Crazy? Them? Me, You? Who’s Crazy?

What is normality?

Who is abnormal? Who is weird? Who is crazy?

I recently had a conversation with a friend, who expressed her disappointment that someone she knew said that she wanted to work with “the crazy ones” when she really meant that she wanted to work with psychiatric patients. I confessed to her, “You know…I’m sorry, but you’ll be disappointed to know that I use the same terms (kind of, maybe “weird” instead)…….By the way, what’s crazy? Who’s crazy?” A disclaimer: People who know me know very well that when I use such labels, it’s a challenge to the term “craziness/ weirdness”. “Oh, they’re crazy. Okay, how do you know you aren’t crazy or that I’m not crazy?”

I am a firm believer that craziness and it’s opposite, normality, are societal constructs. They are somewhat useful (e.g in deciding where limited resources should go to), but they need to be challenged too. Think about it. Why do we call psychiatric patients who are institutionalized crazy? Why are they crazy? That’s because they aren’t blending into what society expects them to do. And why am I normal? That’s because I’m surviving (even if it means having my nose just above the water bobbing up and down) and performing the tasks of what society expects me to do. Do we differ phenomenologically very much? I doubt so.

Recently, I’ve started volunteering at a mental health institute, and reflecting on the sessions in addition to my past volunteering experiences in a children’s home for the mentally challenged, I commented to my brother, “It’s so remarkable, how stripped of all our fronts and appearances, how similar all of us are.” These individuals are genuinely happy when we bring sugared drinks and snacks for them, and so are they, when they receive the company and interaction of fellow humans. Doesn’t that sound like you and me? Though perhaps these common human desires take more sophisticated forms for us.

Recently also, I’ve been been doing an online biblical counseling course, where the prof discussed an individual with paranoid schizophrenia. He reminds students not to reduce individuals to their diagnosis, and to hold on to the truth that we share a common humanity. In his grandiosity, the individual experiences a manifestation of the pride we all to some degree experience– the desire for ourselves to be in the centre of the world instead of God. In his fear of persecution, the individual experiences a manifestation of the fear of man we all go some degree experience– the fear of what others think about or will do to us instead of resting in God’s perfect satisfaction in us in Christ.

In church/ Christian circles, it is commonly said that the line dividing good and evil resides within of us. Similarly, if I may extend this phrase, the line dividing normality and abnormality resides within of us. We all share the same story line. We are made in the image of God, but sin and the brokenness of this world has marred this image. We share the same wiring of desires, dissatisfaction, and sinfulness in this world, but also reflecting some beautiful image despite all these. I remembered witnessing a lady in the institute sharing her only chocolate cake with a friend, of whom then went ahead to offer to share her cake with me, and I thought to myself, “wow, such generosity”. I might just have eaten the cake up myself in both their shoes. Who knows.

Long story short. Next time you call someone crazy/ weird/ abnormal/ mad, look carefully– you might find some within yourself 😉 If you encounter any of the “crazy”, be a little more accepting and less afraid. We are more similar than we’re comfortable to believe– good or bad.

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Shame: Self-Directed Disgust

Disgust, and self-directed disgust

This week for Emotions and Psychopathology class, we will be covering the basic emotion, disgust. I found reading about disgust very refreshing, because it shed light onto an under-emphasised aspect of psychopathology, and in particular, mood disorders. When we talk about mood disorders (e.g. anxiety disorder, depression), we often focus on their obvious derivative emotions such as sadness and fear, but tend to neglect the role of disgust. What is disgust? According to Power & Dalgleish (2016), disgust is the emotion that arises when one appraises a person, object, or idea as repulsive to the self, and to valued roles and goals. The complex emotion that arises out of disgust and which also predicts psychopathology is shame. Do not confuse guilt and shame. Aptly captured by Brene Brown in her Ted Talk (2010), the difference between guilt and shame is the difference between “I’m sorry, I made a mistake”, and “I’m sorry, I am a mistake.” Indeed, shame can be defined as disgust directed towards the self.

What is the problem with disgust directed toward the self?

When we eat something gross, we experience disgust. Naturally, what we seek to do next is to expel the food and distance ourselves from the source. Disgust is an uncomfortable emotion, and it drives us to remove the eliciting stimuli in order to reduce the level of disgust. Think about what happens, however, if this disgust is directed to the self or aspects of the self. What can you do to remove that experience of disgust? Attempting to bring down disgust levels when disgust is directed toward the self becomes a whole lot more complicated than disgust directed toward an external source, just because we cannot simply expel our selfs out of ourselves. You are stuck in your own skin. There are different ways that people still seek to cope with it, however, and they can be classified as prevention, escape, and aggression (Schoenleber & Howard Berenbaum, 2012). Here, I give some pathological forms in which these occur. People prevent self-disgust via mechanisms such as perfectionism and dependence (seeking assurance from others), almost as if to compensate for repulsive parts of their selfs. People escape from self directed disgust by withdrawing from social situations that might cause them. Finally, given that shame is frequently contained within the individual and cannot be easily escaped, people also cope with their self-directed disgust through aggressive tendencies, such as self-harm or harming others.

What hope is there for the self-disgusted?

I see lots of harmful manifestations of these coping mechanisms happening around me, and it grieves me, because there is a certain bleakness that surrounds self-disgust. It looks like people running away from themselves, yet never being able to succeed (because obviously, one cannot run away from oneself). To a large degree, it is a futile endeavour. What hope is there for the self-disgusted? I was discussing my learnings with someone recently, and what she said really struck me. “Yea, it all began with Adam and Eve.” Oh wow, I never thought of that. Isn’t it so fascinating that the first emotion that was depicted after Adam and Eve sinned and ate of the fruit of the of knowledge of good and evil, was that of shame? What happened next in the story of Adam and Eve was what I found truly comforting. Like any of us, Adam and Eve sought to hide their shame by sewing fig leaves for themselves. Like any of our coping mechanisms, it was inadequate. But guess what? God sought to clothe them in garments of skins. It hit me then that the antidote for self-disgust could never be found inside of us, nor could we manufacture the antidote for it. All our coping mechanisms are like that of fig-leaves. In fact, given that shame is a type of self-conscious emotion (Lewis, as cited in Power & Dalgleish, 2016), it seems only logical that more self-consciousness is not going to solve the problem. Instead, God sees and knows our nakedness. He knows our shame, he knows the self that has failed to live up to standards. The fact of the matter is, we have failed to live up to the absolute standards that God demands and there is no denying of that. But in love, God has sought to clothe us in righteousness, in perfection, through the blood of Jesus Christ, through whom He sees and accepts us. There is no running away from our selfs, but there is rest to be found in the perfect righteousness, in Christ, with whom God offers to clothe us in.

 

References

(1) Power, M., & Dalgleish, T. (2015). Cognition and emotion: From order to disorder. Psychology press.

(2) Schoenleber, M., & Berenbaum, H. (2012). Shame regulation in personality pathology. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 121(2), 433.

Miracles Every Day, Every Minute, Every Second

This is going to be a comparatively short post, but thought I’d pen this down for the benefit of myself and for those who struggle to give thanks. Recently, Brandon shared with me his reflection that what often precedes sin is a heart that fails to give thanks. I think that’s often true. For example, when I grumble or enter a state of resentment, I fail to see the many blessings from God. Beyond that, I fail even more to see the goodness of our creator God.

This week, God opened my eyes to see the many things that I have, to give thanks for. Things so mundane that I don’t even think about, or typically care about. Just last week as I returned home from the states, I fell so ill with a stomach virus. Anything ingested, whether solid or liquid, literally became expelled within less than an hour. It was impossible to consume anything. I was so thirsty but I couldn’t drink, and I was so tired but I couldn’t sleep. The only way to ensure that I stayed reasonably hydrated was through a drip in the hospital. The day that I got entirely well (2 days ago) I was ecstatic at the fact that I could drink, eat, and sleep. So ecstatic I was literally rejoicing at the fact that I COULD do those things, and not even the content of what I was drinking or eating. Then I thought to myself, “Wait a moment, isn’t it even more amazing that I ALWAYS have been able to do these things without fail daily?” And the thought continued on, “Wow, how radically would it change my heart to learn to give thanks like that daily.”

We really should be giving thanks like that daily. The problem with our hearts (or my heart) is that we often presume a position of privilege. Things SHOULD go right; it’s only natural for things to go right. But should we? Just the past semester,  I took Introduction to Neuroscience which by the way, I can’t say I really enjoyed, but it never failed to make me in awe at how things actually don’t fail. In class, we learnt that we have approximately 100, 000, 000, 000 neurons, and to pass messages to the brain, many action potentials are fired along a neuron. The numbers are huge; huge numbers also mean that the probability for error increases proportionately. But if you think about your life on a daily basis, most of the time, things DON’T go wrong…if not, you wouldn’t be doing anything at all (being alive, for that matter).

I guess, my long-story-short-point, is just that we need to question our assumptions that things ought to go right. Maybe, if we learnt to open our eyes to all the things that could go wrong, we would learn to marvel at all the miracles that go on every day, every minute, and every second, and be thankful for a God who so graciously sustains and provides.

Knowing Persons

Hey, I’m back! Sorry for the long period of absence. I did not have as much material/ ideas to write on for this semester, as I only took one content module for Psychology— Personality Psychology. My understanding of the module was a little all over the place (which I believe is inherent in Personality Psychology, given its relative newness, and that it is traditionally learnt through the presentation of various alternative theories by pioneering theorists in psychology, rather than through a coherent synthesis) until it was consolidated while preparing for finals, particularly, through the reading of McAdams & Pals (2006).

In this post, I wish to share my learning of the complexity of human personality (particularly, from the McAdams & Pals article), and I dearly hope that a more nuanced understanding of persons would help us better speak biblical truths into the lives of our fellow brothers and sisters.

Biblical truths, for the sake of brevity, can be quickly summed up by Romans 3:23-25, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation (i.e. wrath absorber) by his blood, to be received by faith.” Specifically, we “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”, “because we [they] exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature (which includes ourselves) rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever”.

These are great truths that must be spoken as we counsel/ encourage one another in this walk of faith, but these truths must not simply be unloaded onto the other, without taking into consideration the person that we are interacting with. Indeed, we need to consider the various aspects of an individual, some of which are like all other persons, some of which are like some other persons, and some of which are like no other persons (Kluckhohn and Murray, 1953).

In the remaining of the post, I will be extracting “5 fundamental principles for an integrative science of personality” from McAdams & Pals (2006), which will then be accompanied by comments on how this might help us administer to our brothers and sisters as persons.

Principle 1: Evolution and Human Nature— Human lives are individual variations on a general evolutionary design. An integrative framework for understanding the psychological individuality of persons must begin with human nature and with the ways which every person is like all other persons.”

Comments on Principle 1: I do not wish to discount evolution; I believe that there is a role and place for it in our understanding of people. However, what I wish to challenge is its role as “Principle 1”. In my opinion, just as how evolution is a fundamental belief in secular psychology and therefore forms the primary principle of understanding individuals, biblical truths, which are our fundamental beliefs as Christians, should form the primary principle of our universal understanding of individuals. That said, we need to bear in mind that just as it is foolish for anyone to think he understands a person just because he knows evolution, it will be equally foolish for us to think we can fully understand a person just because we know biblical truths which speak of human nature.

Principle 2: The Dispositional Signature— Variations on a small set of broad disposition traits implicated in social life constitute the most stable and recognisable aspect of psychological individuality. Dispositional traits are those broad, nonconditional, decontextualised, generally linear and bipolar, and implicitly comparative dimensions of human individuality that go by such names as extraversion, dominance, friendliness, dutifulness, depressiveness, the tendency to feel vulnerable, and so on.”

Comments on Principle 2: In walking with others, it is important to consider the fact that God designs each of us uniquely, and gives each different personality (which can either be our gifts or area of struggle). By doing so, it could help us shine gospel truths into the life of others, while being sensitive to their needs and struggles. Let me present you an example of an introverted and slightly depressive sister who gets very frustrated (to the extent of being bitter) at having to devote a significant proportion of her time to people around her. It would be necessary and good to point out to her the problem of selfishness/ love for comfort etc, which manifests in how tightly she guards her time and space and her bitter responses. However, if you were only to do so, chances are, your well-meaning advice will fly past her head. She needs you to counsel her through her struggles which occur in light of her introversion and depression. Remember, she responds not only to the fact that people are taking out time from her, but she responds also to her anxiety, tiredness, and lowness of mood which comes about as a result of the former interacting with her dispositional traits.

Principle 3: Characteristic Adaptations— Beyond dispositional traits, human lives vary with respect to a wide range of motivational, social-cognitive, and developmental adaptations contextualised in time, place, and/or social role. Characteristic adaptations include motives, goals, plans, strivings, strategies, values, virtues, schemas, self-images, mental representations of significant others, developmental tasks…”

Comments on Principle 3: One of my favorite axioms of the socio-cognitive approach to personality (a subset of characteristic adaptations) is that people don’t simply respond to events, but that people respond to their construal/ interpretation of events. Interpretations, and its close relative, appraisals (e.g. very crudely, whether the event is positive or negative), often occur in relation to goals, motives, and self-schemas. As such, counselling a person cannot only entail challenging the behavior in response to an event, but must also entail challenging the goals, motives, and self-schemas from which construal of events arise.

Principle 4: Life Narratives & The Challenge of Modern Identity— Beyond dispositional traits and characteristic adaptations, human lives vary with respect to the integrative life stories, or personal narratives, that individuals construct to make meaning and identity in the modern world”.

Comments on Principle 4: We are all meaning-makers, and we seek to make meaning and construct coherence from the events that occur in our lives. Typically, new events, especially significant events that occur in an individual’s life fit into a bigger narrative. Similar to Principle 3, we don’t necessarily respond objectively to events, but respond to them in light of how they fit into the bigger narrative. For example, I have rather recently responded rather violently to a possible change of future career plans. I was well aware of ungodly pursuits, but that did not seem to cut to the heart on why it was so difficult to lay my career plans down. Not until a sister pointed out to me that my career plans were in reality a replacement to broken dreams I had experienced previously. In my life narrative, my future career plans had unknowingly become events to help me make sense and create hope out of my past broken dreams. My response was violent, not so much because of the career in and of itself, but because I had not laid my narrative of healing from a broken dream before the Lord, and instead sought to find healing in other ways of my own.

Principle 5: The Differential Role of Culture— Culture exerts different effects on different levels of personality….Culture..rich mix of meanings, practices, and discourses about human life that prevail in a given group or society.”

Comments on Principle 5: Not much comments on this; I think it’s rather self-explanatory– it is always good to consider how culture affects narratives, characteristic adaptations, and expression of behavior as we walk with others.

 

References

Kluckhohn, C. E., Murray, H. A., & Schneider, D. M. (1953). Personality in nature, society, and culture .
McAdams, D. P., & Pals, J. L. (2006). A new Big Five: fundamental principles for an integrative science of personality. American psychologist, 61(3), 204.

Mindfulness: Mindful of God and His Creation

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Sometime last year, while in Abnormal Psychology class, I was briefly introduced to this practice called “Mindfulness”. To be honest, I was initially rather wary of it because of its origins from other religions. As usual, being kind of a nerd, I read more about it. As of now, my personal opinion is that it is no more dangerous or safe, and no less dangerous or safe, when compared to other forms of secular psychotherapeutic practices. I will not be discussing the pros and cons of practising psychotherapeutic practices as Christians, but I just wanted to share about how Mindfulness has helped me to delight and be in awe of God even more.

Before we move on, let me first clear up a common misconception of mindfulness/ meditation (that I also had previously). It is NOT the emptying of one’s mind such that one’s mind is occupied by nothingness. This instead is the definition of Mindfulness: Mindfulness is a type of awareness that focuses on the present moment with an attitude of friendly curiosity (Baer, 2014).

God has given us humans a great gift–that of conscious awareness, and that we may use it to worship Him. Yet, how often is it that we move through life on “autopilot”, planning the next moment, such that we never are really consciously aware of the present moment. Here is where I have found Mindfulness help in my fight for joy in and awe of God– by being in the “here and now” of God’s creation. The above picture was a beautiful sunset I captured from my window some weeks back. Our most common tendency is to look, without really looking, and then to subsequently be buried again with the work we need to do. But Mindfulness teaches one to pause, to look at the sunset and to be fully conscious of every sensory experience– the hues of the sky, the sound of the wind blowing and birds chirping, the feeling of our breath.  Can you see such a sunset, and not be captured by the majesty of creation? Can you be captured by the majesty of creation and not be in awe of The One who created all these? Indeed Psalm 19 v1 says, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.”

Finally, as the Psalmist says (Psalm 8:3), “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” When we consider the majesty of God’s creation, the moon and the stars, how can we help but feel, the smallness of man. How can we help but ask, what is man that you are mindful of him? What is man, that you should pursue in love, making a way through your beloved son Jesus Christ at the cross, that we may dwell and not be destroyed in your presence…

Really tasting God’s majestic creation can help us to be in awe of His glory, and to taste the greatness of His salvation as ever more sweet. This is where the practice of mindfulness has helped in my delight in and awe of God.

 

 

Cognitive Triad

In Abnormal Psychology class last semester, we learnt about Aaron Beck’s Negative Cognitive Triad, which describes the cognitive (thinking) patterns of individuals with depression. They triad comprise of negative perception of the self, negative conception of the world, and negative projection of the future. In very casual terms, these are the thoughts characteristic of each component:

Self— I am so lousy/ terrible/ stupid/ filthy.

World— Everyone out there are out the hurt and exploit me./ Everyone looks down on me./ Nobody will accept me.

Future— I will never succeed in…/ I am going to remain like this (in some perceived crappy and undesirable state) forever…

I ended up wondering instead, how the “Christian Cognitive Triad” might instead look like. Here are some quick thoughts:

Self— I am sinful and broken, but God has sent his son Jesus to bear my condemnation. Jesus has said that “It is finished.” Christ is sufficient for all my inadequacies and failings.

World— There is much pain in the world; this is a reflection of the brokenness of our human condition. Nonetheless, there is good to behold, for this was how God created the world to be before The Fall occured.

Future— There will come a day where Christ will come again, and God will wipe away every tear from our eyes. Death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore. We will dwell with our Creator in all eternity.

Not at all saying that Christians will not be susceptible to the Negative Cognitive Triad, but when they do, this might just be a possible alternative triad they can be telling themselves. (:

Suicide; Why We Live As Christians

I took Abnormal Psychology this semester, and we covered “Suicide”. It grieved me when we went through this topic because I could not help but consider that suicide is a reflection of the utter brokenness of this world. Suicide is often an expression or manifestation of hopelessness in the brokenness of life.

The risk of suicide affects Christians and non-Christians alike. Risk factors include, but are not limited to, mental illness and facing of an overwhelming crisis. Susceptible to the same influences and brokenness of this world, it set me thinking on how Christians might set apart their responses to compelling suicidal ideations and urges, from non-believers. In essence, the question is: when a Christian becomes so utterly burdened beyond his strength that he despairs of life itself, how might he, as a redeemed person of Christ, find strength to live on?

Here are 5 broad ideas that have convicted my heart as I searched through the bible, thinking through this question.

(1)Human Life Is Valuable
God has declared the value of human life when (a)He made Man in His own image, and (b)when He sent Christ, fully God himself, to take on human flesh. Put in other words, human lives are valuable by virtue of the fact that they are image bearers of an infinitely valuable God, and a kind in which God chose to identify with in Christ.

(2)Our Lives Are Valuable
Our lives are valuable, because they are the work of God. We have been “fearfully and wonderfully made” by the Creator who breathed us into existence.

(3)It is No Longer Our Lives
As redeemed persons, ransomed by the blood of Christ, we no longer own our lives. Instead, we belong to and exist for Him, who gave us life twice over, in creation and in redemption.

(4)Reconsidering the Purpose of This Life
The purpose for which we are saved and called is to fill the earth with God’s glory, by being salt and light, and proclaiming His name to the world. We can do so by living each day faithfully, in the unique positions of life that God has placed us in. And thankfully, our God is a God who looks not to external greatness, but one who perceives the heart. I am always moved by The Widow’s Offering in the gospels, of whom Jesus comments, “Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on.” If one struggles with suicidal ideations and urges, faithfulness can too be displayed by the act of simply carrying on each day, trusting that God’s grace is sufficient. Also, do not underestimate how God can use us in our sufferings to proclaim His name to others in suffering too.

(5)A Hope Beyond Ourselves
We have a hope that is far mightier than the darkness of our internal mental/ emotional state or external circumstances. The Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in us, and will grant us grace, day by day, to fulfil the purposes of this life in which we were called.