Towards a Self Directed Healing

In the animal kingdom, the rule is, eat or be eaten; in the human kingdom, define or be defined.

- Thomas Szasz

The first time I saw the 1939 musical film adaptation of Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz it was like uncovering some sort of deeply felt archetype.

As a child, the home is at the center of the universe. Oz is like the outside world both fascinating and full of potential, but also terrifying and fraught with the unknown.

This story touches on one of the most fundamental lessons of growing up, that childhood ends, we eventually have to move from home, and that adults don’t have the answers to life challenges anymore than the children.

After all, even the wonderful wizard himself is riddled with his own problems and is only a fallible human himself.

I think this wonderful parable is quite applicable in understanding our collective enchantment and fascination with authoritative institutions like banks, governments, schools and hospitals.

When it comes to money, the future, safety, and health it’s quite soothing to imagine that the smartest of us are hard at work in some imposing, symbolic edifice dutifully keeping us healthy and secure.

However, a quick glance at polls tracking confidence in these institutions shows a sharp decline and it appears like the spell is slowly fading.

In this essay, we’ll look at some criticisms on the institutions involved in mental health and begin the process of developing an alternative model.

Fortunately, The Wizard of Oz will shows us more than a critique of institutional confidence.

Dorthy, through her new friends, a friendly witch, and a faithful dog finds the antidote to the unknown.

Likewise, when it comes to the quagmire of the human mind we’ll use a character from the Oz universe as a metaphor to help anchor us.

I’m thinking specifically about the scarecrow. During his first appearance in the novel he sadly laments about not having a brain and that his greatest wish is to one day find one.

We find out later that he’s only two days old. He had brains the whole time and merely needs the patience to develop his wisdom.

When it comes to confusing subject like the mind it’s easy to latch onto an idea like psychoanalysis and dismiss any arguments against it.

A common way to deal with such arguments is what’s called the straw-man fallacy.

It’s an often unconscious sleight of hand where someone substitutes the initial argument for something that was never said.

This substitution often attempts to transform the original argument into something absurd or repulsive.

What’s interesting about the Scarecrow character is that through his development he ultimately is recognized as the wisest man in Oz.

Similarly, in all arguments against psychoanalysis, even in the least charitable ones, we can find a seed of something useful that can help us in our project to heal.

A lesson from this iconic character is that we should take that seed and help it blossom into something stronger perhaps even something that destroys our presuppositions or beliefs.

This process of transforming an argument into its best possible form, mirroring the development of Scarecrow, is the inverse of the straw-man known as the steel-man.


The Szaszian Steel-Man

To develop our steel-man we’ll look at the work of Thomas Szasz the psychiatrist and medical doctor who declared war on the field with his fascinating and evocative book The Myth of Mental Illness.

Szasz completely rejected any medical models of the mind often calling them flawed and coercive.

He argued elegantly against the disease model of homosexuality and involuntary hospitalization.

Also, he critized the use of the DSM diagnostic system for perpetuating the belief that mental illness has a material basis.

Unlike a cancerous tumour, a phenomenon like depression, anxiety, or an eating disorder has no apparent physical presence.

Szasz also offers a strong critique against psychological moralizing. He saw the efforts to classify human behavior into appropriate or inappropriate as a vast overreach by largely unchecked institutional monopolies.

Enter Self Directed Healing

To address Szasz’s concerns I’m developing a concept called self directed healing.

This idea is heavily influenced by educator Peter Grey who’s made radical improvements and reforms with regards to education and childhood development.

We can contrast self directed healing with the medical model in at least two critical ways:

  1. It rejects the idea of imposed standards of normal behavior
  2. It embraces pluralism and exploration offering no ideal system or prescriptions

To expand on point one, it’s critically important to avoid the expert trap. In later a later essay, we’ll expand this further but for now I commend you to the work of Nassim Taleb.

In short, dentists and plumbers can be experts and psychoanalysts can’t.

Anyone who tells you otherwise, no matter how high her throne of credentials, is afflicted with a dangerous hubris.

We need an alternative to the master — teacher dialectic found in the therapist-subject relationship.

A Clinical Example

Returning to the thought of Nassim Taleb, an incredibly important concept we’ll draw on in self directed healing is his principle of skin in the game.

In short, this is the “eat your own dog food” principle.

Since we’ve just recently rejected the idea of standard models of behavior and morality it’s a good idea to explore some of what our own would look like.

My explorations have thus far led me to embrace these standards:

  1. Humans are not weak. Whatever age, gender, religion, race, or health status we find ourselves we neither need nor deserve to be victimized. We should not victimize others.
  2. Change is inevitable. It can be either good or bad. We should make change and take advantage where possible.
  3. Honesty is unbelievably important. We should gaze past superficial appearances as often as possible. We should stare down shame, guilt, and resentment reminding them they won’t impact our actions.
  4. We can create or own choices and manufacture hope. We’re not limited by the tyranny of the average.

Secondly, I’ve drawn a more pluralistic approach to understand the various wounds I’ve accumulated and frustrations that plague me. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

Responsibility: No matter what happens, I’m in charge of the outcome. The fact that I can sometimes track the source of my frustration to other people or events is only data.

Contemplation: There’s an entire universe of perception, thoughts, memories, feelings, concepts, and beliefs inside of me. Where did they come from? What do they mean? Should I keep them? There’s a fountain of knowledge and wisdom inside to examine without having to open a web page or book.

Creation: Creation is like contemplation on steroids. I apply the inner wisdom from above to create art, projects, and change.

If these ideas sound interesting to you at all, awesome! Stay tuned to the blog as we’ll be developing them much further as our explorations continue.