The secret for mental health is perception

Perception is key to mental health

Almost 25 years ago, when I was training to become an art psychotherapist, I hypothesized that there must exist a balance between perception and projection in order to be able to enjoy optimal mental health. Imagine a continuum where at one end we see people displaying resilience and turning crisis into opportunity; people  keeping their peace of mind in the midst of turbulent times.  At the other end of the continuum, people who seemingly have lost all sense of reality, and in between, different degrees of relational conflict, mental disorders or dysfunctions.

As you may know, one of the characteristics of people with psychotic disorders is that they have grown a mysterious inner – and usually scary – world populated with perceptions nobody else shares with them. They see unique things and hear alien voices or sounds, phenomena that we call hallucinations. They generate beliefs and thoughts that are not founded on the reality others perceive and we call these experiences, delusional. Their cognition, thought process, mood and speech become disturbed as a consequence of  distorted perception.

At the in between positions in the continuum, we find “neurotics” (a definition we no longer use in the mental field – exception made for psychoanalysts, of course) who might experience being victimized, tormented or oppressed by people who somehow resemble (or without resembling, elicit a memory of) their childhood caregivers. They could become extremely sensitive and any level of stress throw them out of balance. Their perception is affected by the projection of their personal inner world onto others. We call this phenomenon transference.

“Healthy people” at the other end of the continuum (and Freud would probably not accept this term since all of us go through neurotic episodes at some point) tend to have a more accurate rendition of their reality. Let’s say that their day is not so easily spoiled. They are calmer and less reactive; they think before they act; they accept responsibility for the consequences of their words and actions without feeling “sorry,” and they certainly have the capacity to see opportunities where others see disasters or dangers.  This is because they know that as adults you can’t place the blame on others for the way they feel. They choose the impact the other person or the circumstances will pose on them.

After these many years working as a psychotherapist, I think my hypothesis might be right… People who learn and practice mindfulness, people who meditate, who make sure they are well rested and nourished, seem to have a brain (and guts) with the perfect amount of endorphins and other neurotransmitters. They seem to become better listeners and instead of becoming bitter or reacting harshly to another human being, they are capable of stepping back, looking at a given situation from a calm perspective, feeling empathy for the other and responding not from the ego but from the heart.

“The essence of love is perception,” said Marc Gafni, “Therefore the essence of self love is self perception. You can only fall in love with someone you can see clearly – including yourself. To love is to have eyes to see. It is only when you see yourself clearly that you can begin to love yourself.”

I say, the key to mental health is solving the pending business of the past so that they don’t interfere with the capacity to perceive what is really going on.