by Anthony Cavuoti, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Torrance, CA
A thousand years ago, in my intro to psychology workbook, I read quotes by authors from the ’60s and ’70s stating that many young individuals with mental health issues wish to end this life and experience rebirth. Through my clinical experience and readings, I ascertain that the biological system knows when it is being interfered with, stunted, thrown off course. Even the most lovely, espaliered arrangement is a destructive insult to the integrity of a being’s real nature that they cannot indefinitely tolerate. Anthony De Mello wrote about how people often ask questions about life after death. “Is there life before death? — that is the question!”
Society Stands in Our Way
Other assigned readings in my early student days included Escape From Freedom, Man for Himself, The Sane Society, and The Art of Love by Erich Fromm. In these books, Fromm gives many examples of how people live out a pseudo-life of self-alienation from self. He discusses how society supports and lifts us while also objectifying us. Instead of helping us come to a deeper understanding of our intrinsic, subjective nature, society cuts us off from our internal reality and distracts us from the important task of using our powers wisely, to utilize our abilities to the utmost in this life — that is, to fully give birth to our self. Unfortunately, a disproportionate amount of society’s forces use us as instruments to serve a dysfunctional status quo that interferes with our becoming whole, integrated human beings able to live in harmony with others.
The Benefits of Being Fully You
Erich Fromm presents several synergizing theses: by freeing ourselves from culturally sanctioned dysfunctional dependencies, we can own ourselves and understand that we are an embodiment of our powers, and then use those powers wisely in service of giving birth to ourselves as fully as possible. In saying yes to life, we’re able to more accurately reflect life (something all our lives do), to actually show up for ourselves in this life. When we use our powers wisely in service of rebirth, the birth of our true self, we not only more fully complete ourselves, but we also naturally live more affirming ways. Saying yes to life more has transformative power: we become less and less destructive. By showing up for ourselves in this life, we become a life-affirming, reflective catalyst for others to understand and emulate. They, too, can use their powers wisely in service of giving birth to their self instead of in service of death and throwing away life. Fromm goes on, stating that with such increase freedom comes increased anxiety, and too often we blindly follow obsolete, outdated processes that are destructive to us, sacrificing our freedom because we find our separateness intolerable. In this way, we merge in conformity rather than doing the necessary work of transcending ourselves productively and lovingly, in alignment with our own nature.
The Consequences of Abandoning Your Self
While in college, a brilliant acquaintance of mine wanted to go into physics. He was quite proficient at it and enjoyed it immensely. However, his seemingly well-meaning parents insisted that he go into business. Now, 35 years later, this person is a tortured alcoholic with multiple divorces, and family problems, an affluent, self-destructive, sad person held prisoner by his public persona. He looks happy on his Facebook page and in person (at first blush). He appears to be generous and jovial — he is always picking up the tabs at restaurants and bars — but take a closer look, and you’ll see there are cracks in the statue. Privately, he is falling apart. He did everything right according to his culture and society, but he never sincerely and deeply made listening to his own self a priority. He continues to be a prisoner of others’ expectations, most of whom never listen to their own selves, either.
Therapists aren’t immune to mental health concerns. Check out our article about why to be a therapist in therapy.
Society as Mother
We commonly experience an unconscious conspiracy against the self. Compare this experience to that of a child with a borderline mother. This child has to trade themself for false security, living in an intolerable situation where being true to themself is perceived by the mother as an unforgivable betrayal of her. Such a double bind of any attempt at healthy separation/individuation leads to vicious attacks by the stronger mother, who the child depends on in the maturation process. The child often tragically denies their natural, healthy impulses for freedom and autonomy, essential for the rebirth of self, for the sake of taking care of their caretaker, who, with all their stunted development issues, is threatened by the child’s natural autonomy. In such a situation, the child is forced to put death over life, prioritize regression over progression. This results in a living death; this, perhaps, explains our recent cultural obsession with zombies. The client comes to us complaining of anxiety and depression, maybe bipolar issues, and substance abuse issues. All of this is loss of self.
Growth and Evolution
Society has many built-in assumptions. Some are deleterious to society as a whole (or large portions of it). Others are obsolescent; when they are challenged by the most recent generation, they look ridiculous. In correcting the unhelpful assumptions of the past, people sometimes go too far, resulting in extremism that can be dangerous, misused, and look ridiculous to the following generations. Sometimes this same principle can be observed as individual people change.
As therapists, we assist our clients in their journey to themselves. Part of that assistance means providing them with the emotional space and support to find their own voice, stand on their own two feet emotionally, and not use systems as crutches. This also applies to even the most righteous, enlightened, political, social, progressive ideas. The client’s task is to find their own voice and balance; our job is to facilitate and support that discovery and rebirth process. Sometimes the external influences are ambiguous, sometimes more obvious, but until our clients learn to differentiate themselves from those influences, they’ll struggle to fully express themselves.
Starting Points to Growth
Often kids listen to rap music, hard rock, or punk because it jolts them out of their slumber, allowing them to escape from the limiting, narrow, or false self they have been saddled with. Similar to the June fog, it dissolves in the light of day, for it is only one of many starting points for them to find a link to their own intrinsic powers and uniqueness. However, just like sugar, many of these initial surges of starting points only make the person dependent on pseudo-nourishment. For instance, these music choices may serve as a starting point only if the person listening to such music gives the necessary sustained effort once the music is over to grasp the meaning behind the trance state and the lyrics and to find their own answers.
Therapists as Midwives
Our clients do not have to wait metaphorically for their next life; they do not have to be reincarnated to live the life they were meant to live. They can get back into alignment right now in this life. They can experience rebirth. We are midwives, ready to assist in the emergence of our clients’ true selves.
As therapists, we are instrumental in assisting our clients in identifying their true preferences, power, and abilities; most of all, we can be there for them emotionally. With our support, clients can complete their separation-individuation process in their own way and quit limiting themselves to false standards imposed upon them by the misguided souls that they were subjected to during their formative years.
They say it’s easy to blame parents rather than society. This misses the point. Like parents, society punishes us for not adhering to its false assumptions and rewards us for following its version of reality with its many assumptions. If someone’s parents are still acting as instruments of society’s backward assumptions in their life, it is perfectly rational and necessary to establish boundaries. There is no reason to keep eating fruit from a vine that poisons you more than it nourishes you.
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