Mitchell smolkin


“I haven’t fully grieved” “The people in [name that country] are so arrogant” “I can’t wait until I achieve a balance in my life” 


It seems that it calms human beings down to be able to think about ourselves, others, and our situation in broad terms. We react to our vulnerability by establishing black and white categories to either protect us from others such as the way we can talk about whole groups of people with simple adjectives or imagine ourselves out of our situation by projecting ourselves into the future when our pain and disappointment will be gone. The truth is more nuanced, difficult, and less stable than we want it to be. 


When I was doing my master’s in psychology, I came across an idea called “thickening” which was tied to maturation and good mental health. It essentially referred to the process of becoming more complicated in our thinking about areas of our life, so that we could increasingly hold disparate points of view. I often think about it like holding up a prism and looking at it from all angles and seeing how when you turn it, it refracts light in infinitely differing ways. On the other hand, psychopathology, diseases of the mind that cause us to not be able to function in society, often involve a decrease in the flexibility that one has to perceive themselves and others, such as when someone is paranoid that they are being attacked or has intransigent views about themselves such as “I am an awful person and don’t deserve…”.


One of the reasons I bristle when I read all or nothing statements in self-help and psychology, even ones that on the surface seem so kind such as “Love yourself and you will be set free” or “When one door closes another opens”, is that they in some ways set us up for defeat. Sometimes we cannot love ourselves either temporarily or for longer periods of time and other times when a door closes, it just closes, that is part of life too. To imagine that there is always a silver lining is to deny the other half of life, where we need to sit with the disappointment of things sometimes not going well. 


This is truer to our experience and even sets us up to be able to rock in the waters disturbed by what life throws at us. It relieves us of the pressure to find meaning in everything, to always be positive, and to understand other people. Sometimes we are lost, others make us upset, and we are not nice to ourselves. We can endeavour to be curious about these times, hold in the back of our minds that these are periods and thoughts that do not feel good, but they are not a failure on any level, just part of the natural ebb and flow of being alive. I wonder if this increases our flexibility to experience all that life has to offer and not become simple in our perception of strangers and reactive to emotions and situations that are unwelcome.


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