WHY EVERYONE IS LIKE A PAINTING
PSYCHOLOGY + THE CONTINUUM
When I began my psychoanalytic study about a million years ago, I didn't understand a thing. I started graduate school with a Bachelors of Fine Arts degree and a handful of college level psych classes I had taken as prerequisites to get into a masters of clinical psychology degree program. I was unaware that I was about to embark on an entirely new way of thinking. Everything from my perception of the world, to my use of language would be tested. Sadly enough, I didn't even know how to spell the word Attached. My friend and officemate Dr. Aaron Estrada kindly pointed this out to me on a daily basis during our study of attachment. Nothing like having a colleague reach over your shoulder while quietly taking notes to point out you cannot spell. Thanks Aaron. I hope none of your students at Cal Poly ever give you a hard time. Please tell them I know how to spell attached now.
To say little made sense to me was an understatement. I often felt like I had landed on a different planet, trying to learn a new language and method of thought, and of course forced against my will to improve my spelling. Because spelling matters. But luckily I love an adventure and I soon found a point of contact in the study of psychoanalysis that made sense to me. My connection really started with art. I understand color as a continuum. Opposing forces in color. Conflict and spectrum in color. Positive and negative. Dark and light. That the perfect color for the shadow of something is its complement. For red its green. Orange- blue. Yellow, purple and so on. Two opposing forces carrying equal weight. Working together to understand the larger picture. Yes! Yes! So when the concept of continuum came into play, I was game. Yes. Yes. Yes. Let’s talk spectrum. Continuum. Opposing forces working together. That I can do. And so I did. Through the lens of art. I had found a way in.
The idea of our collective psychology as a continuum is not a new idea. Freud played around with it when describing the difference between what he considered to be the normal and pathological in psychopathology. Many since have theorized, added to and subtracted from this rough sketch. Like any good theory, it has a strong base that can grow and change as required. On the timeline of this idea, here’s where I entered. Hang in there with me. I promise it will blow your mind in the most wonderful way.
Imagine a straight line. An infinite line pointing out in opposing directions. Spanning across space and time. On one end is where we are our most awesome. Freud called this end the neurotic, but that’s a bit limited and dated as far as I am concerned. I like to think of this end of the spectrum or continuum as our most well. The other end, that’s what Freud would call the psychotic, or as I like to say, our less well. The place where our thinking is not as clear, we cannot organize our thoughts, our bodies and minds are under great stress. Both ends of the continuum look and feel different for all of us. But here’s the really cool thing. While we are on our own individual continuum, that continuum is also part of a continuum with every other human on earth. We all get pushed toward our less well side of the continuum both separately and collectively. Separately a push looks like an argument with a loved one, a physical illness or injury, the loss of a job, sometimes even a stubbed toe. Suffering is relative after all. There has never been a more perfect example of a collective push than COVID-19. Every single human on earth felt that push. Wherever you were on the continuum before COVID -19, you are not there now. If you were at super best well awesome self, you got pushed more toward less well. If you were already at less well, then you were pushed even further toward not optimally awesome. We all got pushed. Together. And this collective push compounds where we get separately pushed. So if it feels like you are being poked and pushed and shoved all over the place right now, well it’s because you are. We are. All being pushed together. Ouch.
Now the really cool thing about this continuum model is that it allows for freedom of rapid change. We all move back and forth along the continuum throughout the day. Our placement depends upon our connections and interactions with others. One moment we are optimally awesome, the next, not so much. What I love most about this model of thought is that no one is immune. None of us are immune from the heights of the optimally awesome, or the lows of the least well and far from awesome. We walk the line. Together.
Along with walking the line, this model has another strength. It takes into account the pendulum swing. The equal weight of dark and light. That they hold each other firmly at either end. That a strong and violent swing toward less well, is met by an equal and strong swing of wellness and optimal awesomeness. There's some physics in there, right? It is said that in psychoanalysis part of the job of the analyst is to hold the opposing pole. That if a patient presents as pleasant and easy, emotionally tidy, to hold space for the other end of the continuum. The one that is rough, bumpy, and a mess. If a patient presents as difficult and challenging to hold space for an opposing end of ease. In holding this space for both ends of the continuum, we are able to see the whole patient and through shared thought and experience in the treatment room show the patient that we not only see this other side, but accept it.
One can imagine that this method of thought has been of great comfort to me these past 4 years. It seems like emotional trash pops every two seconds these days. Less like a pop and more like a projectile vomit to the face. Am I right? In either case, yes. When I begin to lose hope, the theme of 2020, or I wonder if we can right the ship, I know that we can. Not only because I find hope and comfort in this way of thinking and believing in this separate and collective movement on a continuum, but because I have seen it. I have seen great change. Great change that started with the hope of one single person reaching out sitting in my office and asking for help. I’ve seen kids have psychotic breaks, lose all that they thought was real and be scared to death about their future. I’ve seen them recover, learn new ways to care for themselves, and go on to have lives full of meaningful contributions and wonder. I’ve seen people at the dark depths of addiction, recover. Relapse and recover again. I’ve seen people doubt everything, to believe that things can get better. It’s never an easy road, and it doesn't lead to things being easy, but it leads to things being better. It really does.
Psychology is just a painting. One that starts with a single line, but includes all of us. And that's always a beautiful thing.
Thank you for being here.
Listen to this episode of JOY IS NOW here.