Relational Reflexivity as the Key to Emotional Balance

The psychic fact receives from speech the power to be what it is.

From Difficult Freedom by Emmanuel Levinas

As one who has worked in caring services for most of his life, it is a privilege to hear the stories of those who are afraid, who are overly anxious and who are depressed.  There appears to be a common thread these people share.  To be overcome with fear, anxiety or depression is to move further and further away from people and the simple pleasures of life.  “All I want to do,” the depressed person tells me, “is sleep.”  Listening to their depressed state, they turn from those they love and their friends where they may find help and they isolate themselves in the darkness of their room.  “I can’t go outside!!” exclaims the person riddled with anxiety. “Something horrible is going to happen if I do.” They then sentence themselves to the confines of their home, which now seems as if it were a prison more than a refuge.  Isolation becomes a solution to their fear.  “I just can’t relax.  I feel like I’m going to jump out of my skin!” exclaims the one overwhelmed by anxiety.  Their uneasiness moves to irritation that drives away the ones who love them, the ones who might ultimately be able to help.  All these people are overwhelmed by their condition and rather than helping them overcome their problems, the move to isolation simply makes things worse.

In the United States, more than 60% of all people suffering from such conditions turn to their medical providers for help.  They seek insight; they seek healing; they seek a pill to solve their problems.  Medical providers often respond with medicine and a strong recommendation to seek help from a mental health professional.  Sometimes it helps.  Sometimes the antidepressant increases their brain’s neurotransmitters providing relief.  Sometimes they can sooth their nerves by taking anxiolytics that help them feel better until their anxiety returns.  In my experience, the drugs are helpful, but they do not heal.  Even though people may seek help from a mental health professional or a minister they may experience only minimal improvement after long periods of honest effort.

What is the problem?  Medical and mental health professionals are well-intended bound by the ethical mandates of beneficence and to do no harm.  Ministers want only the best for their parishioners.  So why are these efforts often met with disappointment?  Perhaps the problem is that we look in the wrong places for help.  As I have told my clients, the magic wand of healing is not in my hand; it is in theirs.   My efforts should combine with theirs empowering them to choose differently. This often takes work for unhealthy habits rip the wand from their hands and form unrealistic expectations.  Where do these expectations come from?  There are many sources, e.g., families of origin, religion, friends, political and social organizations, etc.  As I work with people, however, it seems that these variables share a common accord.  Running throughout Western society is a longing for perfection. We believe, somehow, that the flaws of existence and our own shortcomings can be overcome once we have found the path to this perfect state, and we have an amazing power to rationalize our failures that often creates powerful instances of cognitive dissonance resulting in emotional stress.  The idea of “perfection” is the idea that whatever is perfect lacks flaws and is complete.  This has led philosophers and theologians to claim that whatever is perfect is something that will never change and is therefore timeless.  This is rare.  So rare that René Descartes claimed that the very idea of perfection was witness to a divine being whose main difference from human beings is defined by perfection.  He used this idea as the basis of his ontological proof for the existence of God.  In my mind, the point is not that this divine being exists.  The point is that the only way we can think about perfection is to think about something that human beings aren’t. This abstraction is a powerful block to emotional healing and one of the sources of codependency that plagues our society today.

In this, we dare not throw out the baby with the bath water.  Medical science is a blessing to our society and mental health professionals have helped many find a better life.  We need their services.  Indeed, many of these caring professionals might be surprised that I put such an emphasis upon perfection.  They are, after all, empirical thinkers who try to avoid these sorts of abstractions.  Still the people for whom they care do labor under such delusions and caring professionals need to take this into account when caring for them.  How is this done?

The first point is almost tautological.  Caring professionals help others by helping them give up their notions of perfection.  Such a notion should not be the guide for their journey through life nor should it be an expectation that is imposed upon others if only provisionally.  To do so is to live in continued disappointment.  Holding others to a standard of perfection is not fair and believing anyone is able to attain states of perfection is unrealistic to the extreme.  These sorts of expectations are to invite emotional instability.  Emotions in themselves are not bad and are a necessary part of life, but the expectation that negative emotions—anger, feeling down, feeling anxious, etc.—should simply go away creating the perfect emotional state is unreasonable. Even negative emotions play an important role in life and often keep people safe.  If people are mindful of their emotions and realize that emotional highs and lows are a part of life, they will find emotional balance to be much more attainable.   The path to mental health is one that avoids false expectations such as perfection and lives in what is real.

Second, drawing upon the insights of Solution Focused (SF) therapy, successfully erasing false expectations from a person’s imagination means teaching them to think and talk about their everydayness differently.  The problem is negative ways of talking leads to negative behaviors, which are the substance of problematic expectations.  At the heart of this vicious cycle are categorical accusations that frame notions of self as well as others in a negative light.  “You/I never…!” and “You/I always…!” are two examples that infuriate but are very rarely true.  Categorical statements are the period at the end of a sentence; they are rarely an invitation to further exploration.  If people are to walk a path that is more emotionally balanced, they will learn to limit these types of categorical statements.

When people choose to engage themselves and others in a positive environment, they find the magic wand that brings emotional balance. 

The exception to these negative expressions is, of course, statements that avoid these problems by engaging a more positive form of discourse.  This too, is founded on a cycle, but it is one of honest exploration inviting conversation.  There is a back and forth here that some have called a “hermeneutical circle” and others have called “feedback loops.”  Whatever it is called, it reveals a relational reflexivity that is based upon mutuality and respect.  In this, there is little place for categorical statements.  The motivator is learning out of which more acceptable forms of thinking presents itself.  The dialectical space created by relational reflexivity is the space of emotional balance.  This requires practice and expectations of perfection are as out of place here as they are anywhere else.  The commitment is not to a state of perfection, but to the process of emotional balance, which brings greater understanding.

Essential to this process is not only the art of asking questions, but also the art of listening.  As opposed to categorical statements, asking questions is an invitation to further exploration.  Listening is a sign of respect indicating the conversation partner has something to say that is worthwhile.  When discourse is marked by negativity, people do not listen; they concentrate only on winning and use categorical statements to bludgeon their opponent into submission.  In a positive environment, people listen to what is said interrupting only for questions of clarification.  When people choose to engage themselves and others in this positive environment, they find the magic wand that brings emotional balance.  It is not an evasion of highs and lows.  It does not erase anxiety.  Rather it is the formula to successfully live amid the emotions evoked by everydayness.

Think about it.  Living under the demand of categorical requirements of oneself and others is to live under the demand of perfection.  It is to expect the flaws of life to simply go away. All one needs is a pill or the advice of a caring professional. While this can help, it is not be a formula for healthy living; it may be a formula for false expectations leading to anxiety, depression and a host or other emotional problems.  People need to give up such ideas and minimize their place in their speech patterns and resulting behaviors.  To do so is to follow a more positive path in life avoiding the temptation to think and speak negatively of oneself and others.  As Solution Focused therapists have long pointed out, living a positive lifestyle is the magic wand for it gives people the power to find healing and emotional health.

Published by Harold W. Anderson, Ph.D.

I am a retired United Methodist Minister and recently closed my practice as a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, retiring with my wife to Rancho Murieta, CA. Now I have a blog and several hobbies that take up my time. We enjoy traveling and occasionally spending time at our cabin in the mountains of Colorado.

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