Symptoms: It’s All Good

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…the duty of philosophy it seemed to me

was to lay down the general conditions of the direct,

immediate observation of oneself by oneself.

- Henri Bergson


obody enjoys experiencing psychological symptoms. Episodes of depression, binge eating or manic energy scare us. We understandably want poor behaviors, irrational thoughts and uncomfortable feelings to go away – and quickly. But psychological symptoms are as important to the process of understanding what is amiss as physical symptoms are to both alerting us to disease and leading us to a diagnosis. And, like the indicators of an illness, they are also extremely valuable in terms of monitoring the progress of our healing as we work to treat a disorder. Therefore, all non-life-threatening psychological symptoms ought to be left in place until they have served their purpose.

I’m going to beat this unfortunate-but-important dead horse a bit, so if you are already convinced, feel free to jump ahead.

Symptoms as information

Psychological symptoms aren’t sinful. They are not “proof” that you are an awful person or a stupid person. They do not suggest that your character is weak or your soul is corrupt. Symptoms are simply data. And, despite what you may have been taught, data are always friendly because they always tell us something valuable about how we are doing in life. So if you are struggling with extremely uncomfortable moods such as anxiety, despair, apathy or rage, you are in a position to gather worthwhile data. If you routinely behave in ways that don’t serve your long-term interests – like mouthing off without thinking, consuming food or alcohol without paying attention or calling in sick to work for no justifiable reason – you have some dis-ease that needs to be investigated. And if your thinking has gotten recursive, stagnant or too cynical to allow for positive potentialities, it would be wise to philosophically dissect those thoughts.

When you replace a shame-based view of symptoms with the conviction that they represent meaningful clues about your situation, you have taken a big step in the right direction. You will then be ready to use symptoms diagnostically, for curiosity is simply the best state of mind from which to begin forward progress.

Symptoms as feedback

Psychological symptoms also help us by tracking changes since they will spontaneously decrease when a strategy for change is effective and remain stable or even increase when it is not. When we synthetically eliminate a symptom before we fix the problem, we lose a valuable tool for testing our hypothesis about how to solve the problem. Left in place, indicators of psychological distress will provide us with honest and reliable feedback. If you want to see if your new eating lifestyle is effective, you watch your adipose tissue and your energy level. If the first goes down and the second goes up, you’re right on track. If not, you rethink things. Similarly, if you are working on anger management strategies, you will want to see if your unsupportable urge to blow up is calming down. If you have been told to bottle up your rage using white-knuckled suppression, you have in effect eliminated the symptom before the treatment has been put into effect. Like taking a fever down with medication before you know what caused it (absent a life-threatening situation), artificially messing with your rage does you a great disservice. Does that make sense?

Diagnosis

When you can sincerely look at your symptom(s) with a convincingly shame-free attitude, your mind will gradually start to provide information about why it is doing what it is doing. Please believe this. Your brain is awfully smart and it knows you awfully well. And it is on your side. So, for example, if you know that you routinely say unhelpful things to your teenage daughter, you can start to wonder why. Your brain, who knows your history, might start to explore the blundering statements you have been making, compare them to what you were told as a teen and then see if there’s a connection. It probably wouldn’t take you too long to recognize that, for instance, you are saying things to your teen that you wish someone had said to you when you were her age. From there it’s a straightforward link to the truth that she needs to hear something else from you – something set in the current zeitgeist and designed around her particular need, not what you lacked during your upbringing. See? You were not being an awful parent, you were just being too singularly guided by a wish to avoid the mistakes you believe your parents made.

As another for instance, say you are bewildered by the way you always need to get in the last word. You have noticed that some of your friendships have dropped off and you think it may be due to this run-away need. Ask your brain: where does this come from? It may take a think or two or three, but your brain will start to come up with hypotheses about why you are acting at cross-purposes with your long-term wishes. Could it be that, because you are severely underemployed, you are hypersensitive to not being taken seriously? Is having the last word a contrived way to feel successful? There are, of course, routes to feeling successful that don't vandalize your blueprints for self-efficacy that can be followed as you observe your heretofore social sloppiness. If you take one of these routes and it suits you, your one-upmanship tendencies should subside.

As a final and common example, if you feel yourself frequently sinking into apathy when you have cleared a weekend in order to get to a task that has been hanging over your head for months, why don't you spend some time wondering about this apparent self-sabotage? You know that you will feel immensely better on Sunday evening if you have spent the weekend tending to your faltering drip system, but you can't seem to sell yourself on that glorious future memory come Saturday morning. There could be any number of rectifiable bad habits underlying your lack of enthusiasm that are not due to characterological weakness but are due to lack of training. Leave the apathy untouched as you seek to educate yourself about procrastination, petulance or depression. If you can trust in your soulfulness, your apathy will release its hold on you as you practice breaking habits that haunt your better self.

Even if you find yourself stuck and unable to determine the “why” of your behavior, because you have taken a curious rather than shameful stance toward your symptoms, it will be easer to ask others for their input.

For a structured look at how to uncover some of the reasons we flounder, see the articles in these sections of this website: A Self-Guided Tour of Your Upbringing, Making Peace With Your Past, and Truths You Need to Know.

Treatment

Once the symptoms have done their initial duty and alerted you to the cause of the problem, you can design a treatment that directly addresses the source of the dis-ease. Yes. You can absolutely do this. Sort out for yourself strategies to stop feeling so angry or in need of correcting old family wounds or unable to let someone else “win” a conversation. Outline a curriculum to explore the deeper issues and to educate yourself about psychological skills you haven't yet been taught. Seek out help from good self-directed-growth reading material (there are many such sources listed on this website) or professional therapists. Talk with friends who may have encountered similar difficulties in their lives and ask them how they managed to recover from their psychological dilemmas.

If your plan is a good one, your missteps will decline naturally. If they don’t (despite implementing the new strategy at least 51% of the time), rethink and try again.

There’s an old wise saying that has always tickled me: It’s not what you do, it’s what you do with what you do. I think that notion is germane here. Your symptoms are important information about a portion of your past that was inadequate. They do not define what kind of person you are. What you do with your symptoms is what defines your character. Can you, like the philosopher in the Bergson quote, observe them and tolerate letting them teach you what you have yet to learn about life?

© Copyright 2014 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.