The Possibility Podcast with Mel Schwartz episode 132 is a bonus episode: an interview I gave Dwight Hurst on The Broken Brain podcast.
In this hour-long episode, we review how I came to my approach to therapy and cover self-esteem, uncertainty, anxiety and depression, education, and how quantum physics provides a metaphoric model for dealing with it all.
I’d love to hear what you think! Be sure to leave a comment with your own thoughts and questions!
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Transcript of The Possibility Podcast with Mel Schwartz #132
MEL: Hello everybody and welcome to The Possibility Podcast. I’m your host Mel Schwartz. I practice psychotherapy, marriage counseling, and I am the author of the book The Possibility Principle, the companion to this podcast. I hope to be your thought provocateur and I’ll be introducing you to new ways of thinking and a new game plan for life.
DWIGHT: Grateful to be here today with Mel Schwartz. Mel is a psychotherapist and also an author of The Possibility Principle and you have a very unique approach that I’m super jazzed to talk about in that you use principles of physics and quantum physics and combine those with psychotherapy. So Mel, thank you so much for being here today, first of all.
MEL: Thank you for having me, Dwight. Looking forward to chatting with you.
DWIGHT: Tell people a little bit about who you are. I always like to let people know how we got into such a seedy business as trying to help people. What happened? How did you get here?
MEL: I was approaching the age of 40 and I was living the life I thought I should be living. I was in business, not psychotherapy. I was making very good living. I was driving home from my office in Midtown Manhattan to my home in the suburbs and I had a thought. The thought was when I was in college, I promised myself I was going to have great meaning and purpose in my life. Now 20 years later, I thought, well, I’ve got the big house, the kids, the successful business, but you know what? The meaning and the purpose aren’t there. And I thought, I don’t want to do this for the rest of my life. By the time I got home, I said to my soon to be ex-wife, I think I’m going to close the business.
MEL: She said, what do you mean? What are you going to do? I said, I don’t know. But I was excited, excited by possibilities and I began to think about what I really enjoyed doing. What I really enjoyed doing is helping people think differently, get insights, you know, mixing it up. And I thought, what would that look like?
MEL: So by the morning I thought, I’m going to apply to graduate school and I’m going to become a psychotherapist. I can write books, I can give talks, but I didn’t know a thing about the field of psychotherapy. I had done a little therapy, but I couldn’t say it was a calling. But for me, fortunately it turned out to be, but I never followed anything they taught me in graduate school because I thought it was an outmoded way of thinking. It’s what I would call the 17th century reductionist thinking, Newtonian, about objectivity. And my new way of thinking was different.
MEL: I started reading quantum physics. And by the way, when I say quantum physics, I don’t get the science. I just mean the principles. The principles were reality is uncertain. And I thought, but in our lives we seek certainty, but we can’t succeed at that. So if we’re seeking what we can’t get, we’re going to be anxious. Ah, anxiety is due to seeking certainty when reality is uncertain. So I turned that around and I thought, well, if reality is uncertain, what if I learn to embrace uncertainty? So making that career shift was my first embrace of uncertainty, bringing a new possibility into my life.
MEL: So over time, I looked at these principles in quantum physics, inseparability. Reality appears to be one inseparable whole. There is no separation, even though our mind constructs separation. And I thought, wow, if inseparability is reality, then compassion and harmony and love would be second nature because we are actually all as one, just like the golden rule. So I took these principles and I started to apply them to my practice. And I’m writing an article right now, which is called asking how does that make you feel? That’s not enough. That’s what’s typically done in therapy, right? How does that make you feel? But I like to teach. I like to help people find a new way of a new game plan for life wisdom. So that’s what brought me here and a very long winded response to you, Dwight. That’s what got me where I am.
DWIGHT: No, no, no, not long winded at all. I appreciate the context for that because it actually hits a lot of the things that I feel like I talk about a lot on the show too, is we sometimes fall into in our industry years in mind, right? There’s these pitfalls we can fall into where we have this concept of just doing things that have always been done. I remember reading a research paper a long time ago that the title of it was doing what works instead of what we think will work. And the whole premise of it was it was about the time that there was this craze where they said evidence-based therapy, evidence-based therapy. And it didn’t mean anything other than it was a catchphrase really. You’d think it meant do something that seems to actually work, right? But it just became another, I don’t know, it was like, oh, use evidence-based CBT. And some of these acronyms have stuff in them that are useful, but to fall into the trap of just being like, well, this is what we’ve always done. That’s not a good reason to do something all by itself.
MEL: It’s dull. It’s unthinking. By the way, look at the term evidence-based as a short-sighted term because evidence is what we can see and observe. But we know the human psyche, the large part of it is unobservable. We understand the unconscious has a great gravitational force in our feelings and our behavior. So just the term evidence-based is horribly lacking, isn’t it?
DWIGHT: It leads to the kind of thinking to where there are people out there who feel like we could have AI therapists that would replace the need for therapists. Going back to that idea of how do you feel about that? How does it make you feel? What are your feel, feel, feel? And while identifying feelings is certainly a part of a therapeutic conversation, you know, no way around that, it’s not the end though. If anything, it’s very much the start. How do you feel? I feel this way. Great. Well, there should be something next.
MEL: So I command that from principle of quantum physics. And before going into the principle, maybe not getting into the principle, I’ve come to see and believe that usually thought precedes feeling. So if I’m feeling in a certain mood, let’s say exceptionally good or bad, I’ll ask myself, what was the thought I had to set up that feeling? I’ll track back and find it. So I see the correlation, the dance between thought and feeling. In quantum physics, we understand that reality is in a state of pure potential. It doesn’t exist until you summon it up, you make an observation. So I thought we too are in a state of potential until we attach to our next thought. So what if I could help people?
MEL: First I had to discover it myself. What if I could experience this so I could actually see the thought, slow motion, and not become the thought and it changed my life? Because if I can see the thought that I’m not the thought, then I’m free to change, to develop wisdom and great insight. So I actually developed some techniques to help people see their thought and see their feeling to then rise above it and then change and possibility become immediately accessible.
DWIGHT: So do you find that you embrace more of an idea of leaning in rather than pulling back or running away from, distracting from the…
MEL: Absolutely. I have a podcast. My podcast is called the Possibility Podcast. I have an entire episode on leaning in. I call it a martial art. When you lean in, you’re not defensive and you’re reactive. You’re not reactive. And it’s embracing a vulnerability, but I use the word vulnerable in a powerful way. So if somebody makes a critical comment to you, lean in with curiosity and say, ah, tell me about that. I didn’t see that myself, but that’s powerful. Instead of being back on your heels and saying, oh, that’s not true.
DWIGHT: You know, I, and I’ll say his name. I don’t mind sharing this because he shared it on the podcast, a colleague of mine, Mike Fitch, and he shared this story once about vulnerability of when he got into an argument with his father as a teenager. And so they’re arguing or whatever. And at some point, this, this, the heated discussion, he, he lets loose on his dad and it says a bunch of stuff. And he says like, I hate you. And he said that his dad totally shocked him by taking a step back and saying, well, that really hurts my feelings. And he said, all of a sudden that vulnerability powerfully diffused the situation where he could have said like, oh yeah, well, and which is very natural, right. To strike back when someone strikes out, but instead it was a vulnerable reaction. And that triggered a whole different conversation following that. Right.
MEL: You know, I think that speaks to the heart of the epidemic of low self-esteem in our culture. I coined a term, I think I coined it, perhaps someone else did, which is other esteem. As a culture, we’re taught that the way to attain self-esteem, it doesn’t really come from us. So if you’re a kid in school, if you’re a great athlete, if you get great grades, if you have a lot of friends that give you self-esteem, well, what if you’re not a great athlete and you’re not that popular? Attaining self-esteem comes from not operating from fear. Now acting strong, which in particular men are taught to do in our culture, acting strong is acting. It’s weak. The opposite is share your vulnerability. And that means you’re no longer worried about someone else being your judge. You set it up yourself. And I’ll say that the only person who can be my judge is a dude that works in the courthouse and wears a long black robe. Otherwise, we’re all people with opinions. Why elevate someone’s opinion and call it a judgment? So there’s this epidemic of low self-worth because culturally, we’re not taught and educationally, we’re not taught how to develop genuine self-esteem. And I think low self-esteem lies underneath a lot of disorders like anxiety and depression. But low self-esteem, as you know, is not a DSM diagnosis. So nobody is talking about it.
DWIGHT: No. And in fact, when we do, it becomes one of those things that is viewed almost as one of those cliche, hippie dippy therapist things, right? It’s like, oh, self-esteem, self-esteem. And it’s a little bit less out of now. When I was going to graduate school, though, there was a lot of talk about alternate ways of saying that because self-esteem is so whatever. And it was treated by a lot of people as something kind of froofy and hard to define. And this and that. And instead of what you’re describing is more bearing down on this and saying, no, this is actually an underlying problem that exists.
MEL: Yeah. Look, the primary relationship in your life is with yourself. What do you think of yourself? How do you feel? Can you navigate life without too much fear? So the fear of what I think someone else thinks of me. Notice what I said. People say I’m afraid of what they think, but we don’t know what they think. You’re afraid of what you think they think of you. How can that be a sensible way of living your life? So all this common sense that we follow doesn’t really work out. I’m working on the new book, which is called Uncommon Sense, because common sense, how’s that working out? There’s too much fear in our lives, fear of what other people think. But my genuine relationship with myself needs to be key. That doesn’t mean I’m insensitive or callous or uncaring about other people, but it means I’m not in a precarious place where I’m worried about what I say or don’t say. I’m true to myself.
DWIGHT: Do you see that, as you mentioned, pushback from people? As you mentioned, that doesn’t mean I’m callous just because other people can’t or I don’t want them to control and I don’t want to give that control to them. Do you find that people push back on that in the sense of like, oh, well, if I didn’t care what people thought, then that would be a dull collapse or something?
MEL: Yeah. So what I’m trying to do, what I try to teach people in that case, is that I don’t say you shouldn’t care what someone thinks, but you shouldn’t subordinate yourself out of fear of what they think. You see, it’s more nuanced than that. Please, I’d love to hear what you think, but that doesn’t mean I’m afraid of you thinking critically of me. You have the right to think critically of me, just as I have the right to think critically of you.
DWIGHT: I like to think of it sometimes as we try to do the communication work for other people when we project, right? When we project and we say, oh, I think they think this and I think they probably want me to do this, so I’m either going to try to do that or I’m going to rebel against it or all of a sudden I’m making decisions based off of the thing that I think they think. The tricky bit is that as we get to know people pretty well, we’re probably right quite a bit of the time. And when we’re right often, we think we’re right always. And when we’re right often, we also assume that it matters. If I think you think this, then it, oh, I’ve got to react to it. When as a matter of fact, even if you think it, you haven’t told me, I’m doing your job for you.
MEL: Yeah, I think you’re absolutely correct. And that’s a really, really important insight that you have there. We operate from assumptions. One of the skills I’ve developed that I enjoy is really around what I call shared meaning. So I will socially be with a couple of people and they’re having a conversation with each other and I realized they think they’re talking about the same thing, but they’re not. Their conversations actually derail. They’re talking about two different things because they don’t have shared meaning. Shared meaning is she says to him, you don’t know how to be intimate. So he should be saying, well, first before I respond, tell me what you mean by the word intimate. So we’re on the same page. Instead, I don’t know how to be intimate. You’re kidding. You’re the one with the problem. They’re off to a battle. No one is defined the word we need shared meaning and shared meaning is respectful. So if you say to somebody, you know, you’re such, so judgmental and critical of me, it really hurts my feelings. Okay, please help me understand what do you mean by critical? What does that look like? We need shared meaning in communication.
MEL: When I look at communication today amongst people, politicians, or talking heads on TV, it’s bereft. There is no congruent shared meaning. It’s like whack-a-mole, you know, but there’s no meaning coming out of the, out of the discourse
DWIGHT: With the biggest difference being actual whack-a-mole is a lot more fun. And at least get those little tickets. And if you get a million of them, you can get a mustache comb or something. I’m curious your thoughts on tying what you’re saying now to this inseparability and how if I understood you correctly, that the sort of our natural state is more of a communal kindness reaching out. That’s more of where we want to be. And yet at the same time, we have those struggles. Is that just a breakdown of the way we relate to ourselves? Is it anxiety? Is it fear? What kind of things make us?
MEL: I think this is singularly a vitally important point that you’re raising. I think the most of the harm that it does us as a species, as human race, is we live in the illusion of separation. Now call it the illusion. It comes from 17th century thinkers, Sir Isaac Newton and Rene Descartes. So Newton told us that reality is like a giant machine. Descartes said it was a giant clock comprised of separate discrete parts. Well, we became those separate parts in the machine, but separate, it requires force to get the parts moving. Quantum physics discovered particles when they have a shared state, they’re called entangled. They are as one. The thought debate was if you take those particles and you separate them by a great distance and you change the spin of one, what will happen to the other one, half a universe away? The other one will change his spin because as shared particles, they have opposite spins. But the question is, how long would it take? Einstein says, well, a signal will be sent, but nothing travels faster than the speed of light. So we calculate. Niels Bohr says no, no signal. Reality is as one. There’s no signal necessary. Einstein says, if this was true, I’d rather be a cobbler than a physicist.
MEL: In 1964, the technology, both of these men have passed on, the technology is finally available to test it. Einstein was wrong. The universe appears as one. There is no signal in between the particles. They are as one. Further evidence is that this exists not just in the quantum world, but in our world. So it’s similar to Eastern mysticism, oneness. Now how do you have the illusion of separation? We compete, we try to win, we try to defeat because we see the other is different than me. It’s called a relationship or marriage. What tears a marriage or relationship apart? The need to be right. Would you rather be happy or would you rather be right? Well, I’d rather be happy, but I’m going to get into a fight. I need to win. If I have to be right, that means I’m going to make you wrong. How’s that going to work out for our relationship? The relationship is oneness. So this sense of oneness, which quantum physics reveals, then compassion and empathy and generosity as opposed to greed. Greed is a product of separation, competing, winning, exploiting. That all comes from the 17th century point of view of we’re separate cogs in the machine. There’s nothing to do, play the game and try to win.
DWIGHT: If I’m on the bottom of the rung, and what you’re suggesting, the extension of that logic would be the ladder itself is just an unhealthy creation in a way, the hierarchical way. If I’m on the bottom, that means I need to get to the top or at least as high up as I can. And then we all could say what that leads to. I mean, we all see what that leads to. We talk about it in a way, it almost sounds like we talk about the epidemic of anxiety and self-esteem problems. It’s almost like just an epidemic of like extreme burnout as a person.
MEL: Well, because the most important question we can ask ourselves is what’s my philosophy for my life? If you start a business, you drew up a business plan, but we go after life without our own game plan for life. So people think that they will be happy when they meet and fall in love. Okay, then I’ll be happy when I get married. Well, I’ll be happy when we get our dream house. I’ll be happy when I have children. I’ll be happy when the kids are old enough to sleep through the night. All of a sudden you’re at retirement. What happened to happiness? Things don’t bring happiness. Happiness can only exist being present in the moment. We hear terms like being in flow, but you can’t be in flow and be in fear at the same time. You have to choose. The leaning in concept that you spoke about earlier, that’s being in flow. It’s leaning in. Rethinking what will bring happiness. So achievement and wealth can be seen as the icing on the cake, but not the cake.
DWIGHT: When you had that realization, going back to that drive home, the very eventful drive home you mentioned as a feeling of mostly excitement and this idea of putting aside some things that weren’t meaningful, chasing after meaning. The excitement came before you even knew what the answer was. Has that always been part of your own approach or personality, or was that a shift in the way you approach life?
MEL: Well, yes and no. I was always a person who would think, why can’t I, as opposed to why I can’t, but there was something in this process that was profound for me. So within the day or two after I decided to go to grad school, I of course had reasonable considerations. How am I going to support my family? What are the changes going to be in our lives? And I did what we usually do. I hesitated because I had a fear of the consequences, but then in a very insightful moment in my life, I thought, but I should have a fear about the consequences of not doing something. If I don’t do this, I could become depressed. So as a culture, we fear the consequences of what we do, our decisions, that fear just constricts us. I should have a fear of not doing something that has consequences. So I started to realize that I could learn to think differently. And in my practice, my development, I never read anything in the field of psychology ever. That doesn’t excite me. I only read books that I don’t sufficiently understand to begin with, because that’s my learning process. So I’ll read quantum physics, I’ll read philosophy, I’ll circle this and I’ll circle that and I’ll underline this and I’ll say, well, if this is true in philosophy and that’s true in physics, what happens if I combine them and I do that? And it’s like an alchemy for me. It’s a creative process. So for me, I don’t believe in separate disciplines. Separate disciplines are just our thought made this stuff up. History, social studies, economics, they’re all different aspects, but they’re not truly separate. When we separate things out, our mind tricks us. So I’ve learned since the age of 40, because I was not like this before. I was a regular guy. I was an average student at best. I didn’t run deep. And all of a sudden, wow, something happened. So I realized possibilities that we are not imprinted in a certain way.
MEL: So I was given a talk shortly after I became a therapist. I had written my first book and I was invited to give the talk at Yale. I was feeling pretty full of myself. And I’m sitting there after the talk, my mother comes over and she’s quite an elderly woman at that point. She has tears in her eyes and she says, I don’t understand how did you become this person? And I thought it’s all about potential and possibilities. We don’t know. We restrict ourselves. And even in terms of intelligence, I’m not suggesting I have a superior intelligence, but I always thought I was average minded, but I wasn’t. I removed my own restrictions and said, what if you see, we’ve lost a sense of wonder in our culture. We don’t wonder anymore. You show me someone who has wonder and curiosity, they won’t be depressed, but we don’t honor wonder anymore.
DWIGHT: Well, that’s the part that can sometimes be hard. I think that’s one of the reasons why you see people with more creative personalities, artists and performers and people who do whatever they do to create art and things. The reputation is that that type of personality lends itself to extreme moods, to depression, to those kinds of things. I think it has more to do with what you said. It’s the shaming and the lack of value we place on that, that teaches people that it’s not okay to be the way you are. If you draw a picture when you’re a little kid, hey, great, good for you. And oh, wow, it might even be quite good. But then if you start drawing something later on, at some point it’s like, well, I mean, a lot of people would look at that and say, if you haven’t monetized it, and heaven forbid you want to do that for a living or something. And there’s just all these things that the shame starts to pile on. And I think that being shoved into the expectation of a non-creative or non-artistic or non-whatever it is that we are, or even if we’re in a field, and I’ve known tons of people, I’ll use, let’s say someone who’s an accountant. An accountant can be quite creative. Now they don’t want to be too creative in certain ways because they go to jail, but they can be creative in how they solve problems and approach things. But what are people in that line of work told again and again and again is they’re not a creative, right? So we’re shoved into some of these boxes. That’s where I think some of that depression comes from is the rejection of the core self of who we want.
MEL: Yes, I agree with you. And so we’re shoved into boxes and we compartmentalize ourselves. But the problem is the way we operate as a culture, which is a curiosity. Could you imagine a classroom where the students weren’t graded for getting the right answer, but the students were graded for asking the best question. The teacher asks a question, you think you have the answer, the kid’s hand goes up. It’s boring, it’s dull. Imagine grading kids by asking the best question. The best question doesn’t have an answer. It gets us all thinking. We have to embrace not knowing. We have to embrace confusion. But you see, there is shame in our culture about not knowing. People avoid it. They think they’re fearful. What will they think of me? I’m stupid. I’m ignorant. Not knowing is the pathway to knowing. I have to embrace not knowing to break through and know.
DWIGHT: Is that why you were excited when you knew that there was going to be a change, but you didn’t know what it was yet? You were already starting to feel the excitement of not knowing?
MEL: Very much so.
DWIGHT: I see.
MEL: Thrill is the right word. But I knew, probably based on my personality type, that I was not going to be content being a traditional therapist, so to speak. I needed to find another way, a way that resonated with me. When people would ask me, where were you trained? I’d say, trained? I’m not an animal in the zoo. Why would I want to be trained? I want to keep my mind as open as I can. Training is a singular narrowing of the mind view. No thanks. I want my mind open. And I want to be able to rethink and reconsider and change my mind.
DWIGHT: Valerie Probst-Field is a therapist who does some podcasting and things, too. We just had a recording a little while ago, so it’s kind of fresh in my mind. She does a lot about motherhood, and she used this specifically with motherhood, but it applies to all kinds of roles in our life. Do we look at a role as a noun or a verb? Is it like, oh, and in our industry, it’s rife with this. I’m a therapist. That’s my identity. And to me, it reminds me of the role you play being a verb. I’m doing therapy. And how do I do therapy? It’s not like, oh, I am this thing, and then all of a sudden, there’s weird expectations that maybe come with that, instead of being like, yeah. And I think it’s great to draw inspiration from lots of different sources, particularly because a lot of the information that is really, really helpful, take somebody who wants to learn about mindfulness, yeah, you Google it. And I can share a lot about mindfulness with a client, but they can Google it and find out a lot more wise things than I’m going to say. But what do I bring into it is I bring in things that I assimilate. And I mean, ask my clients that I’ve worked with over the years how many times I’ve quoted The Simpsons, for example, because comedy and some of those kinds of things and fiction speaks really loudly to me, and I get insights in that realm that I don’t get by reading a textbook or something. So drawing that inspiration from other sources and letting a little bit of you and what speaks to you come into the interactions with people, I think is very powerful. I think it’s very-
MEL: I agree completely. And by the way, when people ask me what I do, meaning for a living, I’m almost reluctant to say I’m a therapist, because it’s a mind speak about what a therapist is. See, coming back to words, Newton’s worldview, which I’ve done so much work on trying to transcend it, is about a worldview of fixed objective reality. The quantum worldview is that it’s flowing, the reality is participatory making, it’s making itself up and nothing is objective, it’s in flow. I read about and came to realize that when people ask me, why is it taking us so long to shift out of the 17th century worldview into this new worldview? And my answer is, there are eight common words that we use in virtually every sense. And those are the to be verbs.
MEL: Is, am, were, was, be, been. These are the only verbs that are static, inert, they’re not moving. Now every time we talk and use a to be verb, we are static and we’re making objective reality. I am. That means I’m not changing. There’s no flow, there’s no movement, you are. So instead of saying you are in an argument, you say, may I tell you how I experience you? That could be open. But when you say you are, objective statement, done. Doesn’t work. So early in my career as a therapist, a therapist across the whole would say, can I speak to you about a client I have, Jane has ADHD. And I say, what do you mean she has ADHD or Jane is bipolar? I said, bipolar is a word. It’s a description that a team of psychiatrists coined to describe certain behavior they think they see as a description, no issue. But you turned it into a thing. Jane is bipolar. The is, it’s the problem. And it’s ruinous in our arguments, in our discussions. That’s why everything breaks down. Someone will say, change is hard. I’ll have them say, I have a difficult time changing. Now I take ownership of it. Well, let’s look at what we can do differently. Change is hard. Where are you going to go with that? So these words restrict our growth and our movement and keep us stuck in 17th century thinking.
DWIGHT: I’ve been called on that before describing my own bipolarity, my own bipolar diagnosis. My prescriber did that to me once. That sort of cultural shorthand snuck out where it was like, well, I mean, since I’m bipolar and he’s like, well, you know better. Because he knows me and we work in the same area. He’s like, yeah, no, well, would you let someone else do that to themselves? And I was like, oh, I didn’t think about it that way. But you’re right. It’s this label that I even, I was putting that on myself. And I might be more cognizant of that when I’m working with a client and say, well, what’s that label mean? Why are we calling ourselves that? And but yet did it to myself, right?
MEL: That’s right.
DWIGHT: I’d love to say it was a long time ago and I’ve learned so much. No, but it wasn’t that long ago. It was more recent.
MEL: But that’s the self-reflection. But the self-reflection, as you know, of course, is altogether healthy. But when it slides along the continuum to be self-critical, and I don’t mean critical, but critical thinking is important as a culture. We have lost critical thinking. So we operate from a belief, but it doesn’t work out. So do we go back to the belief and say, well, that belief isn’t working out? Why am I adhering to that belief? There’s a lack of critical thinking in our culture. I find it frightful. So critical thinking is how did I come to that belief? What makes me think that belief is valid? It requires some scrutiny. But how many people do we know to do that?
DWIGHT: Yeah. It occurs to me, too, that one of the things where, and in your terminology, too, we go against the inseparability part of our core, who we are, is when we also put that out at others. If it’s a bad thing for me to label myself that way and look at me as that’s my whole person, how much worse than or equally, I don’t know, I don’t want to compare it, but it’s also bad to throw that at other people, right? I mean, you mentioned we’re staffing a client here and we say, well, she or he’s bipolar, they’re autistic, they’re this, they’re that. And it’s like, well, why are we doing that to them then? Instead of saying, here’s the things that they struggle with or whatever.
MEL: That is so. And I wrote an article I called the diagnosis madness, which is that the DM needs a diagnosis, DSM needs a diagnosis. The diagnosis is they forgot that they made all this stuff up and it just descriptions. And then we think of it as real. Now I learned that from philosophy. It’s called reification. Reification is my mind makes something up, which can be productive and inventive, but then I forgot I made it up and I think it’s real. And I understand that mind constructed. So every diagnosis we have is useful as a description, but they’re not real things.
DWIGHT: Yeah, I’ve always thought of diagnosis as if you put a bunch of people in a big room and let’s say it’s everyone in the world. And I like to use eye health as a good example of this. Let’s say you put everybody in a big room and you say, how well can everybody see? Well, this group of people, they seem to see things close up easier than far away. Let’s call them nearsighted. These people seem to say the opposite. Let’s call them farsighted. That’s a word, as you put it, it’s a term. We made it up to describe something. Now does that mean we know everything about the way the eye works just because we said that? And also does it mean, by the way, there’s a whole spectrum of different ways that people who might, what about people who struggle with both? We need a new name. And it’s helpful, as you put it, it’s a description. It helps us maybe categorize in a way that’s like, oh, okay, if I approach this, but even then we can fall into a trap if I think, well, everybody who’s been diagnosed with X is going to react badly to this and well to this. We’re not really doing any services there. We got to now, does it help to have a sense of that, of with cases of addiction, there’s usually trauma associated with it. It’s good to know. But does that mean day one, someone walks in my office and says, I’m here for addiction. I go, oh, you’ve had, you have trauma. You must have PTSD.
MEL: It’s that reductionist way of thinking. So I also look at other contexts, which is in the United States, in anyone’s lifetime, they have a one out of three chance of having a diagnosable mental illness. One out of three people, 120 million people. So I step back and I said, well, wait a minute, there’s something terribly wrong here. We are victimizing the victim. In other words, if we live in a way that is creating all this disharmony and distress, we need to look at the way we’re living. Why do we have an epidemic of mental illness? Instead of just pointing our finger and diagnosing the individual and medicating them, we say, wait a minute, maybe the way we’re living makes no sense because there’s a cultural and environmental influence. It’s not just the individual. You have to look at a larger context.
DWIGHT: It’s interesting when you point that out. And sometimes you look at the difference here and you think of, what’s the term, endemic, right? If it’s just normal and bad versus epidemic, meaning a spike. And you’re describing kind of almost that there’s a transitionary feeling there of being like, is this just our, if our normal is so much depression, so much anxiety, maybe we do need to question the normal instead.
MEL: Well, I look at that in terms of reading about this horrible realm, a statistic of anxiety with young people. And I look at it and I said, well, it makes sense to me that they have such anxiety. Why? In many parts of the country, we are stealing childhood from children, unintentional child abuse. So then that child doesn’t have free time, play time, creative time, curiosity time, adventure time. Everything is scheduled. And I work with very affluent clientele, so it’s even worse there. So in third grade, that kid’s being groomed to get into an Ivy League school. They buckle under that pressure, right? So parents don’t understand that success doesn’t bring happiness. It may bring suicide if it’s fostered in an unreasonable way. So why is there this outbreak of anxiety amongst kids? Because they’ve lost childhood. They’re being treated as young adults at tender ages of being children.
MEL: So I realized this before I ever became a therapist. My son comes home with his fifth grade report card that’s a bit disappointing. I give him the normal conversation. He looks at me, he says, Dad, I’m just in fifth grade. I’m just a kid. My grades don’t count. When I get to high school, I’ll get on it. So I thought, he’s kind of saying to me, like, you know, in baseball, in spring training, the exhibition season, you don’t try to play to win, you try to get into shape. And he’s saying to me, I’m just a kid. Would you let me just be a kid? And it just stunned me, the wisdom. I see, you know, that was 25 years ago. Now I see this outbreak, this unintentional child abuse, where we’re turning children into these robotic, calculating, inquisitive people. And by the way, there’s no intellectual curiosity being developed. What grade did you get on that? What did your teacher say? Did you hand your report in? Are parents saying to kids, what do you think about that? What are your thoughts about that?
MEL: You know, Columbus is a hero. But if you live in a different part of the world, Columbus would be a villain. A lot of people got slaughtered. The victors, the conquerors got to write the history book. How different would it be if the other people were like, you create an intellectual curiosity. There’s an absence of that.
DWIGHT: In fact, it’s seen as so threatening a lot of times. Columbus is a good example. I like to play around with that once in a while and test the waters with people and say, yeah, it’s Columbus Day.Some people, I’m not sure. He’s kind of a jerk, right? Try that and see what people do, right? People, oh, I have this sacred view because that’s what I’ve been told about Columbus. And I’m not trying to get all lost in the weeds on Columbus. But to even suggest, right? People have such a strong reaction. And I think that our brains are so good at, whether it’s confirmation bias or we just kind of repeat the cycles of what, to use your word, trained. It’s interesting because I mean, I use that word in therapy all the time when I talk about the ways that we’ve been from trauma or abuse or whatever, we get trained, right? The way we’re treated as a training. And I like how you compared that to like an animal being trained to jump through a hoop, right? We get trained to start abusing ourselves eventually with those expectations, you know, when even when there’s no one around for us.
MEL: And so that training comes from parents, school, the culture at large. There’s this tremendous drive toward consensual reality where people are afraid to be autonomous themselves. And that’s why people are lacking in resilience. Ralph Waldo Emerson did a great piece on resilience. Resilience comes from not having to follow the path of conformity. Follow my own path. That’s resilient.
DWIGHT: It’s funny when you mentioned the achievement based kind of thing. I think that it’s interesting that any of us who’ve been through a letter grade system growing up, right? A doesn’t really stand for anything. B doesn’t really stand for anything. C doesn’t stand for anything. D doesn’t stand for anything. And let’s skip E by the way, so that we can, this is in a field by the way, that is professionally known for educating. We’re going to skip a letter and we all know what F stands for, right? F is a word. It’s not just, it’s fail. And by the way, let’s get E out of there because we can’t think of a properly shaming word with E. So we want to put a big red F and we all know what it means, you know? So it is an interesting emphasis that we have to say none of the other letter grades have an automatic name. You know, C.
MEL: That’s a good point, Dwight. And we don’t have a better word for failed, which is not yet succeeded.
MEL: I didn’t just succeed. That doesn’t mean I failed. Failed means game over. Finished. End of the day.
DWIGHT: In education, right, even just saying like what it really should represent. And I think, and there’s plenty of good teachers who do look at it this way and try to teach the students, but we use the same concept to say instead of fail, right? And we just say like, oh, I haven’t grasped that concept yet. That’s what a test is supposed to measure. It’s not supposed to measure if I’m a good enough person. But I think to that feeling of pressure, we tie that and so much of it also goes into the economics of the situation, you know, to say as, as a college degrees became like more and more necessary for more and more jobs and more and more assumed and as the cost and debt go up and as the need for salaries increased and cost of living, also what’s gone up is academic dishonesty, right? There’s only so many that have done where people cheat, but then you look at it and say if you’ve got, if, if school and education, it feels like a, pardon me, the violence of the expression, but a gun to my head and I, and failure is not an option if I’m going to be able to do all the things I’d like to do in my life. Well, it makes a little more sense to be a little more flexible about the ethics of that, right? And not just saying that leads to that. Like, you know, you’d, you’d throw a bunch of eggs and chocolate chips and flour in a bowl and put it in the oven and you get cookies out and say, how did these get here? You know, that doesn’t make any sense.
MEL: Yeah. Yeah. Just an enigmatic mystery.
MEL: But, but that notion of fail in all aspects of life, not just a grade is horrific. It’s damaging and punishing. I didn’t yet succeed. I’ll keep at it until I do.
DWIGHT: Yeah. And may the way, by the way, maybe I don’t have to succeed equally at everything. Maybe it’s not my thing, you know.
MEL: But we live in this cultural drive for success. I was working years ago with a nationally seeded tennis player. And I asked him out of curiosity, you play any other sports? He said, no. I said, never. He said, never. I said, how come? He said, I just wasn’t excellent at anything else. I said, so you wouldn’t play a sport unless you were excellent at it. He said, yeah, of course. I said, wow.
MEL: When I was a kid, I loved playing baseball. I was just average. I imagined myself to be Mickey Mantle, but I was average. I wouldn’t have given up for anything. You see how the experience becomes all consumed by the stamp of how good you are, how excellent you are. I watch guys on the golf course, recreational golfers, and they’re throwing hissy fits, shit fits all over the place, throwing their clubs out. I said, you’re not in the tournament. This isn’t your career. Have fun. But this drive for excellence is part of the underbelly of anxiety and depression. At least I think so.
DWIGHT: It makes, well, it works for me. I know I think so too, and I think that’s what we see with a lot of people and how they’re reacting to it. And are we really so far out of step with where we should be because of how we feel, or is it because of some of these things we interact with? And that begs that question. Am I insane or am I sane in an insane place? You know, that kind of a thing, right? That’s how we’re.
MEL: Ultimately, the distinction falls away, right? Because a distinction is something our mind made up, right?
DWIGHT: Right. Those are labels too. Yeah. Speaking of, I mentioned the Simpsons earlier. There’s a famous classic episode of the Simpsons where Homer Simpson goes through some weird series of events, goes into a mental institution, asylum kind of award. And he asks them at some point, how can you even tell who’s sane and who’s insane? And they stamp his hand and it says this big red insane on his hand. They go, it’s very simple. The insane people have that stamp on their hand.
DWIGHT: So well, this is, I mean, this has been such a great conversation. I could just keep going and going with it. I’m really grateful for you. I always like to ask everybody if they have a suggestion of a nonprofit, a way to give back to the community or connect with people, maybe a specific charity, something that’s near and dear to your heart. It can be related to absolutely anything. Doesn’t have to be, especially because I’ve learned from you about how inseparable everything is. So I guess it is connected no matter what it is.
MEL: Well, for me, there are many tragedies in life, but when I see young lives come to an end either through suicide or addiction, that’s just so morally reprehensible. So I don’t have a favorite or particular charity, but I would say any charity that does some good work to save young lives.
DWIGHT: Great. No, that’s important. A very important movement, because especially speaking of endemic, that’s a whole other episode we could spin into about that, that problem being there. And I always like to include too, right? There’s also the loss of damage of quality of life. Statistically speaking, more people, right, have their quality of life damaged than have their life actually ended. So they’re both hand in hand. Yeah, I really appreciate that mention for people out there to look and remember that. And Mel, I really appreciate you taking the time to be here today. I feel very, very fortunate.
MEL: It’s a really charged, interesting conversation that you participate with. So it’s my pleasure being on the show with you.
MEL: I hope you enjoyed this episode of the Possibility Podcast. I welcome your feedback on this and any episode. Please send me an email at mel at melschwartz.com or leave a comment in the show notes for this episode at melschwartz.com. If you like what you’re hearing, please take a moment to rate and review the show at Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Your reviews really help boost the visibility for the show, and it’s a great way for you to show your support. Finally, please make sure to subscribe to the Possibility Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts, and that way you’ll never miss an episode. Thanks again, and please remember to always welcome uncertainty into your life and embrace new possibilities.