What Is Psychological Wholeness? Are You There Yet?

Many of us spend years obsessing about neuroses, worrying we might inherit a psychological illness from one parent or another, consuming one self-help regimen after another, contemplating self-improvement while slumping in dim therapy offices, revealing what we perceive as our psychological failures. We may continue to repeat this cycle, unaware of the fact that all our focus on psychological weakness is itself the source of perceived failure. All that hoping for healing, thinking deep down that someday maybe we will be well—unaddicted, non-neurotic, free from our attachments and fears. But have we really given real thought to what psychological wellness looks like? While we can envision what well-balanced physical health looks like (we read enough articles about it), what do we know of what the well-balanced inner life would truly be like?

Dr. Lisa Firestone, PhD, creator of PsychAlive.org, offered an interview with her father Robert Firestone, a psychologist of 40 years, as well as a theorist and author. In the interview, Dr. Firestone asked her father how he would define an emotionally healthy person. His answers could not have been more illuminating. I have taken them directly from her blog transcript of that interview and placed them below in a bulleted format. The link to the full transcript is here.

Traits of an Emotionally Healthy Person

  • Strong sense of self. There’s a long-held expression in the self-help community: “I’m going to find myself.” But as Confucius said, “No matter where you go, there you are.” Some believe people never change, but it may be more true that like all things, we are in a constant state of change. How we develop can be consciously self-directed, or it can be at the whim of the times and other outside influences. If we want to have a strong sense of who we are, we can decide to pay attention to how we respond emotionally, what we tend to think about, and how we learn, and we can decide to influence these factors. We can make ourselves better. We can grow to like who we are and to know ourselves deeply.
  • Can deal with feelings. If we have strong, highly impulsive reactions to people and events, especially ones we regret later, or if we don’t allow ourselves to feel emotional (even if we are mostly unaware of this), it’s probably true that we don’t deal with emotions well. Dealing with emotions doesn’t mean we never feel them—that we never cry or get angry—only that we recognize that taking these emotional reactions out on others is probably unfair. And experiencing them to the extreme is likely not about the situation we’re in at the time, but more about something that happened in the past that we haven’t yet resolved. We can look at our emotional nature and learn ways to respond that are healthier in order to feel more grounded, more emotionally evolved.
  • Not defensive. If we regularly become defensive, it’s likely that we’re blaming others a lot for whatever we feel to be going wrong in our lives. This kind of thinking leads to “victim mentality” and it is never healthy. If we have people in our lives who are hurtful or demeaning, the healthy thing to do is to disengage from them, if at all possible; that is self-accountability. If we find we are still chronically defensive, we need to take a deeper look at our communication style. Being a healthy adult means being responsible for our words as well as for how we perceive the words of others.
  • A strong sense of values. Robert Firestone suggested values that are inner-directed instead of outer-directed. For me, it is important to have what I consider to be mindfulness values. Mine are compassion, acceptance, kindness, patience, and trust. I try to remember to extend these feelings to myself as much as to others. Firestone said, “Without a sense of your own values, you are like a ship without a rudder; without a sense of direction.” Defining your life’s values will help to guide you back to a sense of place whenever you feel lost. They will help you make decisions when you feel morally uncertain.
  • “[N]either submissive nor defiant, but independent.” (This one is so glorious I don’t wish to add anything to it.)
  • The ability to express and create. The ability to express your own wants and desires. Robert Firestone discussed how being harmed can cause people to block out their own needs and hopes. We can become passive if we’ve been damaged and eventually unable to express ourselves, disconnected from our goals. He explained that as a result of being hurt, this self-denial is a psychological defense.
  • Able to go after what you want in life. Being emotionally healthy is to be willing to struggle for what we believe in and for what we want, and to compete if necessary, in order to see our goals realized. If we dissociate from ourselves and disconnect from our dreams because we believe it would be too much work, or we fear failure, we have gained nothing. At least in the struggle we become stronger.
  • Able to deal with abstract reasoning. Aside from the obvious, this suggests that we are not stuck in black-and-white thinking and can tolerate complexities of character—the shades of gray. No one is either all good or all bad, including the self. These moral characterizations are not useful and often lead to emotional reactivity in the extreme.
  • Able to be trusting of people, not suspicious. This one can be hard in the beginning. We’ve likely been hurt, and we live in a culture that is saturated in story and media messages filtering reasons not to trust. What we do not hear enough of are all the reasons we can and likely should trust. For example, it’s healthier for us to be trusting. It expands our consciousness and lowers levels of cortisol—the stress hormone—in the bloodstream which is connected to every major chronic disease leading to death. Being emotionally whole is to surround ourselves with trustworthy connection and be a trustworthy connection for others.
  • Be open to love. Be loving. Be connected to the living world around us. This last suggestion I’ve included is not all Dr. Firestone had to say on the subject of emotional wellness, but it is perhaps the most important. Being open to love is as much a part of being psychologically healthy as it is a by-product of it. When we are shut down, frenzied by fear of vulnerability, and unable to express emotions in a healthy way, we either resist opening ourselves to love or we invite unhealthy “love” in the form of negative relationships into our lives. As we begin to respond to our world in simple, more authentic ways, we learn that trust, truth, and honest emotion is not so scary after all. We can love, we are worthy of love, and in fact, the entire world is really a beautiful place worthy of our attention and participation. If we connect with it mindfully we will find everything is new and whole, even us.
Posted on July 14th, 2013

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