Thursday, September 10, 2009

Three Statements

There is a scheme of behavior, directed at improving mental health, that I have advised for many years, much to the chagrin of mental health professionals. You see, it’s much too simple, they say, and anything so simple, obviously, cannot have value. The only trouble is that it works, and that if you pay attention to it and follow it, you will be a long way down the path of promoting your own personal mental health. How simple is it? Only three statements, three principles to follow toward better mental health.

The first statement: Always tell the truth. This sounds, on the face of it, very simplistic. I phrase it in the positive, "always tell the truth," as opposed to the negative, "don’t lie." Now, I’m not saying you must tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth all of the time, as in a court of law — but do tell the truth. When you lie, you invariably trap yourself in the situation in which you must create another lie to get out of the situation you have devised. One lie really does lead to another lie, and then some. So, I maintain you should always tell the truth.

Now, this raises an old question, which was addressed by sages thousands of years ago. What do you say to an ugly bride? Do you tell her she is beautiful, understanding that she really does not meet your standard of beauty, but that you are trying to preserve her feelings; or do you tell her that the gown is lovely, but the face is another story, thus shattering her emotions on the most meaningful day of her life. Grappling with the question, the sages’ response was that one should say, "You are beautiful," but it is not a lie. The inner glow, the warmth, the radiance that comes from a bride truly makes any bride beautiful. Beauty is more than skin deep. There is physical beauty. There is spiritual beauty. And the truth is, all brides really are beautiful. So, you see, to tell the truth does not need to be brusque, to tell the truth does not mean that you are brutal. It just means that you tell the truth.

It also means that the truth may not be the obvious thing to say. What may appear to be true may not, in fact, be the truth. Put your brain into gear before engaging your mouth. Think a little, it wouldn’t hurt.

The second statement: Always keep your agreements. Or, if you prefer, if you don’t plan to do it, don’t say it. Now, you might say this is tantamount to telling the truth. But there is a difference here. What I am asking you now to do is to extend your word to be your bond. Consider what you are saying and how what you are saying impacts upon other people. Consider that agreements that you have made may have a far wider impact than you, and your own devices.

Let’s say you were performing in a show. And let’s really stretch it and say that you have one of the lead roles. One day, you decide you don’t want to play any more. You want to quit, go home, and rest. You had agreed to be in that show, perhaps you signed a contract, a formal declaration of that agreement. But all you can think of is, "I don’t need the show; the show does not need me. They will do fine without me. I just want to go home and rest." But think about it. Your leaving the show might disrupt the entire production, throwing all of the actors out of work. With them go the stage hands, the make up people, the costume and set people, the people selling tickets out front, the people manning the concessions, the people sweeping the aisles of the theatre, the maintenance people who support the physical plant, the advertising people who promote the shows, and all of these folk’s families, children, and so on. You must keep your agreements. If you don’t plan to keep the agreement, don’t make it to begin with.

The third statement: Don’t make up stuff. Again, an explanation would be in order. Far too many of us act on information that is just not true. Information that is generated from the depths of our own imagination. Time and time again, patients paint a clear scene for me of the interactions in their families, or what is happening at work. When I question details, or start to pick apart the picture, however, the entire facade crumbles into a pile of disconnected and missing bricks.

The classic example of this is a vaudeville routine, often called a "Jack Story." One common version goes like this: Jack is strolling along one day when he meets Sally, a girl he has been wanting to meet for some time, but who has never given him so much as a passing glance. As was his custom, he smiles and tips his hat. But this time, Sally responds and smiles back. They strike up a conversation and, after a few moments, he asks her out, and she agrees. They part blissfully, to go to their respective homes and prepare for the evening’s engagement. Once arriving home, Jack begins talking to himself. "My," he thinks, "it certainly was nice of Sally to accept my invitation to go out. I wonder why she’s never paid me any attention before. I’m a nice fellow. Not bad looking. I may not be the richest guy in the world, but I’m certainly not poor. Educated. Moral. Honest. I always keep my agreements. I’m a good person! And yet she has never, ever, given me so much as the time of day. Well, it obviously can’t be her, because here she is going out with me. Well, if it’s not her, who can it be? I wonder if it’s her father? Yes, that must be it. Her father has forbidden her from going out with me, or even with talking to me. But why would her father say that? There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m a nice fellow." He continues getting dressed. "How dare her father forbid her from talking with me or going out with me. He doesn’t even know me. How can he do that, how can he judge me that way? I’m afraid I would have to tell her father how wrong he has been in his judgement of me." He straightens his tie. "I can’t believe that he would have prevented Sally from even speaking with me on the telephone. How dare he behave that way." He puts on his coat. "I have never been the subject of such prejudicial behavior in my life, as with Sally’s father." He starts out the door. "Why, if I see him I’m going to give him a piece of my mind. I’m going to tell him what I think of him."

He crosses the courtyard between the houses, reaches Sally’s house, and knocks on the door. "I’m going to show Sally’s father exactly what I think of him." The door opens, Sally’s father says, "Good Evening," and receives a punch in the nose. That is a Jack Story.

Clearly, the animosity that Jack built up against Sally’s father was wholly his own creation. Yet, he acted upon it as though it were factual. How many times do we behave in exactly that manner. Don’t assume things, don’t make up things, don’t invent things. Open up your eyes, and look around. See the world as it really is.

And so we are left with these three basic principles which, if you follow them, can go a long way towards promoting your general mental health. Always tell the truth. Always keep your agreements. Don’t make up stuff.

This material and entire blog copyright © 2009 by Marc I. Leavey, M.D.
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