Life’s been pretty tough for most of humankind’s existence. War, torture and genocide were much more common to primitive man than even during the severe bloodlettings of the twentieth century. (See Steven Pinker’s War Before Civilization and his latest book,The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined).
Poverty has been the norm, xenophobia (fear of the “other”) has been not just pervasive but necessary to survival (if you saw someone who looked different from you in primitive times, it likely meant somebody was going to try to kill you… or worse.), and life expectancy was a fraction of what it is today.
Somehow, we survived and flourished and created the nearly miraculous civilization that we now enjoy – at least in the West.
But somewhere along the way, we began to think of ourselves as fragile. Nowadays it seems that any setback is a tragedy, any distress a trauma, and any minor injustice a case for legal action.
Children are commonly given psychoactive medications for any and all fluctuations in mood, or any deviation from what somebody in a position of authority considers to be the norm.
Couples are told that they must resolve all of their conflicts in order to have a functional relationship.
People who experience a traumatic event are told that they must experience and express what they went through with a therapist in order to heal from the trauma.
Schools are told to protect their children’s fragile self-esteem by not keeping score in games or giving honest feedback for work poorly done.
How on Earth could we have possibly survived before the advent of modern psychology?
The truth is we survived very well, thank you; and I fear that we’ve lost something in our – very admirable – pursuit of improving our quality of life.
Let’s consider psychoactive drugs. I have known people whose lives were saved because they were given antidepressants. There is a place for these. But I believe that they have been vastly overprescribed, particularly to one group of people: children.
In our universities today, the incidence of mental health problems has skyrocketed since I was in college a few decades ago. How can that be, when we have come so far in our ability to treat such troubles as depression and anxiety?
I suspect that it could have something to do with the over-prescription of psychoactive drugs to children.
When we are growing up, for most of us, we are in the care of people who love us, protect us, and help us to deal with the struggles and challenges of maturing. Our parents take care of us, worry about things that we don’t even think about and help to soften the impact of a sometimes harsh world.
This is one reason why many of us look back to the era in which we grew up as a golden age – the music of that time tends to stick with us, the world events of that time seem to have been less troublesome or more meaningful than they are now. This is because somebody else was worrying about them – our parents and caregivers who were adults.
This is also a time when we get to learn how to deal with whatever psychological or emotional troubles or eccentricities we came into the world with. If you have a tendency toward depression, or anxiety, or obsession/compulsion, or control of your impulses, or sleep problems, or strong emotions, or thin skin, the time while you are growing up, likely in the care of people who love you, is the ideal time to learn how to deal with these.
It is a central function of maturing that you learn how to cope with hardship and challenges; and your internal world is no exception.
When we medicate kids in order to take the edge off of their depression, or their anxiety, or their hyperactivity, or whatever else makes parenting, teaching, or otherwise shepherding them through this time of life challenging, we are depriving them of the opportunity to learn how to cope with these tendencies.
Then they get to college, forget to take their meds – or suffer from the long-term side effects of those meds – and they become flooded with overwhelming emotions and psychological issues, all at a time when they are alone in the world, away from familiar territory, and with others who may be struggling poorly with their own issues.
These kids never learned to deal with themselves, to cope with their shortcomings and challenges, and to overcome the daunting challenges that such troubles can present. And to make matters worse, sometimes the medications, which change the structure of the brain, create challenges all their own.
This is not a blanket condemnation of medication. You may have kids who have needed such an intervention. There is a place for it and, as I said earlier, it can sometimes save a life.
But as with many trends in psychology, practitioners get caught up in the wave of the treatment of the day and indeed such treatment becomes the standard of practice. Before you know it, that treatment becomes spread out well beyond the populations for whom it was intended or could genuinely help.
Then it becomes a cultural issue. And our culture has been suffering from a fragilification of our people.
Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) is another example: For people who have experienced a trauma such as a natural disaster, a crime, or a horrible event, the accepted intervention has been to get them, right away, to come into a group and talk about their experience and their feelings about it. The idea is to catch them before the trauma sets in so that they can heal from it and get on with life.
But the truth is most people heal from trauma all by themselves over time. It’s not that the trauma doesn’t affect them or that they forget all about it. Such an event will become part of who you are – you cannot make something not have happened that happened.
But most people find ways of coping, of integrating the experience, and of carrying on.
What CISD does for a certain percentage of people is to freeze the traumatic memories in place, so that they actually suffer more from the trauma and are less able to cope, integrate and carry on to a functioning life.
This is, again, an intervention that assumes our fragility, and serves to make us more fragile in the process. As Henry Ford said: Whether you think you can or whether you think you can’t, you’re right.
Another example is in relationships. Many of the theories that I was taught as a graduate student in psychology proposed that couples must resolve their childhood issues and actively resolve their day to day conflicts with their partner in order to have a good, functioning relationship.
Again, we are made fragile. We are broken, and must be fixed continuously in order to function.
The most successful relationships have plenty of conflict. It is not the absence of conflict that defines a successful relationship; it is how you both deal with that conflict that counts. If you think of yourself as fragile, if you believe that you must resolve everything, that your partner must communicate a certain way and that you cannot have anything troubling you from your past in order to love somebody and be together with them, your ability to be together with them will be severely undermined.
What’s more important is that you are able – as a couple, as friends, as allies – to find ways to negotiate the ups and downs, the ebbs and flows, the good times and the bad times, with grace, humor and respect.
You are not as fragile as you’ve been told. We as a species and as a culture are not as fragile as we have been made out to be. We are strong, resilient critters. We are imperfect, complex, troubled, difficult beings. Our capacity to learn to deal with these qualities is part of what makes us so magnificent.
Sometimes it can certainly help to have a guide – a therapist, a coach, a marriage counselor, a teacher or mentor or dear friend – to help us learn to deal with our world. But the struggle to cope, to face our inner challenges and to deal with our troubles is not something that should or can be taken from us.
It is our consciousness, our choices and our ability to find solutions to problems – including our own – that makes us human. This is hard, it is messy, it is imperfect and it is the stuff of life on this Earth.
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