On Being Psychologically Healthy
November/December 1998

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Iíve so often answered questions regarding what it means to be psychologically healthy, I thought Iíd already written an essay about it. The most common way the question is asked is, "Do I need therapy?" Iíve rarely seen descriptions of psychological health or, at least, any that I thought bore repeating. (I donít really like the term, but so far I havenít thought of a better one.) It also occurs to me that such a description could be useful. So Iíd like to explore some of the themes that I believe constitute what it means to be psychologically healthy. 
I propose that the essential constituent of psychological health is a commitment to dialogue. To dialogue is to engage in "real talk" (Leslie Farber, The Ways of the Will). To dialogue is to be genuinely present, both to oneís self and to the other person (Linn, I Am What I Am, vol. 2, ch. 3). In other words, my psychological health is diminished by the degree to which dialogue is missing in my relationship with myself and with others.
Commitment to dialogue means being open. I say this with the proviso that we realize that our first responsibility is to protect ourselves, which may call for us to not be open. Itís just that psychologically healthy people are more likely to be open because they are less likely to see what others do or say as directed against them. Furthermore,they are apt to use their communication skills to more accurately discern whether or not there is a threat at hand and to determine how to deal most effectively with it.
Being committed to dialoguing also means being dedicated to not having hidden agendas. I once had a clinical supervisor who declared not only that therapists needed to have hidden agendas, but that we all needed to have them. I troubled over this for a long time before I became convinced that since hidden agendas are deceitful behavior, they are toxic and disturbing. 
Hidden agendas are a form of mystifying behavior. I often find mystifying descriptions when I peruse the personal ads. For example, people describe their ages as "late 20ís", "30ís", "45+" or "middle aged." These are all efforts to conceal rather than to reveal. Commitment to dialogue means being dedicated to clarifying and opposed to mystifying.
There are a number of other very interwoven themes that I consider to be significant constituents of psychological health:
When I am psychologically healthy, I am passionate; I typically know what I wantand that I am free to strive for it. Although I may sometimes hesitate, ultimately I do not shrink from striving for what I want and I do not vacillate. I am free to energetically use everything at my disposal to honorably achieve my goals. I am free to choose whether to strive for something, what to strive for, and how I will strive for it(in contrast, for example, to letting myself to be victimized by the demands or judgments of others).
In other words, I am characteristically directed, with regard to both the "big" picture (Iím in college, working towards a degree in anthropology) and the "little" picture. (Iíve set time aside this afternoon to study for tomorrowís test, and Iím making sandwiches so I can study without interruption.) Furthermore, my directedness is in harmony with my passions (I can hardly wait to graduate so I can get to work "doing" anthropology). I am en route somewhere, working towards what matters to me: a promotion, to be a more loving father or more competent therapist, to save enough money to retire, to build a bookcase, to finish eating quickly so I can get to the theater on time, and so on. 
When I am psychologically healthy, I am committed. I characteristically stand up for what I value and desire, rather than being either passive or aggressive. And I make choices while clearly knowing that nothing is guaranteedóthat there is risk in every decision I make, no matter what I decide, and that, as Sartre points out, I am "doomed to choose." For just this reason, I feel pleasure when I achieve what I want.
Being psychologically healthy doesn't mean that I donít make mistakes or that no one ever fools me or takes advantage of me. It does mean that I recognize that I am the architect of my life and the captain of my ship. If someone has taken advantage of me, I am able and willing to acknowledge my distress and to deal with the situation openly, without criticizing, honorably, and assertively; and I am free to seek help if I need it, or to simply accept and grieve my loss. 
When I am psychologically healthy, I am committed to taking the very best care of myself. Rather than being passive or vacillating in the face of othersí self-serving demands and judgments, I act passionately in my own best interest as well as in the best interest of those people I am close to. Itís important to say that acting in my own best interest does not mean acting against others. I contend, in fact, that when I am truly acting in my own best interest I am also acting in othersí best interest. 
Being psychologically healthy means that I am flexible (in contrast to being compulsive): I am free to either change direction or to stay the course when I discover unexpected obstacles; I am free, as well, to change course when I discover that my desires have changed. 
To the degree that I am psychologically healthy, I am at home with myself. This means that I like myself, enjoy my own company, and am not compelled to be with someone else (nor, for that matter, am I compelled to be alone). It means that I have a clear sense that specific others can and do like who I am and can and do appreciate my presence in their lives. It also means that I see my life as a valuable gift and that Iím glad to be alive, even when the going is tough.
To the degree that I am psychologically healthy, I do not criticize. By criticizing I do not mean an evaluation that Iíve asked for or agreed to (for example a job evaluation). I mean finding fault, blaming or otherwise attacking the worth of someone. I recognize that criticizing and blaming are not natural, inevitable, or effective. When people criticize or blame me, I recognize that their criticism and blame reflect their own pain, and do not describe me. I also realize that there may be something in what they are saying that is important for me to hear. Therefore, rather than being either passive or aggressive when people criticize me, I typically try to "decode" their messages by dialoguing with them, in order to effectively resolve the disturbance. 
Psychologically healthy people recognize that conflict is inevitable. When there is conflict, they characteristically seek mutually satisfying solutions
I recognize that being psychologically healthy does not mean I will never be in pain, e.g., never hurting, never being sad, never being scared or angry; that not even the healthiest of lives is devoid of pain. It means that I embrace how I feelómy distresses as well as my pleasures. I opt to remain aware of how I feel, rather than attempt to distract or anesthetize myself. 
Freud said that the two most important parts of our lives are love and work. I think he was very much on target, but that he left out another very important facet of our lives. Play. Psychological health is characterized by a typically appropriate, passionate, committed, and balanced involvement and investment in work, love and play. 
With regard to love and friendship, when I am psychologically healthy, I am adept at being intimate with others and with myself. I tend to choose and maintain relationships with people I passionately like and trust; our lives are connected and I am actively invested in my relationship with them; Their desires and well-being are as important to me as my own; and I am involved in an ongoing dialogue with them, seeking closure, and otherwise energetically demonstrating care.
By contrast, many of us seem to settle for mates who donít really fulfill our passions. Consequently, instead of reaching out lovingly, we may blame the person weíre with for not being someone we really want, may try to change him or her into the ideal mate we think would please usóall the while despairing of ever having a real connection with that person. We may even seek that seemingly elusive intimacy elsewhere. Or we may blame and criticize ourselves for our disturbed situation. 
We may settle, as well, for friends who donít really satisfy us or who treat us badly. We may maintain these relationships because weíre afraid of being alone, or simply because weíre afraid to tell the other person that we no longer value the relationship. And rather than dialoguing about our dissatisfaction with the relationship, we may try to change the other person while concealing how we truly feel. 
When I am psychologically healthy, I recognize my kinship to other people, and respect and accept them as they are. (This extends to other forms of life and to the environment that supports it.). I value others: I respect them. I accept them as they are. I support them and make room for them. I recognize that others often see things differently than I do (different strokes for different folks) and that this doesnít make them "wrong" and me "right." (In fact, I shun falling into the trap of separating things into right and wrong.) I tend to see others as potential friends, helpers and sources of safety, rather than as threatening opponents, although I am well aware that particular others might, indeed, threaten and oppose me. I am careful not to make assumptions about what they do or say, even when it seems incredibly obvious. Instead of jumping to conclusions, I make a considerable effort to check things out. 
With regard to work, it seems to me that the measure of my psychological health is my seeking and choosing work that I am passionate and enthusiastic about, work that I look forward to and engage in willingly and zestfully.
It seems to me, though, that most of us are living a psychologically unhealthy life when it comes to work. This is indicated by the banality of such expressions as "Itís only a job," "Itís Hump Day," and "Thank God, Itís Friday" (thereís even a large restaurant chain with this name). These expressions suggest that a great number of us are doing work that we donít enjoy and that we canít wait until our work week is over. Similarly, I often see people feeling great relief when they have the opportunity to do something other than their usual job (e.g., in attending a training session; they are relieved, not because they hope to learn how to do their jobs better, but because they expect that it will, for a short while, provide a respite from their work.) 
Psychologically healthy people play on a regular basis. Genuine play involves letting go of my everyday life and giving myself over to something pleasurable that has no direct connection to my work or love. Play is something I do for its own sake, rather than because "itís good for me" or because I am trying to distract myself from lifeís difficulties. I can play by myself, but play is most often with others. Although there may be other benefitsófor example, I learn new words when I do a crossword puzzle and get exercise when I sail a boatóplay is something I do for no reason other than I enjoy it. 
When we lose balance in our work or love lives, we may tend to shun play, for fear that we wonít be able to deal effectively with the disturbing situation if we donít stay focussed on it; or we may compulsively play, in order to distract ourselves from our pain. 
When Iím psychologically healthy, Iím committed to taking care of my body and I view doing so as a pleasure, rather than a burden. Rather than eating to comfort myself, I eat whatís good for me and I trust my appetite to inform me about whatís good for me and what isnít. I donít accept the common misperception that "if itís good for me, it canít taste good."
I also value my sleep. I recognize that it regenerates me and that inadequate sleep will erode my performance and ultimately result in diminishing returns. Therefore, I tend to consistently arrange my schedule so that I can get at least eight hours of uninterrupted sleep each night and can awaken when Iím rested (rather than by artificial means, such as an alarm clock). I know I am getting sufficient sleep when I go to bed tired and awaken refreshed. (This is in contrast to what is undoubtedly more common: I am wide awake when it is time for bed and tired when itís time to wake up, a state of affairs which has made the manufacturers of NoDoz and the various sleep aids very successful.)
When I am psychologically healthy, I recognize that my body needs to be kept in tone and, again, I see doing this as a pleasure, rather than a burden. Towards this end, I exercise my body in such a way that I keep my heart and other muscles in tone, without straining myself. This means that I do not operate with the motto of "no pain, no gain," long a popular injunction, which calls upon me to struggle against myself. 
In summary, psychologically healthy people are more adept than others at maintaining balance in their lives. They typically balance work, play and love; sleep and wakefulness; consumption of calories and exertion, expending and conserving resources, and so forth. 
The various constituents of psychological health are interrelated. When my esteem is low, I may want to conceal myself. To do so, I may squelch my passion and hesitate to dialogue, which is likely to result in my losing my balance. In fact, I find that whenever I act contrary to my own nature, I tend to lose balance. (I suggest, too, that it is this acting contrary to my own nature that potentiates addiction, a process in which all passion is lost except for the object of addiction (e.g., alcohol, drugs, work, women as sexual objects).
Although this is an extensive list, I donít presume that it exhausts all the themes that constitute psychological health. I have tried here to provide something of a road map, to suggest possible directions for exploration. It is not my intent to criticize or blame. I believe these ideas can instruct us about how healthy we are and can illuminate a path we can take to remedy our situation. It is a perspective that has served me well, both personally and professionally. I hope you find it useful and welcome your comments.
In my view, a low level of psychological health does not mean you are "broken." Such competencies can be attained, but not by force of will. Instead, my distress calls for me to listen carefully to myself and to fully acknowledge who I am. This involves completing my unfinished "traumatic moments," in order to discover, realize, and express my heretofore unexpressed pain and pleasure, so that I can discover what I really want and can begin a much delayed journey. 
Ultimately, living in a way thatís psychologically healthful is both easy and difficult. Itís like riding a bike: difficult until I get the hang of it, and then, pretty easy. 

©1998 Stephen E. Linn, Ph.D. ē Empowering People

When I am psychologically healthy, I am passionate; I am free to choose whether to strive for something, what to strive for, and how I will strive for it

Being psychologically healthy does not mean I will never be in pain; not even the healthiest of lives is devoid of pain. It means that I embrace how I feelómy distresses as well as my pleasures.

Empowering People

Essays on Being Human

Chapter 1
On Feeling
Chapter 2
On Pain
Chapter 3
Being Depressed
Chapter 4
On Primal

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