A question for those of us who came of age the 1970’s - the decade of personal growth - are we really at choice in our mental health? Perhaps we are the first generation to even consider this. Our parents just seemed to hold everything inside and “deal with it” somehow, but whether through music, philosophy, pharmaceuticals or psychology, we have been looking inward for the past 40 years.
Morris Schectman claims, “The essential definition of neurotic behavior is behavior that's no longer in context”. Another quotation, attributed to no one in particular, states, “the neurotic builds castles in the sky, the psychotic lives in them and the psychiatrist collects the rent.” And according to another website I Googled, if I wonder whether I’m neurotic - suffering from anxieties, phobias and compulsions - probably I am.
In 1999, I had a realtor who had previously worked as a therapist. She used to call my “file” my “chart”. “HA HA”, I said, “not just yet”, although finding an affordable condo that met my standards was making me crazy. We became friendly during our search. She gave me a great article on the upside of an ADD personality. The article, undoubtedly a fragment of her former occupation, claimed that those of us who suffer from inability to focus can often be creative multi-taskers, which is not all bad.
What I remember most about this woman was her comment that she had made up her mind not to be neurotic. I have thought about this so many times over the past six years. The condo has been bought and sold, and in hindsight, I had every reason to be so picky, and run her ragged. But that’s another story.
My personal quest for sanity has taken me down a number of different avenues - some scenic paths, some dangerous roads and some dead ends. Sometimes I have felt that the ironic cliché “you can’t get there from here” has defined my evolutionary journey. Outside of my current spiritual path, perhaps the single most effective way that I have managed my own mental health has been through what I call “cognitive therapy lite”. I have made almost a game out of it! There is little in life that is absolute; one can interpret events in many ways, so this is about choosing a way to interpret things that is not damaging to your self worth or anxiety producing.
A silly example that illustrates the basic principle of cognitive therapy is to imagine yourself walking down the hallway in your office. You say hello to a colleague, who ignores you. One option is to take it personally, to be offended, or feel some version of worthless or inferior. Or, in “cognitive therapy lite”, you may simply turn that neurotic thinking around, and say, HEY, that person may be hard of hearing, lost in thought, or having a bad day. It has nothing (repeat, nothing) to do with me. Whew, a neurotic episode averted!
Being minimally neurotic and maximally mentally healthy involves more than just cognitive therapy, but in this game we can start where we are. Sanity in our increasingly complex world is multi-faceted, and as we age, we have a larger gunnysack of baggage that we carry around with us. Life tends to be kind of rough on most of us, even the most privileged. Opportunities abound to feel “less than” or “not good enough”. Choose, like my former realtor, not to be neurotic. Study, reflect on and practice healthy thinking until it becomes a part of you. Exercise, pray, meditate, commune with nature, and get help - whatever it takes. Do not become fussy, a recluse, a curmudgeon - some of the many versions of those among us who may still be functioning, but suffer nonetheless. Life as John Lennon said, is not a dress rehearsal. Bad things will happen, not everyone will like you but you can choose to accept life on life’s terms, and choose not to be neurotic.