By Peter Breggin, MD
To paraphrase Shakespeare, “One touch of madness makes the whole world kin.” Madness is an entirely relative matter: some of us have a “touch” and others of us have been there and back, more than once or twice. To understand one person’s madness is, to some degree, to understand everyone’s, because these experiences share much in common.
I believe that everything we call madness, craziness, psychosis, serious personal problems, problems in living—the whole spectrum of emotional suffering and personal failure—usually have two underlying intertwined struggles going on within the individual. Since madness itself can be difficult to define or to come to an agreement about, it can help individuals to ask themselves if they are struggling with these two issues.
One struggle has to do with overcoming feelings of helplessness. The other has to do with overcoming feelings of being unworthy or undeserving of love. Put them together and we have helplessness in the face of feeling unworthy or undeserving of love. To understand this is to understand a great deal of what drives us human beings “over the edge” emotionally and into personal failure in our lives.
My personal experience, my clinical work, and all those other things that go into trying to understand life, have led me in recent times to focus increasingly on those two expressions of psychological vulnerability—feeling helpless and feeling unworthy or undeserving of love.
Feelings of helplessness can be experienced in many ways. Anxiety is its more raw and primitive experience, and probably comes closest to what an agitated, upset infant is going through. With age, it can morph into shame and guilt, as well as anger and emotional numbing. Living a good life is profoundly aided by overcoming these emotions. This involves identifying these negative legacy emotions, rejecting them as feelings to obey or to act upon, and determining to live by reason and love.
Sometimes we experience it as demoralizing guilt, at other times burning shame or terrifying anxiety, and sometimes all three at once. We may escape into frustration, anger and rage, but beneath always lies fear and helplessness. We may hear voices or see things that others don’t experience, or more mundanely tie ourselves in knots with obsessions and compulsions. At the root there is the core human experience of childlike levels of anxiety and helplessness, along with feeling undeserving of human care, attention and love.
Similarly, while there are many ways to overcome personal crises and madness, they all have something in common—overcoming feelings of helplessness that are often attached to feelings of being unworthy of love.
Madness as Human Growth
What I mean by madness is an experience of overwhelming emotional distress that leaves us feeling isolated, abandoned, frightened, helpless and unlovable, or worse, unworthy or undeserving of love. As emphasized at the beginning of this post, the experience of madness is entirely relative. For some people it may mean vague feelings of being unable to cope or manage life or a sense of something “strange” or “unreal” happening. In most extreme states, the individual may be enmeshed in a nightmarish horror surrounded by hallucinations. Psychiatry tries to parse out the more extreme manifestations of human distress by making simplistic artificial diagnoses to justify drugging, shocking, isolating and/or involuntarily “treating” the individual.
With sufficient trauma—such as various forms of brainwashing, torture, and unrelenting abuse—extreme madness can probably be brought out in almost anyone. When we admire martyrs such as Socrates, Joan of Arc, and the abolitionist John Brown, it is partly because in a good cause they found the strength not to break down and not to recant their values. However, in addition to current stressors, most of the time there are deep-seated vulnerabilities from childhood smouldering beneath madness and erupting in youth or adulthood.
Severe madness has been called an “extreme state,” “alternative reality,” “emotional overwhelm” or “psychospiritual crisis.” It typically feels like the end of our lives or the end of the world, or both. Yet such horrific experiences can motivate us to reweave our personal and social fabric into a new artistic, spiritual, or even political perspective and approach to our lives.
From Moses, Jesus and Buddha to Lincoln, Gandhi and Churchill, the lives of people we highly value were rarely “normal” by psychiatric standards. Psychiatrists have diagnosed every one of them with degrading labels such as schizophrenia, major depressive disorder and bipolar disorder. Perhaps we cannot become fully human without going through our own experience of madness or terrifying overwhelm, whether it manifests as adolescent angst, a midlife crisis, or an outright “psychotic break.”
Childhood Origins of Madness
Scientific evidence that has been evolving for years confirms that childhood trauma, including neglect, sets the stage for adult madness. From the perspective of developmental psychology and attachment theory, what we call madness commonly results from the holes or rips in the social fabric that have been woven into us from infancy
As infants we were born into utter dependency, with the consequence of inevitable episodes of fear and helplessness. Wholly unable to survive on our own, we were repeatedly rescued and transformed by those who nurtured us. Those who raise us create the social fabric in which we develop, making our personalities and identities in many ways inseparable from our experiences with the people who raised us. Extremes of madness or emotional overwhelm often result from a lack of or a tearing apart of this intimately woven internal and external social fabric in our early lives. Less severe emotional struggles will also be fueled by lesser but inevitable times of emotional difficulty in childhood.
It therefore makes sense that the “solutions” to madness always involve a healing of the internal and external social fabric through developing new and better approaches to life, usually along with new and better relationships.
My Personal and Clinical Experience
I do not separate my experience of myself—my own suffering and my own attempts to grow—from my clinical experience. In therapy, I often share my personal experiences to make clear that we are all much alike in both misery and recovery, and to offer hope for a person’s ability to transform themselves for the better to at least the level I seem to have achieved. I find little or nothing in myself that I have not seen in others and what I see in others I also see in myself. This viewpoint or attitude helps me maintain the necessary humility required for helping other people.
In a presentation titled “What Makes Us Suffer and Ultimately Recover—Or Not,” I have recently opened my own heart on my radio/TV series to describe the importance to me of feeling “unworthy of love.” It is an experience, I believe, that many people share as among their most devastating fears, anxieties and sources of anguish.
In a follow-up presentation on January 1, 2020, called “The Best Stuff I Have Learned from Life,” I have described my experience of a “loving presence” in my life and in the world. It is something I can experience as often as I choose for spiritual refreshment. I know firsthand how sensing or experiencing the loving presence can reaffirm our basic human worthiness to love and be loved. It can also help us to remember the potential for love in all people.
Based on my personal and clinical experience, I believe that the greatest challenge or threat to our identities and mental soundness comes from the fear of being unworthy of love. We cannot ameliorate this dread wholly on our own but must instead rely in part on resources outside ourselves who invite, encourage, exemplify or draw out our own capacity to feel and to give love.
This is the practical sum of my wisdom: There is love and then there is everything else, all the dreadful and demoralizing stuff, including the breakdown of our sense of self and our relationship with others, ending in overwhelm and madness. To love others, nature, art, pets—to love any aspect of life—is incompatible with madness and provides the way through madness to a better life. And there is a loving presence in the universe upon which we can draw for refreshment and inspiration.
To become a loving human being presents most of us with a significant challenge. To fulfill our promise, we must, again in Shakespeare’s words, overcome “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” We must overcome our own human nature with all its flaws and inner contradictions, and our developmental history with its deficiencies and acquired conflicts. This is our task and our adventure; and it never ends so long as we are alive; and, who knows, it may continue beyond life.
Psychiatry and Madness
Our lifelong task and adventure of taking on life with reason and love can be thwarted by exposure to psychiatric drugs or other psychoactive substances. That is because anything that broadly interferes with the function of our brains will impair our frontal lobe function which then makes it more difficult for us to love, to relate to others, and to affirm higher values.
Diagnoses of madness such as brief psychosis, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, major depressive disorder, and panic disorder are created and applied to people in order to justify the power of psychiatry and its physical treatments, all of which do more harm than good. In the last half century, this psychiatric authority has become nothing more than the cowardly, avaricious sales department of the Pharmaceutical Empire.
We are much more than our brains; but drug-induced brain dysfunction impairs our ability to know and to express ourselves as souls, beings, or persons. Psychotherapy can help, provided it is protected by ethical restraints and suits our nature and personal needs; but no help, advice or encouragement will help without our finding the determination and courage to overcome our childhood feelings of helplessness and our negative emotions, including our conviction that we are unworthy love.
How Can We Ameliorate Madness?
Many experienced therapists are finding a common ground in their emphasis on discarding the medical model and psychiatric drugs—and replacing them with caring relationships. Psychologist Michael Cornwall sums up his experience and attitudes in “Reflections on 25,000 Hours of Being With People in Extreme States.” In an autobiographical essay, he emphasizes the importance of “merciful love.” Michael himself endured such an extreme state which overcame him as a young man: “The strange experience of time itself during my extreme states could be measured in agonizing periods of being attacked by tortuous disembodied voices while terrifying, inescapable images filled my mind’s eye.”
Similarly to Michael, in an early book, Toxic Psychiatry, I began referring to so-called psychiatric disorders as experiences of “emotional overwhelm” and also as “psychospiritual crises;” and Michael’s phrase “extreme states” serves as well. My own emphasis on love and empathy is also consistent with his idea of merciful love.
Here are the first three of my 15 Guidelines for Empathic Therapy ®:
- We treasure those who seek our help and we view therapy as a sacred and inviolable trust. With humility and gratitude, we honor the privilege of being therapists.
- We rely upon relationships built on trust, honesty, caring, genuine engagement and mutual respect.
- We bring out the best in ourselves in order to bring out the best in others.
These three guidelines, if applied to all our relationships, will build a good life for us and those near and dear to us. They will also enable us to help others with whom we relate, professionally or not.
The Ultimate Source of Love?
To be their happiest and most fulfilled, people need to think and act upon genuine love. But how can that be done, given how unreliable, untrustworthy, erratic and evil people can be in the way they treat each other? How can we live imbued with love when even the most loving human relationship can be destroyed by death? Everyone who has thought about it knows that we cannot live by the motto, “In Other People We Trust.”
All humans are deeply flawed, with many of us failing to come close to acting by our own standards, at least for periods in our lives. Even worse, some people handle their own sense of unworthiness by jumping at the opportunity for making other people feel worthless.
Given the flaws in all of us, it is no wonder that many people find healing through faith in a loving God.
Here spirituality or religion can come together with psychology with an understanding of the universal need to feel worthy of love, and ultimately to give and to receive love. Similarly, it is no wonder that so many people turn to a higher power to find strength, which is ultimately the strength to overcome the feelings of helplessness that have afflicted us since childhood.
A good place for healing, what used to be called a therapeutic community, and a place of worship or church, should have in common the creation of a loving space in which people feel empowered to confront and overcome their emotional helplessness. The same is true for the psychotherapy setting, which can be viewed as a mini-utopia in which reason and love are the standard for relationship. Ultimately, this is what all good, intimate relationships are about—overcoming feelings of helplessness and related feelings of being unworthy of love.
How do we know and recognize love or a loving relationship? By how it brings us to take joy in the existence of other human beings and by how it leads everyone involved to care about, respect, protect and nurture them.
Everything good between and among human beings begins with and draws on empowering, loving relationships. Love and self-empowerment are the most essential ingredients in all the activities we call therapy, healing, recovery, rehabilitation, self-empowerment, personal growth, or enlightenment. Overcoming our feelings of helplessness and becoming a source of love are the most wonderful things we can do for ourselves and others. Life offers many roads for recovery and self-transformation, from therapy and education to friendship, family, work, nature, and spirituality. At the heart of all personal growth is the experience of feeling empowered to love and be loved, which lifts us beyond ourselves to a joyful and treasuring awareness of all that is good in ourselves, others, and life.