This article was first published on the online publication THE BIG SMOKE here.
When you’re sitting in a meeting, or across from a friend, do you ever get the impulse to remove your clothes and thrash out the New Zealand national anthem?
You know, just to shake things up?
Today, I’d like to open up a discourse about the sanity within madness that was partly inspired by an Alain De Botton YouTube clip. It discusses the idea that having a “good mental breakdown” can be a useful response to an overburdened life. The clip, however, is Philosophy Lite and deliberately ignores the very real and permanently scarring experience of an episode of mental illness (though that is not part of the story presented). It does, however, open up a discussion on a phenomenon I still find fascinating even after years of face to face counselling – that thought is often emotionally functional and not strictly logical or usefully applied.
In the clip, De Botton narrates how the necessity of urge control and adherence to responsibility will wear us down. The thought process of losing it completely in the face of an extended set of pressure is entirely legitimate. He does make clear what it looks like to “lose it” in a good way: taking a sabbatical to a distant country that might interrupt the progress of a career, exploring your sexuality, going out dancing every night, or even just giving up the law degree and spending the next year working on a fishing boat.
It’s a radical change in behaviour that looks like self-sabotage.
I’d like to acknowledge that this isn’t just a symptom of affluenza. The poor are just as able to indulge a shedding of responsibility. Unfortunately, they will be far more stigmatised and even punished. Socio-economic factors aside, these episodes sprout from the concept of emotionally functional thought. Your brain is looking for respite and the very act of thinking of something bizarre can provide such relief that our conscious mind decides that acting that thought out is a good idea.
In explanation of emotional functionality, consider the concept of stripping down and vaulting into song. If you’re feeling bored with the conversation, it provides a bit of fun. Endorphins enter your blood stream and you have avoided the aversive state of boredom. To take this to the other end of the spectrum, if nothing seems to be working in your life and you feel trapped in all of your decisions, the fleeting thought of suicide can provide the relief from burden that you may not have experienced in a long time (if these kinds of thoughts have been persistent, please call Lifeline on 13 11 14).
The key lesson from both of these examples is that your way of thinking is able to achieve a sense of relief without actually having to act out those thoughts.
The next step is how we achieve that sense of relief without reinforcing the most destructive ideation like suicide. The most important idea is in thought delay.
Thought delay is that moment where you pause and recognise your desire for relief, rather than get caught up in the shortcut your brain took to arrive there.
Becoming more compassionate with your mind for immediately producing strange answers to your emotional problems can lead to a certain state of acceptance. Imagine that you tell your friend that you just had an odd thought: you want to go to the park and start screaming at dog owners that adopting you over their current animal would be a far smarter choice. Your friend chuckles and leads you down to the beach for a swim to ease your troubles. Once again, on the other side of the spectrum, what if you admit the persistent thoughts of self-harm to a friend and they quite literally take you to the doctor to get a medical certificate for the time off work that you have refused to grant yourself.
Releasing yourself from the bounds of societal norms for an extended period can be a wonderful way of rediscovering the part of yourself that you have lost, before your return to normality. Small indulgences before you even get to that state in the first place can be far more rewarding. This may mean that you never lose touch with that vital sense of self in the first place.