While there are lots of ways to describe and define emotional, mental, and psychological health, there is one consistent theme; Integration. Integration of body, mind and soul. Integration of left and right brain hemisphere. Integration of all the many parts of our psychological and emotional selves.
We are not one thing. Sometime people wish they were. For instance people want to be only good. Only strong. Only feminine. Only pure. Only sexy. Only devote. Only irreverent. We can all fall into the trap of singular self-definition. Finding a particularly quality so important that we want it to completely identify with it.
Some examples of Splitting
Devotion versus Selfishness
A young teen has a younger sibling with a severe disability. They love their sibling. They are desperate to be a good care-taker. They are desperate for their parents see their kindness and generosity. What they could never bear for their parents to know, what they could barely let themselves know, is they also have feelings of envy and hate for their sibling, craving some of the same attention poured on their sibling.
The teen fears they are terribly selfish. They feel horribly shame-filled about themselves. What they don’t understand is that their need for attention from the family, and anger and envy towards their sibling is perfectly normal. It might be difficult for them to appreciate that their family likely has less of the kind of loving focus on them they would normally, and that it is totally appropriate that they are aching for love and attention, which is what their anger and envy is seeking to help them get..
The truth is they can be both loving devoted and painfully in need.
Strong versus Weak
People hate the idea of weakness, theirs or others. In couples work, it is not uncommon for one in a couple to find themselves enraged at the other when the other displays weakness or vulnerability. This is usually because they hate their own weakness which they have disavowed long ago and can not bear the sight of it in others least it awaken their own.
It is of course ironic that it is their fear of their own weakness that makes them vulnerable. Similarly ironic, it that the ability to sit with ones weakness requires great strength.
Irreverent versus Sentimental
I personally love irreverence. It is most certainly part of my self identity. I can easily smirk at any tear-jerking movie. When someone tells me a story of magical coincidence, or a story about a medium speaking with a dead aunt, I do my best to smile politely. I never saved the hair from my kid’s first hair cut, or his first lost tooth. My son can’t believe that I don’t keep every single piece of art he had every made since he was in prep-school.
But when he was around four years old, he drew a picture unprompted, of he and I lighting a Hanukkah menorah. I asked which one was me, though it was clear, and he said, “the one with the hairy armpits”! It literally warmed the cockles of my heart. I couldn’t have felt more filled with sentimentality. To say the least, I kept it.
Yes, my tenderness was under many layers of cynicism, but it was alive and well.
Kind versus Mean
Kindness is greatly valued in life. It is associated with goodness, and purity. It is a lot of work sometimes but a worthy goal to strive towards. The problem is, that when it become one’s very identity, then what does one do when their meanness surfaces, because we all have meanness inside us. Suppressing it, denying it, and rejecting it, only subverts it. That doesn’t make it go away, but rather makes it fall into the unconscious to act outside our control. This is the good little girl anorexic would would never do anything to hurt their parents, but completely deplete their life savings in inpatient hospitalization rather than tell them how angry she is at them for the ways they have tried to control her.
Meanness is much more destructive when not faced directly.
Sexy versus, well, Anything Else
The holy trinity of women…virgin, mother, whore. These are the three options for how women are commonly seen. They can present as young, naive, innocent, girly and giggly. Or as maternal, generous, care-taking, and non-sexual. And the third choice is sexy, which isn’t really that sexy, since it is only that, so over the top, and devoid of the other qualities that make a person appealing.
The truth is that no woman, no person, is only virginal, or maternal, or sensual. We are all of that. In different proportions. With different qualities and characteristics mixed in that make us ourselves.
Sabrina the Teenage Witch
Okay, back to Sabrina, the glorious teenage witch. Who is also human of course, because she is all about integration.
First and foremost I love how Sabrina dresses. She is absolutely adorable. She wears cute, fashionable clothes, that are attractive and pretty, but also appropriate, like sensible shoes. She wears no plunging necklines, or skirts crawling up her thighs, even when she is seeking to look as beautiful as possible.
Sabrina has a boyfriend, and they have a physically sexual relationship. It is currently limited to making out, holding hands, and hugging, which is quite age appropriate at 16. There was an episode where she needed her boyfriend to inspect her body. As she took her clothes off, he took his off in tandem, to be fair, and they were kind and gentle and loving, but not sexual.
There is another episode where she walk into an orgy. Yes, they give us yummy sexy scenes without compromising the teenage characters, because we viewers also have many parts of selves, and do not necessarily want our viewing to be solely puritanical. She sees the orgy, is a bit shocked and over-stimulated by it, but doesn’t feign revolution nor condemn them with judgement. She simply walks away.
Sabrina is also not quite a good witch. I mean, sure, she is good, and passionate, devoted to the people she loves, and mainly tries to do good in the world. But unlike most “good witch” story lines, she doesn’t only do “bad” for the larger good. Sometimes she does it because she feels mean, or witchy. Like the rest of us. Only she isn’t particularly concerned about it. It is just part of her, her mean witchy-ness. Not all of her. And nothing to be ashamed of.
This multi-dimensional, integrated character is not alone in her show. All of the key characters are nuanced and complex. The bitchy, arrogant aunt, can be brought to her knees by her love for her niece. Her ditzy, doting aunt fiercely protects her family when need be, and uses wits and skills when the time demands it. The love and hate exchanged between these two aunt sisters, the envy, distain, admiration and adoration, captures the truth of most siblings.
Even the characteristically evil characters, are much more interesting that what one dimension can provide. They too have fear, and sorrow, hopes, and loves, and sometimes goodness to pours out of them.
How Does Therapy Help?
When folks come into therapy, they typically bring what we refer to as their presenting problem. That is the issue that mobilized them to enter therapy. Sometimes it is an active crises in their lives, like a divorce, a needed job change, or a recent death in their lives. It may be an aspect of their personality they are troubled by, or a behavior they wish to change.
Moments will surface in the sessions when who and how they see themselves contradicts with something the therapist hears or feels. When the therapist points it out, the client might reject it at first, because indeed, it is a part of themselves they commonly reject, a feeling, quality or characteristic they see as bad, weak, or otherwise shameful.
The problem is that the parts of ourselves that we want to disown and reject hold important truths about us, our struggles, and our history. If we are stuck for instance, with a behavior we haven’t been able to change, these rejected elements likely hold the information we need. If we are trying to grieve a new injury, and finding ourselves overwhelmed, these rejected elements hold the clues of prior losses.
There is simply no way to a richer, more original life than honoring and listening to all our parts. Whatever our fantasy is of what is good and bad and worthy or not, all of our parts hold truths. It is for us to connect to our parts, listen to them, honor and hold them. Psychological health is not a meaningless goal. It serves no one better than it serves us, bringing us a life of complexity, richness, and enough self to support a life of resiliency with many internal qualities at our disposal.
Smith is an analytically oriented psychotherapist with 25 years in practice. She is additionally the Founder/Director of Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice, which specializes in matching clients with seasoned clinicians in the Greater Philadelphia Area.
If you are interested in therapy and live in Philadelphia or the Greater Philadelphia Area, please let Full Living: A Psychotherapy Practice match you with a skilled, experienced psychotherapist based on your needs and issues as well as your and own therapists' personalities and styles. All of our therapists are available for telehealth conferencing by phone or video in response to our current need for social distancing.