“The Polarized Mind” as Alternative Framework for Human Suffering

Existential-humanistic psychologist, Kirk Schneider, suggests the cause of suffering and destruction is not “mental illness” but “the polarized mind”


A new article, written by Kirk Schneider, addresses the issue that marginalized individuals are more likely to receive psychiatric diagnoses, while many abusive or destructive behaviors exhibited by powerful individuals are glorified rather than pathologized. As president of the Existential-Humanistic Institute and adjunct faculty at Saybrook University, Schneider is a leading spokesperson for contemporary existential-humanistic psychology. His article, adapted from an earlier Psychology Today blog post and published in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, suggests “the polarized mind” may be a more helpful framework to respond to suffering than diagnosis.

“If we are to address the problem of mental disturbance in our communities, and indeed in the world, we must address the cultures and upbringings that give rise to such disturbance, and we must dig for resources far beyond that of the medical or the psychological clinic,” writes Schneider.

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Schneider notes that “mental illness” is popularly understood to refer to psychological suffering, but has increasingly been defined in biological terms. He argues that this biological focus “almost entirely blinds us to their deeper cause,” which he argues is environmental and the result of unacknowledged fear. Schneider raises the issue that many people who engage in destructive acts (e.g., abuse, war) are not viewed by society as having a “psychiatric illness.” He uses the example of many political, business, and religious leaders who exhibit traits of antisocial personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder. He writes:

“Now, it is abundantly clear—or should be with even a cursory knowledge of history, as well as of our own times—that these aforementioned ‘disorders’ are major disturbances of humanity and not merely the pathologies of marginalized groups.”

Schneider calls for terminology that “can capture the breadth of the problem we conventionally attribute to those marginalized and disenfranchised groups labeled mentally disordered.” He suggests that “the polarized mind” may be a helpful framework. Schneider defines:

“The polarized mind is the fixation on one point of view to the utter exclusion of competing points of view and in my opinion is the psychosocial ‘plague’ of humanity.”

According to Schneider, the polarized mind applies to all people to some degree, across levels of power (e.g., rich/poor, privileged/marginalized). He hopes that this framework can help explain how “mental disorder” arises.

“The polarized mind is an expanded conceptual framework for DSM diagnoses; it gives us a sociopolitical context for these diagnoses, and it situates them in the much larger and more accurate narrative of historical suffering than in the compartmentalized narratives of individual physiology, parentage, or trauma,” writes Schneider.

Schneider connects the polarized mind to terror management theory: that the fixation on one point of view is the result of fear, specifically a fear of death. When not addressed, people will work to avoid their fear, which may result in destructive acts. He gives examples of mass shootings, suicide bombings, and racially-charged homicides, as well as corporate influence on the US Congress, destruction of the environment, and hateful rhetoric.

Schneider offers possible ways to integrate the polarized mind framework into interventions. He recommends more depth psychology research, referring to “existentially informed quantitative and qualitative analyses of the human condition.” For example, he suggests research on depth psychotherapy for youth, families, and communities.

He also suggests research on arts, humanities, and emotional intelligence curricula in schools. Lastly, he calls for studies on facilitated encounters between community members and government officials.  Schneider expects that these types of interventions will allow people to broaden their perspectives and find points of commonality with others, which could reduce polarization.

Schneider concludes with the warning, “if we don’t recognize that conventional psychiatric approaches—and terminology—are insufficient to the task of addressing those who rule and often threaten our world, we will continue to flounder in despair.”



Schneider, K. J. (2018). The chief peril is not a DSM diagnosis but the polarized mind. Journal of Humanistic Psychology. Advance online publication. doi:10.1177/0022167818789274 (Link)


  1. I like the fact that someone is trying to situate these human problems most fundamentally in the environment, rather than in genetics or brain diseases.

    I DON’T LIKE the name (and what it implies) the, “polarized mind,” that this theorist came up with to explain psychological distress. It seems to contradict the essence of what he/she is arguing for, by once again focusing on the individual mind.

    The author is quoted as saying: “Schneider expects that these types of interventions will allow people to broaden their perspectives and find points of commonality with others, which could reduce polarization.”

    Frankly, this way of approaching human conflicts totally negates a class analysis of society and WILL NOT lead to a world where true equality abounds.

    Class polarization is actually a GOOD thing IF it can ultimately lead to the upper class having its power overthrown and removed from the neck of the oppressed. AND this will NOT happen unless those people in the under classes begin to see they have absolutely NOTHING in common with their oppressors and need to take power from them.

    All this requires the masses to be won over (through education and struggle) that a profit based capitalist system stands as the major obstacle to the advance of all science and an obstacle to all human beings achieving a true commonality of purpose and a sharing of the world’s resources.


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  2. Because apollonian ego arrogance has got no mirror, it is using psychological Hades traits to blame psyche for everything. And everything which is psychological, irrational or not connected with power and money making is evil FOR PSYCHIATRY. And Hades reality is not evil, it is not psychopatic. Apollonians are.

    There’s no many roots of psyche, there is only one – mythical reality, it is very logical. If you search for victims of trauma….you will find only victims, you must search for the truth, even if it hurts. The style of thinking is very individual, the base of thinking don’t belong even to the one who thinks. And the problem of psychiatrists and today world is scientism, which thinks that s got answers. Psychiatrists are not about to rule the psyche, they should obey to the psychological laws/hierarchy, NOT TO THE INHUMANE ECONOMY, and serve to those whose psychological life is extremely hard or unusual. And they do not want to serve, they must to judge and kill . Apollonians should really be scared, because of what they have done to Hades….and apollonian ego means almost nothing to psychological reality. Because it is the least psychological archetype.

    To talk about biology without realizing the mythical meaning of the psyche is antihuman barbarity. And that’s why I like no remedy model. Do not search for cure to something which is much more complex than shallow medicine world.
    In labirynth there are many coorridors, and you are not a rat to search for the exit, you will lose the road and the meaning of the road if you will be searching for exit all of your life… Do not search for cure , juts Give a PROPER meaning and a necessity to the road/ Hades traits, and that will destroy hegemony of Apollonian psychopats who terrorizes people with mental health ideology.

    There are no winnners or losers in psyhcological reality, THERE IS ONLY THE NECESSITY. There are different kinds of psychological reality. Easy and difficult. That’s why I see the need of psychological socialism. BECAUSE WE ARE NOT PSYCHOLOGICALLY EQUAL, but not in the Aryan meaning. Psyche belongs to Hades/Zeus, not to Apollo or medicine or any kind other ideology, psyche is psyche. It is mythical reality.
    Reality of the ego is the reality of the flesh, and reality of psychological man is no the felsh reality, however this reality is as necessary AS the FLESH world. Psychological Hades is invisible (ONLY INNER WORLD) and has got no temples on the EARTH (physical world) and there’s the problem. There’s no physical place for psychological reality of human being in the kingdom of the flesh.

    There would be a place, if Hades, not Apollo, was a father of today state/psychiatry/way of thinking, and then there will be no psychiatry, no search for exit, only the road.
    Because today psychiatry exists only for getting rid of something from srict Apollonian/state reality, and in psychological state Hades/Zeus would be the main reality. And Apollo would be the one of many, not the ruler.

    There’s no way to build a psychological reality in the kingdom of the flesh needs with economy in the center. Economy is the god, and the Apollo meaning/flesh dependent on that economy. So together, they are killing the psychological reality as meaningless FOR THEIR SYMBIOSIS. STATUS QUO OF THIS KIND OF SYMBIOSIS/STATE – IS TO KILL THE PSYCHOLOGICAL REALITY. And if they won’t stop killing, Hades will kill them both. Sonner or later. Hitler was also a ruler and look what’s happened in Germany now. Europe is drowning in the shadow of Hades, and apollonian ego will be.

    James Hillman Re – Visioning psychology.

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  3. I think that it is good here to have our differences…
    I like the idea that I have a mental illness..
    I like that I am unipolar…
    I like the bio/psy/soc model of causation…
    i like what Richard is saying…
    i think psychiatry is in serious trouble..
    i believe in critical psychiatry…not anti..

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  4. Fear of death…yes. We all have to figure out a way to move beyond it. But first we must face it.

    Not sure those called “mentally ill” are in any more denial than the rest of society. Just the denial takes a less socially acceptable form.

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    • The author makes an erroneous assumption that fear of death is universal. It isn’t. Sure, the physical act of dying can be downright unpleasant depending on the circumstances, but death as an existential fear? A lot of people have a different relationship with death than that, especially those who experience it as a natural part of the cycle of things: Life–> Death –> Rebirth. Nothing scary about compost 🙂

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  5. I appreciate all the comments, but feel moved to respond to Richard about the polarized mind being too individualistic. I don’t see it that way, I see it as cutting across both individual and collective. It’s really the question of whether people are more fear-driven or deliberative-reflective (which certainly can and does often include fear-based aspects but also more affirmative, choice-driven aspects). It’s the difference between reaction and response in my view. If the oppressed have absolutely nothing in common with their oppressors I see the potential recipe for what we saw in The Terror of the French Revolution or in Stalinist Russia or Maoist China. Reversals of oppression can be just as oppressive as those who originally oppressed, as the Greeks too found out when their hubris was avenged by nemesis. That said, there is nothing simple about all this and I agree that extreme measures need to be taken at times to reverse oppressive situations; the question is again, to what degree are those extremes conscious and choice-driven and affirming of a sustainable vision, or to what degree are they fear and panic-driven–more about avenging an enemy than working toward a humane vision. See The Polarized Mind if you’re interested in further elaboration, and again I’m much appreciative of your comment.
    Also, with LavenderSage’s remark about fear of death not being universal, I think the verdict is not yet clear, particularly if we’re speaking of people bent on destruction and degradation of others. As Terror Management theory has shown (see my full article in the J. of Humanistic Psychology), an individual or group (and this seems to be true cross-culturally) can profess not to fear death but ironically what seems to drive them to destructive acts–even to to the point of sacrificing their own bodies–is an attempt to deny death or at a more profound level the complex symbol of death, i.e., the sense of insignificance, of not mattering, of being obliterated in the eyes of the world. And so as a consequence of this death denial they will inflate themselves and degrade others, even to the point of dying for their death-denying cause. Or, on the other hand (lacking the means or disposition to defy death anxiety) they will constrict themselves and collapse in some form of despair. Remember, again, we are speaking of people who become polarized as with any or all of us at given points of our lives, the question is to what extent do we fear this not counting and groundlessness and to what extent can we come to terms with it, coexist with it and perhaps even see the beauty and liberation of it. (Again I refer you to the full JHP article referred to above or even better “The Polarized Mind” and “Spirituality of Awe” for elaborations). Also, a great work on Terror Management Theory is “Meaning, Mortality and Choice: The Social Psychology of Existential Concerns” (APA Press).

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  6. Kirk

    Thanks for responding to my post.

    You said: ” If the oppressed have absolutely nothing in common with their oppressors I see the potential recipe for what we saw in The Terror of the French Revolution or in Stalinist Russia or Maoist China. Reversals of oppression can be just as oppressive as those who originally oppressed…”

    So what should I conclude from this statement – that it is FOOLISH or ILL ADVISED for oppressed people to rise up against their oppressors??? That it is FOOLISH AND ILL ADVISED for oppressed people try to bring into being a new type of system that moves beyond all the inequality and trauma inherent in a profit based class system??? Or that oppressed people should not attempt to move history forward because there is the risk of defeat and/or failure in the first or second time around.

    Summing up the historical experiences of the Russian and Chinese Revolutions in one extremely brief VERY NEGATIVE sentence does a great disservice to importance of understanding these first attempts at building socialism (including all their weaknesses) and moving beyond capitalism, while denying all the very important POSITIVE lessons.

    I still strongly contend that your theoretical approach lacks a genuine class analysis of the world.

    I agree that no Revolution or genuine radical political movement should EVER base its approach (or vision of a new world) on revenge or fear.

    Most oppressed people know their oppressors are human beings, but in reality their class interests in the world are diametrically opposed. In today’s world those people who run this system are guided by the capitalist economic Law of Value which views other humans as a pragmatic means to increase profit by any means necessary, including Imperialist wars. This systems turns human beings into commodities and distorts and traumatizes our human social relationships in so many ways. This reality must be at the HEART of any attempt at explaining extreme forms of human psychological distress in the world.


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  7. Very insightful article.

    When working in a psychiatric hospital I used this principle to help a patient. The patient was disturbed and related to me hos concept of reality which was a mixture of observations and conjecture. After making it really clear that I may be wrong but — I retold his story leaving the observations and replacing the conjecture with less threatening one. I then finished by saying of course we could both be wrong and there could be another explanation. At this point I left him to consider what I had said. Next day he was discharged and I never saw him again, which I took as a good sign.

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  8. My recent time of distress was characterised by polarised thinking, but I feel it is far too narrow to suggest that that is all it was. What is called depression, was for me an almost unbelivably narrow and painful place. But it was brought about by severe abuse and the aftermath and consequences of escaping. I was lucky that there was a kind of mental liberation as a result, and I suspect that is the adaptive purpose of the suffering of depression.

    Yet the circumstances that meant the result was greater freedom from mental impriosnment rather than greater imprisonment and pain, possibly leading to death, were special and being able to ‘respond’ rather than react was only a part of it. Mind mind was trapped in trauma. I had the best possible motivation to free myself, yet I needed the right circumstances to be able to do that.

    Abuse, (and I mean this in it’s broadest sense including socio-economic, envionmental, and geo-political), especially via the specialised mechanisms of narcissism etc. is instrumental and in skilled practitioners on a small and large scale, it is usually rewarded. The writer seems to put the perpertrators and the oppressed in the same basket. In the big picture I see that suffering and inability to experience humanity and connectedness at the core of both. The biggest difference is that the recipients of abuse are highly motivated to change the picture, while generally, the perpertrators are not.

    In a world stuck in the destructive paradigm of “winners and losers” the idea of facilitated dialogues, even between government officials and everyday people strikes me as naive. Since this is a forum about destructive psychiatry, a good analogy could be facilitated dialogues between survivors and psychiatrists. It implies that it is a matter of finding a suitable format so that those without power can be heard by those with power, and ignores the tremendous stake the holders of power have in the status quo. There seems to be an assumption that the problem is just a lack of knowedge, and ignores the fact that holding more resources (including power, status etc.) necessitates others having less and that having more is usually pretty damn important to those who have more.

    How does the writer propose we convince those who don’t believe they have a problem, and who societies have annointed as ‘winners” to authentically “broaden their perspectives and find points of commonality with others” where the “others” desperately need resources for their well-being or survival, that the “winners” would prefer to hoard, or where the “other” has their face under that person’s boot?

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  9. A very thought provoking post and some great comments here! Out’s comments particularly resonated.

    18 months ago, I attended the annual Open Dialogue conference in London, as one of four patients reporting to the audience how OD had helped. I talked about becoming mentally healthy as real soul work, and that society has lost its connection to the sacred, and to one another. My OD team were open to the sacred, which was very helpful – they also helped me appreciate that my visions and dreams (what many would call psychosis) were very healthy.

    Some professionals seemed upset by what I said. When I left the stage, one approached me, introducing himself as a pychotherapist and asked whether I’d read Stanislav and Christina Grof’s book “Spiritual Emergency.” I was taken aback – where was this guy’s humanity? I told him: “you may consider me mentally ill, but I consider myself spiritually well” and left him open mouthed. As I went to sit down, another guy told me: “well, you’re very brave, a middle class woman admitting her mental health problems.”

    These two guys are an example of just how far the profession needs to go – such trite comments at a mental health conference, FFS. If you don’t have humanity, why are you practising? My humanity enables me to be compassionate and connect easily with others. Perhaps those in power are terrified of being human?

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