it. For example, if a schizophrenic said they had voices in their head, the psychology world is quick to diagnose that as a fault, a deviant from being ‘normal’ and yet, I know I have a voice in my head and that I spend most the day talking to myself. But I’m an author so that’s normalised and if I speak to other authors, they often echo the same.
In 1973, Rosenhan proved this by getting eight people admitted into a psychiatric institute. None of them had any mental illnesses and they had to ‘pretend’ in order to get admitted. Once admitted, they stopped faking symptoms and yet all were diagnosed with a condition (largely Schizophrenia) and not believed. When I first learned about this study at A-level, it was unsurprising to me. After all, if you can imagine someone in a psychiatric hospital insisting they weren’t mentally ill or unwell, I could believe they would be ignored.
The reason why we want this distinct line between those who end up in psychiatric hospitals and us is because it feels safer. We like to put those people in boxes and declare something fundamentally wrong with them (usually from birth) so that we can live with the safety of knowing that we are not in danger of becoming that way but the reality is, if you listen to any of the patients speak, how they ended up there is more understandable than not. Each person had a story of all the events that led up to their arrest and whilst I of course don’t condone any kind of aggressive behaviour, given their childhood and upbringing, it makes sense.
On a much less extreme scale, I remember learning this lesson myself a few years ago. When I first got trained as a life coach, I went on a coaching retreat with the sole intention of getting more like-minded friends who were open to personal development. I succeeded and left the retreat with three friends who happened to be much older than me and they stayed friends long after the retreat. Being three decades apart and all of them divorced with grown kids, it also was an insight into a world I would have never encountered otherwise. It would be a few years into our friendship that one would start dating someone new and within six weeks, she was declaring that she had found the one and that they were going to get married and within two more weeks, they had broken up. Cue her crying for months and every time I would go around to visit, she would be stalking his social media. My love life wasn’t exactly much better so I was in no place to judge, and I’d also been guilty of cyber-stalking but there was a difference in the extent of upset and maybe this was ageist, but there was a part of me that thought by 50, the rise and fall of dating would hurt a little less.
I remember speaking to my life coach, Michelle Zelli about it because if there was no hope that any of this would get any easier, then what was the point?
She said to me something simple that I’ve never forgotten.
“She didn’t get that way by accident”
She explained that as you age, you can either repeat your negative patterns or you can change them. If you repeat them, they tend to get more extreme. The word ‘extreme’ recalled our most recent interaction where she was zooming in on his Twitter profile picture asking if I thought the woman in the background was his new girlfriend. I’d also been a love addict, I’d fallen hard for guys in much less than six weeks and pictured our wedding too but at that moment, it felt like seeing a future version of me and realising that’s not what I wanted for my own life. When you fall hard for a guy, it can seem romantic but when you watch someone else do it, you can see how dangerous it is and how you truly are putting your heart in the hands of someone who has not proved they are trustworthy.
I think the same when I watch couples who have been together for decades snip at each other. That resentment didn’t come from nothing. It built up over time when an issue arose and was never resolved. There was one year on Valentine’s Day I remember overhearing my housemate yell on the phone to her parents. I had never heard her yell so as soon as her phonecall was over, I went into her room and asked if all was OK. She said it was fine but her parents were fighting over something silly. Her Dad had given her mum an empty Valentine’s Day card. Not a single word, not even his name in it. That evening, I went out for dinner and while at dinner, my friend’s phone kept pinging. She apologised and explained that her mum was furious because her husband had signed her Valentine’s Day card with “Sincerely”. I ended up telling her about what had happened earlier in the day and we pondered whether these are the ‘small things’ that amounted to so much more once you were decades into a relationship. Small things aren’t small things if they happen repeatedly. And if you haven’t voiced your annoyance, nothing changes, those bad habits deepen and become more extreme, just like our individual characteristics.
These three stories might seem disjointed but all of them speak to the same thing. Life doesn’t happen by accident. We don’t just have a set route for life and play that out, we can actually affect change. When we talk about personal development, we often talk about baby steps and small changes but all three of these stories are actually examples of what happens if you don’t take those steps. If those patients had one supportive person in their childhood, if that woman had learned some lessons from her divorce, or if those couples had voiced the importance of a (written) Valentine’s Day card, the end result might not have been the end result.
We think if we don’t work on ourselves, we stay the same but what I realised is we don’t. Staying the same is not an option, with or without personal development. If you choose to not work on yourself, your patterns deepen and therefore the things that annoy you about yourself will annoy you more. The things that upset you, will upset you more and the things that anger you, will anger you more.
You don’t become who you are by accident. Whether you make a choice to change or you avoid that choice, that indecision is still a choice and therefore the default is not you staying the same but actually becoming a more extreme version of you and more of the current you.
Lots of love,