The Role of Love in Mental Health

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The one core ingredient on which any recovery from “mental illness” depends is the one that curiously and grievously never makes an appearance in any medical handbook or psychiatric diagnostic manual—that is, love. The word is so strongly associated with romance and sentimentality that we completely overlook its crucial role in helping us to keep faith with life at times of overwhelming psychological confusion and even sorrow.

Love—from a friend, a partner, an offspring, a parent—has an indomitable and impenetrable power to rescue us from emotional distress.

Anyone who has experienced intense emotional suffering or mental health concerns and recovers will do so, whether they consciously realise it or not, because of an experience of love. In one way or another, no one has ever experienced “mental illness” without having suffered from a severe deficit of love somewhere along the line. In a way, love is the guiding strand running through the onset of, and recovery from, our overall worst episodes of mental unwellness.

What then do we mean by love, in its life-giving and mind-healing sense?

Unconditional Approval

What frequently assails and derails us when we are suffering emotionally is a continuous punishing sense of how horrible we are. We are lacerated by an intense feeling of self-hatred. Our own charge sheet against us is definitive: we are “awful,” “terrible,” “nasty,” “bad.” A primal self-suspicion bursts through our defences and overtakes our faculties, leaving no room for the slightest kindness or gentleness towards ourselves. We are implacably appalled by, and unforgiving of, who we are!

In such agony, a loving companion can make the difference between suicide and keeping going. Such companions do not try to persuade us of our worth head on and with cold reason; nor do they go in for any showy displays of affection. They demonstrate that we matter to them in a thousand surreptitious yet fundamental ways. They can tolerate how distressed we are and will stick by us however long it takes. We don’t have to impress them; they won’t worry too much about how scary we are looking and the weird things we might say.

They’re not going to give up on us, even if it takes a month or six years or sixty. They’re going nowhere. We can call them at strange hours. We can sob or we can sound very adult and reasonable. They seem remarkably to love us in and of ourselves, for who we are rather than anything we do. They hold a loving mirror towards us and help us to tolerate the reflection. It’s pretty much the most beautiful thing in the universe.

Non-Judgement

Part of what can make the attentions of others oppressive is the note of patronising pity we detect beneath their apparent kindness. The well-ones have come to see us in order to help, but we sense how much they cling to a fundamental difference between the mess we are in and who they think they are. We are the “insane” ones and they will always fly the flags of health, rationality and balance. They feel sorry for us from afar, as if we were the proverbial drowning man and they the observer on dry land.

Loving companions bear no such hints of superiority. They do not judge us as beneath them when we lie crumpled in our pyjamas at midday, because they do not fundamentally see themselves as “above” someone who is mentally unwell. We may happen to be very ill at the moment, but it could very easily have been them. They don’t oppress us by covertly clinging to their belief in their own solidity and competence. All of us are potentially ill enough to be in the asylum, and those of us who are actually there may not be the most afflicted.

Abandonment

At the heart of many mental traumas is an early experience of abandonment. Someone, when we badly needed them, was not present, and their neglect has thrown us off balance ever since. We may find it hard to depend on others in grown-up life and lack faith that someone won’t run away, or take advantage of us, in turn.

A loving companion intuits this about us and is ready to fight to earn our trust. They know that they cannot blithely assert their loyalty, they will have to prove it, which means not deserting us at moments when others would be tempted to give up. We may try to incite despair and frustration in those who offer kindness as a way of testing the relationship. We may say some awful things to a caregiver we love and pretend to be indifferent to them. However, if the companion is wise, they will listen and remain unruffled—not because they are weak, but because they understand that they are being tested and that a basic piece of repair work around trust is underway.

We have to be given a chance, which we may have missed out on in childhood, to be a bit more demanding than usual in order to witness conclusively that this isn’t enough to destroy love. We can be ill and still acceptable to another. How much more real love will feel once it has been shaken by this and still survived.

Reassurance

The future for someone in emotional distress can be a source of ongoing and limitless torment. A lot of questions hover: what if someone gets very angry with them? What if someone wants to take them away? What if someone tries to kill them? What if the voices in their head never go away?

The loving companion does their best to quieten the panic, by presenting the future as unknowable in its precise details but fundamentally safe and bearable. They hold open options: it will always be possible to leave town, to live very quietly in a small cottage, to be at home and lead a domestic existence. No one expects them to perform great feats; just being is enough. There doesn’t have to be pressure to earn money, to impress strangers, or to be heroic. Surviving is all that matters.

The loving companion doesn’t get bored of instilling the same fundamental message: I am here for you and it will be OK. Even if this OK isn’t what one would ideally want, still it will be OK, better than death—which usually remains the alternative in the sufferer’s mind. Quite how the years ahead are going to pan out can’t be determined yet; details will have to be examined later, but what is known already now is that the future won’t be unendurable, because there is love.

Patience

When we’re mentally ill, we can often be tedious—what a number of anxieties we desperately need to go through with others!

Loving parents know that the minds of little children are comparably filled with anxiety-inducing and sometimes peculiar questions: is there a tiger under the bed? What if someone laughs at me at school? The temptation can be to rush and give an answer full of blustering, impatient confidence. Of course, it will be fine! Nonsense there’s no tiger! And so on.

But the properly loving response is to take the worry as seriously as its progenitor does and address it head on, without scoffing or denying the scale of the concern. Love gives us the patience to enter imaginatively into the other’s worried mind and to try to settle it by sensible examination of what there might be to fear.

 To Just “Be”

Many of us have suffered all our lives from a feeling that we are not, in and of ourselves, good enough. We work hard for decades, in order to prove to someone sceptical that we are respectable and worthy after all. Some of us may crave money and status and power to shore up a ghastly feeling of not being able to matter to people unless we have first attracted society’s baubles and prizes.

When they break down, what remains unbelievable to these exhausted warriors is that they could ever be loved outside of their performance in the worldly race. Surely it is only their earning potential that counts? Surely it has to be their popularity that matters?

However, now that they are ill and without any of the usual tools to impress, the mentally unwell stand to discover a more complex and salutary lesson. According to the values they have been subsisting on, they are a disgrace. But with any luck, in the presence of a loving companion, they can start to believe in something far more nuanced and miraculous: that they could be loved without prizes, that true love isn’t about impressing or intimidating someone, that an adult can love another adult a little like a good parent loves their child: not because of anything they have done, but simply and poignantly just because they exist.

“But What Will Others Think?”

A good loving companion looking after a friend in emotional distress can heal through their power of not caring very much about what other people think. There are people out there sniggering. There will be some people who judge the sufferer, say that they’re faking it or that it’s deserved and that the sufferer was awful to begin with.

But the hasty judgements of all these others are inappropriate and lacking proper understanding. That is no reason to panic. Let them laugh, let them be superior, let the idiots be idiots; such are the consoling messages of love that we need to hear when we are defenceless before the judgements of a cruel world.

Our loving companion know where their loyalties lie, they aren’t going to give up on us because a mob is jeering. Love is not a democracy. They don’t care if they are in a minority of one in loving us. And that is why we will stay alive.

Parental Repair

Both we and our caregiver may be deep into adulthood, but if their tenderness heals us, it is likely to be because in diverse covert ways what they are doing through their ministration is repairing a deficit of early love. They will be reparenting our broken child selves.

Every child needs to be cuddled, spoken and sung to, played with, held close and looked at with enthusiasm—and will as good as die inside without such care. Every child needs to experience what one could possibly term “Primary Parental Delight,” a basic feeling that they are limitlessly wanted by those who put them on the earth and are capable of generating intense pleasure through their very being.

Without this, a child might definitely survive, but it can never thrive. Their right to walk the earth will always be somewhat in doubt, they will also grow up with a sense of being superfluous, disruptive and, at very core, unappealing and shameful.

Such emotions feed directly into a broad range of emotional distress, such as chronic anxiety, self-harm, suicidal ideation, and depression. These experiences all have roots in the feeling of not mattering enough to anyone, developed over long years of childhood.

This defines the challenge for the carer in adulthood. Some of the work will have to involve rectifying an appalling failure of early provision; they will need to convince the wounded inner child that what they didn’t receive decades ago could be available today; that there might still be joy, reassurance, play, and kindness bestowed.

It could seem highly patronising to tell an adult that they need, above all, to be reparented. But it’s in fact the height of maturity to recognise that the small version of us must, if we’re ever to get better, be allowed another chance to experience what it feels like to matter, limitlessly, to a kindly and thoughtful companion.

The Bottom Line

We shouldn’t be so surprised at the enormous levels of “mental illness” at large in society; we need only consider how bad we collectively are at love, how poor we are lending sympathy, at listening, at offering reassurance, at feeling compassion, and at forgiving—and, conversely, how good we are at hating, shaming, and neglecting. We consider ourselves civilised but display levels of love that would shock a den of thieves.

Furthermore, we’ve opted to wash our hands of the issue and handed responsibility for the same to the professionals—the scientists, the psychiatrists, the pharmaceutical industry—as though they could possibly create a solution to the absence of love through their pills.

We completely ignore that the cure largely lies in the emotional realm: in getting better at appeasing each other’s fears, at being generous about our transgressions, at no longer tormenting and maltreating one another for our failures, and at sitting together through the darkness of night in a spirit of infinite care and kind forbearance. At loving one another.

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

19 COMMENTS

  1. What a valuable essay! Written with much passion and clarity.
    And yet it begs the question: How do we correct this deficit of love in modern society?
    I can only say that if I did not know what I learned during my lifetime, I would be in despair on this subject.
    We find ourselves in a very tight spot. The criminals of the planet seem poised like vultures, waiting for their prey to buckle and fall under the unbearable pressures of life. Though you may not believe me, I am quite certain we have lived through this sort of situation before. And every previous time, love lost. We only have a chance this time because we have become more certain of some basic truths about ourselves which give us the capacity to rehabilitate our ability to love. Now it is only a question of how quickly we can work to rehabilitate this in people, while the enemies of love work in the opposite direction. I was warned that the road back would not be easy to travel. This is certainly proving to be the case.

  2. “In such agony, a loving companion can make the difference between suicide and keeping going. Such companions do not try to persuade us of our worth head on and with cold reason; nor do they go in for any showy displays of affection. They demonstrate that we matter to them in a thousand surreptitious yet fundamental ways. They can tolerate how distressed we are and will stick by us however long it takes. We don’t have to impress them; they won’t worry too much about how scary we are looking and the weird things we might say.

    They’re not going to give up on us, even if it takes a month or six years or sixty. They’re going nowhere. We can call them at strange hours. We can sob or we can sound very adult and reasonable. They seem remarkably to love us in and of ourselves, for who we are rather than anything we do. They hold a loving mirror towards us and help us to tolerate the reflection. It’s pretty much the most beautiful thing in the universe.”

    I loved this. Thank you. In my experience it is a very rare person who offers this kind of love and acceptance. But it seems like a lot more of this would do the world a lot of good. I wish I knew how to be more like this and offer this kind of unconditional love to others. I think self-protection and trauma are comfortable bedfellows.

  3. “We shouldn’t be so surprised at the enormous levels of “mental illness” at large in society; we need only consider how bad we collectively are at love, how poor we are lending sympathy, at listening, at offering reassurance, at feeling compassion, and at forgiving—and, conversely, how good we are at hating, shaming, and neglecting. We consider ourselves civilised but display levels of love that would shock a den of thieves.”

    Sad, frightening, and true. We do it to ourselves, too, which is especially effective because it is our internalized-from-childhood voice of self-hatred and self-shaming. We could all make a bit of a conscious effort to love ourselves more and simply not be so hard on ourselves and others for whatever reason, and then I think it would be a more natural reflex to have compassion for, patience with, and understanding of others. IF we can be that way with ourselves, first.

    • Although I think it is important to recall that this is not all about our individual abilities to empathize, listen, etc. There is also a very widespread lack of community connections that impact the most skilled communicators among us. There is more going on than a lack of individual skills here. It is, as they say, a “system problem.”

      • I do understand that and it’s a critical issue. Cannot one individual begin a trend of abandoning the system successfully and finding freedom, and others take the example? It would be different considerations of course based on who we are as individuals but the collective message and intention would be the same, that’s the connector–to say an adamant and firm “no thanks” to the system once and for all, whether social, professional, or political, and break free of it to live with one’s individual set of values and desires in life, to really trust that path and letting it be one’s true guidance through life and personal evolution while respecting others doing the same, rather than to live always by trying to conform to what others want and expect, and also not putting that expectation on others. These are hard internalized habits to break, we learn them from the time we are born practically, but we certainly have the capacity to break habits when we want to and put our minds to it.

        More often than not, life moves us around without our trying, so when we work on ourselves, we affect the collective one way or another, always. We may not see how in the moment, but how could we not? The connection is there whether we’re conscious of it or not.

        Most often we conform and expect others to conform on an unconscious level in order to avoid the pain, thanks to stigma and the multiple road blocks this creates for people, of going against the grain and being different. Takes courage, trust, AND self-love, because others will try to shame or guilt you, or cause you fear, for “abandonding” their corrupt bullying marginalizing dysfuncational system (and there are ways to not take this on, with consciousness), but it’s a start, and change has to start somewhere, based on one individual’s vision, positive self-beliefs, and follow through.

        Accomodating a toxic system in any way may bring the illusion of momentary safety but it will never bring change, only more of the same. Not accomodating it will piss off a lot of people in that system, perhaps all of them. If that’s the case, then the system is rattled and there is great potential for positive systemic change, if people can muster up the courage to buck the system, one by one, and trust that they will be ok. It HAS to be individual choice, this cannot be coerced. That’s the hard part, for many reasons, but that’s why they call it “courage,” trusting the unknown, outside of one’s familiar (“the system”).

        Lots of great personal growth potential here, outside the oppressive and double-binding system to which we’re unfortunately accustomed. Pretty much unlimited, I’d say. But we have to get there. I do believe the energy of LOVE has everything to do with this, but even that word has become corrupt to some degree. It’s a puzzle. To me, the energy of love offers unlimited potential because it is not based on fear, which is what limits us. Toxic systems will inflict fear in order to control people.

        Overall, though, I’d say that we simply cannot make people be who we want them to be, that’s expecting conformity from others and if it goes against their nature, this will be problematic in all kinds of ways. But we can become the people whom we most desire to become (which is usually who we want others to be for us), if we believe in ourselves and trust the process of our own individual evolution. Then we have a free system or we are systems free, or however you want to put it. Change IS breaking up the old system, inherently, because our beliefs are being challenged daily now. New beliefs brings new perspectives which inspire different choices and actions, all of which foster a new society, aka “reality.”

        • I agree absolutely, modeling and education is what helps other people see the possibilities. As I said above, my only concern is that we need to go beyond the individual’s experience and work on system problems. I spent a lot of years advocating for foster kids, and despite repeated successes with individuals, saw the exact same situations arising again and again, because they were only responding to my or my CASA volunteer bugging them and pressing them to do the right thing, and never really learned why it was the “right thing” in the first place.

      • Realize, though, Steve, that pushing the problem away from us and talking instead about “systems” also tends to push the solutions away from us.

        If we can understand that societal systems are composed of individuals, and that through the action of individuals systems can be changed (such as the outlawing of slavery), this gives us a path to change that starts with individuals and goes towards new agreements about what is acceptable and valuable in a society.

        We have seen various systems set up with the best of intentions fail in the hands of people whose awareness had not been elevated enough to operate those systems with honesty and real compassion. (The “mental health system” being perhaps one example.) So, the way I see it, the real work needs to be done at the level of individuals, and as their awareness shifts, they will adjust their systems to align better with the new-found awareness.

        • Oh, believe me, I agree with you completely, but it just can’t stop at the individual level, and we can’t allow those running the show to reframe all of this as “individual problems.” You know as well as I that the personal melds into the family which melds into the institutions we participate in which melds into the survival of the species as a whole. Each affects the other, back and forth, and I think that needs to be recognized for us to be successful.

          • To this, I’d just say that indeed I believe it starts with family and eariliest environments. As the article says, love goes missing. That is a HUGE problem and oh how it bleeds into society, creating social systems which fail, and which fail everyone on Earth, other than those prospering from the suffering of others. Outside of our own healing, which we do individually, where to begin?

          • An excellent question. I do believe that self-healing has to happen before one can truly be of help to others in their struggle. What I hope we will work towards is communities of people caring about each other, as opposed to the “winner takes all” philosophy that seems to have the world it its grip right now. But this will mean challenging those who are benefiting so extremely from the status quo, and that will take love to a higher level of seeking justice for those we don’t personally know. It’s a big hill to climb!

          • I think we can help each other as we all self-heal together. We are all healing from generations of social inequities, elitism, and abuse and betrayal of at least one kind or another, and we are all healers by nature. Problem is we’ve been separated from our nature by fear propaganda, exactly what Someone Else says below.

            When we are truly in compassion, our hearts are open and we can feel the energy of LOVE (as opposed to fear and judgment) because the heart knows we are all connected. I honestly believe that we are designed by nature to give and receive without even thinking about it, it’s intuitive, but when we are not aligned with our true nature (which is LOVE), then those giving and receiving channels get blocked energetically, causing fear and negative thought patterns, usually negative self-talk. In that moment, love is not being felt, only resistance to it, which is actually a lot of effort to resist love, because love is natural and powerful. Takes work to dam that up and keep it from flowing, and that is what ultimately drains us of energy and doesn’t allow well-being, our own resistance to love. It’s really much easier to allow love, since it is our nature, and then healing can occur with relative ease, step by step and layer by layer. The difference between feeling love and not feeling it is the same difference as the light being on and the light being off.

            Healing would be for the sake of unblocking those channels so the energy of giving/receiving flows naturally, allowing us to feel light in our bodies. When that happens, it is an incredible feeling of flow, like a robust river of uplifting emotion, what to me feels like LOVE, and it affects everything. That is the healing energy, no blocks, pure flow, like nature.

            In the spiritual community, this is what is referred to as “aligned with one’s nature,” and is considered a healthy state of being because it feels good, supports our goals and desires, and we can shine our light for others as well, expanding the light. It’s also a state of empowerment. It is in our nature to be aligned with ourselves in a way that we are giving and receiving love without effort, simply from the reflex of gratitude. Then the world will be filled with more light for everyone to benefit.

        • I also completely agree with you, l_e_cox, word for word, especially this, so on point and exactly where a struggle seems to come in when striving for systemic change or even toward a new way of life based on integrity, self-sovereignty, and true compassion–

          “If we can understand that societal systems are composed of individuals, and that through the action of individuals systems can be changed (such as the outlawing of slavery), this gives us a path to change that starts with individuals and goes towards new agreements about what is acceptable and valuable in a society.”

          Yes, this would reverse the “scapegoat” identity to one of community leader, by example. The change would have to be internal, first, to release the impact from having carried that identity from the experience of one’s life, starting with family dysfunction leading to creating this situation for purposes of control, that story with which we’ve become all-too-familiar.

          “Scapegoats” are somehow cleverly and systematically robbed of their credibillity (stigma rears it’s ugly head yet again). Why? Because they know and are willing to speak a very challenging truth which threatens the very core of an abusive and corrupt system, “the truth that dares not be spoken” in such a system. And I’d say it’s of great value, if we are seeking radical change, to suddenly hear this voice ring true, to get past the false illusions created by the system in order to keep the truth at bay because it would kill the system. Well, that’s the goal!

          • For me, an important part in all this is the recognition of the existence of “spiritually destroyed” individuals. They have so turned away from their own spiritual identity that they become disgusted with the subject and violently fight against it. One of the big challenges in returning to a love-centered society is learning how to deal with these spiritually “dead” individuals in a loving way but also in a way that protects society from their irrational destructive impulses.

          • Yes, I agree, this is a crossing point in human evolution, where light meets resistance to light, is how I’d put it. And it can be a rough battle to get to the other side of that, the resistance can, indeed, be relentless and boundariless. And yes, it can be draining and dangerous and certainly it is not healthful for anyone concerned. We all have our paths and free will and evolve however we’re intended to, of course. Still, obviously collective consciousness needs to keep raising, which I believe is happening. Sometimes, it doesn’t seem fast enough, but I think we’re on track one way or another, keeping the faith.

  4. I agree, love is the answer, and fear is the opposite of love. But fear is what our mainstream media is propagating. However, I turned off the mainstream media, shortly after 9/11/2001, since I didn’t want to be brainwashed and fear mongered by a TV decades ago. I hope others will understand the importance doing of such, soon. And start doing their own research.

  5. Trishna,
    wow. You have found the exact same thing my wife and I have at nearly every point. I’d love to swap stories with you, though you do seem to come at it from my wife’s perspective and not mine…I’m astounded how closely you mirror what’s taken place on our journey.
    Sam

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