The other day I wrote in an entry almost as an afterthought “the acceptance of ambivalence is definition of mental health”. This made a few Spo-fans sit up and wonder about this; they asked me to expand. So here it goes. Spo

My psychiatric residency was in the early 90s at the University of Chicago. My class was the last to get a classical analytical training. I once asked Professor Fisher “what is the definition of mental health?”. After all, we were dealing with mental illness, but no one had yet defined what is mental health. Dr. Fisher was a Freudian analyst; she thought in Freudian terms and used lexicon to match. She paused for a moment, and replied;

“Mental health is the acceptance of ambivalence”.

What does this mean?

In all human feelings and interactions we do not feel ‘just one way or thing”. We feel and think a mixture of thoughts and feelings. Sometimes we are not aware of all the elements; some are unconscious. We like things clean, black or white, and with simple explanations. But it is not so. Even in the strongest of feelings and most clearly defined social norms there are those ‘other elements’. I often see this in patients who feel guilty or ashamed for harboring ‘other feelings than I should” Here are some typical examples:

A mother voicing she is glad for her surprise pregnancy, but also feels ‘F-ck! I don’t want this child! I wish it hadn’t happened! ” Try saying that at the baby shower.

People on their wedding day, excited to marry, yet also feeling scared and doubtful if this is the right to do.

When our elderly loved ones die, we feel mostly relief, not grief, but we don’t say this at the funeral, “what a relief to all she’s gone” but hold it in and pretend we are all sorrow.

The acceptance of ambivalence is based on the axiom we have mixed feelings and we should acknowledge and allow this. It is OK, and even a bit funny to have paradoxical feelings in the same person/situation.

When I teach this to someone feeling ashamed or trying to deny those other parts, I assure them how often I hear this and it is normal I point out the easy example of being angry and upset with your child for being a little bastard you would love to slap, but you still love them don’t you?

“You know (you think or even say to your loved one) sometimes you drive me mad, and I could just strangle you. You can really be a shit. However even when I feel this I know I love you too”.*

A less Freudian definition to ‘mental health” is the sense of contentment. What I have is good enough. The people in my life, my things, more job, my health etc. are OK and not deficit. I am content.

Another element to mental health is resiliency. Despite what happens you are able to bend and maneuver. You know bad things happen, as Life is that way. You are bummed but you aren’t shocked but you do what has to be done and do the right things.

Maybe the main element of mental health is having meaning in your life. In all things, find meaning or something to allow you to learn and grow. Pain, loss, tragedy etc. are merely awful if one cannot get something out of it.

So there you have it.

Accept having mixed feelings

Find contentment.

Make meaning.

A collection of fine whiskies and bourbons – that’s a bonus. 🙂

*In the disorder ‘Borderline Personality Disorder” folks with this condition fail to allow mixed feelings but go between intense emotions often 180 to each other. One moment they want to destroy their others; then they fear the others will leave them. “I hate you! Don’t leave me!” A sort of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde – is a book about trying to cut off good/bad states into separate entities. (spoilers: this doesn’t work).