We were coming to the end of our first psychotherapy session when I asked my new client, Paul, if he had any questions for me. Paul hesitated before speaking. “Well, I mean,” then he laughed. “Am I crazy?”
This is one of the two basic concerns that people have when they come into therapy. The other worry is, “will you be able to help me?”
“Whether I can help you depends on the answer to the crazy question, but in a way that may surprise you,” I answer.
“The simple answer is, yes, you are crazy. The good news is, if you can accept that, then, yes, I can help you.”
Once he gets over the shock, I get to an answer that is a bit more complicated. Crazy. What does that even mean? It certainly is not a clinical, technical word. It doesn’t appear in the Diagnostic Manual. So, we can define it however we like. I have worked with some people who have severe mental illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. But, most of these people, (just like the rest of the population) are people with very good hearts. I don’t call that crazy.
On the other side, there are many folks who would not be diagnosed with any kind of mental illness, but have what we call “personality disorders.” They can be highly successful, but may be very disconnected from a conscience and so can cause great harm. For example, there are very powerful people who try to convince others that climate change doesn’t exist or that starting a war with Iran is a good idea. Some might consider this crazy.
Now let’s look at another definition of the word. Human beings are the “meaning-making” animal. What does this mean? It means we not only take in the sense impressions that surround us, but we interpret these experiences and form them into a story. Here’s a typical example:
A conventionally good looking guy in his early twenties, dark hair and blue eyes, in good shape, pleasant, bright smile, walks into a party. His heart starts to pound, his lips get dry, his hands clammy. He immediately interprets this feeling in his body to mean that he is in danger. Uh, oh, he thinks, I’m in trouble now. I won’t be able to think of a thing to say, and everyone will see what an idiot I am. Why did I even come to this stupid party? Nobody will like me and I’m doomed to fail. I’m just going to go home and be miserable. I’m so humiliated! The more this self-talk goes on, the higher his anxiety gets, until he lives out the self-fulfilling prophecy. He stands in a corner, chugs down several drinks, squirms out of the party without talking to anyone, goes home, and feels awful.
What went wrong? First, his body misinterpreted the danger. His body reacted as if he were going to get eaten by a saber-toothed tiger, when all that was happening was he was going to be around some attractive (or not) men or women.
A small, walnut-sized part of his brain called the amygdala, sensing danger, set off a bunch of bodily reactions, including sending adrenaline through his body, preparing him to run, attack, or play dead. This led to a set of feelings in his body. This corresponded to an emotion: fear.
Next to come on line was his thinking, language-making brain. Now he started telling himself a story. He began to give meaning to the feelings he was having. This story was concocted from a playbook he carries around in his head about himself and the world. In his case, it is something like: I’m a loser and the world is a dangerous place.
Now this playbook, or map, of himself and the world, isn’t completely made up out of whole cloth. He could probably point to ample evidence to prove his case. The problem is, one could equally come up with ample evidence to prove the opposite. One could easily say, “The world is going to hell in a handbasket! Evil is everywhere!” One could also easily say, “The world is filled with love, and every day is filled with acts of altruism, bravery, and kindness.” Like in a movie, it all depends on where you put the lights and how you do the editing.
The point is, we all do this. We all take what happens and give it meaning. We all create our own movies, so that our lives and the world make some kind of sense. And because the meaning-making process inevitably highlights certain information and ignores other data, our movie is always wrong, because it can never be complete. Humans, especially with language, have a very hard time holding opposite ideas at the same time. Mostly, we think in terms of “this OR that,” not “this AND that.”
Now most people come into therapy wanting their view of things to be validated. “Tell me I’m not crazy!” they often say. And there is good reason why they want to, and need to be, validated. Very often we grow up in homes where our parents are caught in the trap of their own movies, and deny the child’s emotional reality and experience, and this makes the child feel – oh, here’s that word – crazy.
But this creates a problem. If we all distort reality, if none of us create a story that is totally true, if the very process that gives our lives coherence and value, our meaning-making capacity, also is inherently limited, then how do we know what the truth is, and how can we honestly validate someone else’s version of events?
The answer is, we can validate someone’s experience, but we don’t have to name it as the singular, absolute truth. So, for example, in the old movie The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, the lead character runs into the psychiatrist’s office and says, “Everyone looks the same, but they have all been inhabited by aliens!” The shrink calls for the men in white coats, who puts the guy in a straight-jacket and take him to the loony bin.
My response would have been different. I would’ve said, “Your reaction makes total sense to me. If I believed that everyone was possessed by aliens, I’d be in a panic, too.” I wouldn’t be agreeing with him, but I would be entering his world, and seeing things through his meaning-making lens, making it possible for me to understand why he would be reacting the way he was. I would get that he’s just trying to save the world. (And the crazy thing was, in this movie, he was right!)
So how do we know the whole truth? How do we know if our interpretation is right or wrong? What do we do if we know that someone else’s interpretation is false? And what does this have to do with why it is good to be crazy? (Remember that old kid’s rhyme – Ain’t it great to be crazy? Ain’t it great to be nuts like us BOOM BOOM! Ain’t it great to be crazy? Just like ME!)
I can answer those questions. It is not that our interpretation of the world is true or false, wrong or right, crazy or sane; rather, it is that our view is inherently limited by the same faculty that gives life its meaning, value, and richness. It is not that Donald Trump is wrong in his shaming insults of people – rather it is that he is selecting only the most horrible aspect of a person and defining them wholly by that sliver.
If there is no one who has a corner on the truth, and it is simply that each of our truths is incomplete, then the first step toward being not crazy is to recognize that the stories we construct are only partially true. That is, to some extent, we are crazy.
Then, our work becomes, once we can admit this, not to see how we are right, but rather how we are wrong. This is a big part of the hard work of therapy. Once we can accept the reality that we will never completely grasp reality, then we can begin to expand our picture of the “true.” This is called having an open mind. This is not easy. The more we can expand our version of the true, to include more and more facets of the truth, the closer we come to “Truth,” though we will never get fully there.
Piaget talked about this in his concept of assimilation and accommodation. He posited that we carry these maps of the self and the world, because we need to orient ourselves and get around. But these maps are incomplete, inaccurate, and a map is only a picture of the real thing. When new information comes in that doesn’t fit the map, we can do one of two things. Either we reject the information because it doesn’t fit the map, or we change the map.
Most people do the former. For example, one of my “crazy” Facebook friends recently posted a meme saying that Obama was a psychopath because he cried talking about murdered children. It didn’t fit this person’s map that Obama is a good man, so when she saw a display of honest emotion, she had to reject it, and say that it was the sign of its opposite. It would be much harder work for her to say, “You know, I was wrong about this guy, Obama. He doesn’t want to impose Sharia law on America!”
So how do we do this hard work of expanding our notion of the “true”? The best way to do this is to be open to the perspective of others. This is the great opportunity that having an intimate relationship affords. The crazy thing about our significant other is that they are not us. They don’t think the same things we do, they don’t believe the same things we do – especially when we get into a fight with them. They have the temerity to think that they are right and we are wrong! Now how crazy is that? Only as crazy as the fact that we believe we are right and they are wrong!
If we can learn to put our own story aside, and truly enter the world of another, and listen deeply and profoundly to this person that we love, we can approach the fight not from the perspective of how am I going to convince the other person that I am right; but rather from the perspective of, how am I wrong? Or, to put it another way, the healthy way to have a relationship is to begin with the premise that you are, somewhat, crazy.
But wait a minute – aren’t there instances where someone is right, and therefore, someone else is wrong? There are certainly absolutes of fact. There were no cheering crowds in New Jersey after the twin towers fell or fetuses having their brains removed on video. But just like in this example, there are many instances where we believe things are facts that aren’t, or we deny obvious truths. To avoid this pitfall requires that we become critical thinkers and make sure we don’t believe something is true just because it fits into our world view. First we must learn to discern opinion, or bullshit, from fact.
It may also be true that your partner did not pick up the wet bath mat from the floor. That is the fact. But what drives our emotions about these facts is the meaning we give to them. If you believe that your partner doesn’t pick up the bath mat because they don’t care about you, you’ll get upset about it. You may believe your interpretation to be true, but it’s probably not the whole truth. The bath mat on the floor is a fact; the interpretation is a meaning you create.
So who’s crazy? We all are. As my mother used to say, everyone’s got their shtick. You can only get less crazy, you can only get help and grow as a person, when you can admit that you are a little nuts. Like us. And if everyone could do that, the world would be a saner place.