Mental health is a state of non-adaptation to our environment. This is of course totally contrary to our usual way of understanding things because our automatic tendency is to see mental health as a state of adaptation, not non-adaptation. To say that someone is ‘maladapted’ is prejudicial, not complimentary. It’s like being a misfit, oddball, or eccentric – who wants to be seen as a misfit, oddball or eccentric?
The thing is however that being a misfit is actually a healthier state of affairs – generally speaking – because there is more autonomy in it. There is no autonomy in being perfectly adapted to whatever society or culture we might happen to be part of – there is zero autonomy here because when we are perfectly adapted to the society we are part of then we are that society and there’s nothing else there ‘in the mix, so to speak. We are a ‘perfect expression of our cultural milieu’ and that doesn’t leave any room for this little thing called ‘individuality’, which happens to be a rather important thing, easy though it is to lose sight of.
Individuality is ‘important’ (if we can use that rather inadequate word) because it’s who we are. We are in our essence ‘non-adapted’, in other words. How can a genuine individual be adapted, after all? When we are socially adapted then we are exactly the same as everyone else who is socially adapted – if we weren’t then we wouldn’t be adapted! We’d be ‘odd’ instead, we’d be ‘unique’. We pay a lot of lip service to the notion that everyone is unique and that we every human being is precious on this account but that’s all it is – empty lip service. Our latent individuality is denied right from the word go – the process of socialisation is by its very nature one in which we are all adjusted to a common template. This truth is too ugly for us to want to face.
To be ‘adjusted’ to our environment (which is, for almost all of us, the same thing being adjusted to society) is to be defined by that environment and – as we have just said – to be defined by our environment (or to be defined by society) is to be that environment, that society. We fit into it and so we are it. Instead of being unique and therefore ‘irreplaceable’ (which is the ideal that we are always paying lip service to) we are regular and thus completely irreplaceable, completely interchangeable. We become generic human units. We don’t like to confront the fact that this is the case because the fact in question is particularly appalling, but this is nevertheless the truth of the matter, as Carl Jung pointed out seventy or eighty years ago, when the world was considerably less uniform than it is today. The more connectivity there is in the world the more we are compelled to adjust ourselves to the ‘mass template’; we’re compelled to adapt to the system because if we don’t then we’re straightaway ‘out of the loop’, and so – in a very real sense – we’re out in the cold.
This is a very straightforward trade-off, therefore – either we go for adaptation to the common template and the chance of success within the terms of the game that is being played, or we ‘go our own way’ in life, in which case we are no longer on the same page as everyone else and do not subscribe to the same value system. We have become ‘irrelevant’ to society (which also means of course that society has become irrelevant to us). This isn’t a particularly hard idea to grasp and neither is it something that will be regarded as being overly controversial, but all the same we have failed – on a very large scale – to apply this basic understanding to the much talked-about topic of mental health. We stop short of seeing the obvious, which is that adaptation to mass society is always injurious to our mental health!
Social adaptation, just to repeat the point once more, means that we come to believe that we are who society says we are. The problem with this (mental health-wise) is that ‘who society says we are’ is not who we really are and so our actual individuality is neglected, ignored, sidelined, and ultimately relegated to the waste bin. Instead, we ‘celebrate who we are not’. Sometimes we don’t celebrate ourselves of course, sometimes we have a poor opinion of ourselves, but exactly the same is true here – instead of ‘celebrating who we’re not’ we ‘have a low opinion of who we’re not, but who society says we are’ and this is exactly the same thing. We are fixated upon a false identity either way. When I feel good about myself it’s because I’m comparing myself to the common template that I’ve adapted myself to and when I feel bad about myself (when I feel like a failure) it is also because I’m comparing myself to the common template, but this template is only meaningful because society itself says that it is. That’s just the game that we are playing, the game that we’re trapped in.
This means that both having good self-esteem and poor self esteem are both equally mentally unhealthy, therefore. These two states are both equally unhealthy because the ‘self’ in question is an arbitrary societal construct that has nothing to do with who we really are. If I seem from the outside to be doing really well in life then everyone will say that this is a good state of affairs but when the socially adapted persona is successful this is bad news from a psychological point of view; it is bad news for the psyche because the true individuality is being repressed suppressed for the sake of a societal construct, for the sake of a societal role! It has often been said that the only thing that really matters in life is ‘having a sense of meaning’ and there is zero meaning in pursuing the ‘false life’ of the arbitrary persona the expense of the actual individuality!
There is, we might say, a type of meaning in the life of the persona, but this is more of a surrogate for meaning rather than anything else. What we’re talking about here is extrinsic meaning, which is the meaning that has been given to us from some external authority. Society tells us who we are and – by the same token – it tells us what is meaningful to us (or to put this another way, ‘the system tells us what we like’). When we lead this life, therefore, we will perceive our goals as being meaningful, and we will perceive achieving these goals as meaningful, but this extrinsic system of meaning, when we buy into it, always causes us to lose sight of what really matters to us. We betray ourselves for the sake of getting a stake in samsara, as Sogyal Rinpoche says (although not in exactly those words). Extrinsic meaning causes us to forget about what is genuinely meaningful to us and so this isn’t ‘meaning’ at all but ‘the disguised lack of meaning’…
When the meaning I perceive my life to have for me is really ‘the disguised lack of meaning’ then this clearly isn’t good news as far as our mental health is concerned! It’s actually the worst news possible because what is happening here is that I’m moving deeper and deeper into an existential desert or wasteland and any impression that I might have that ‘things are going well’ or that ‘I’m getting somewhere’ are simply delusions designed to lure us ever deeper into the trap of disguised meaninglessness. Anything that matters to the persona or that is important to the persona is disguised meaninglessness! This social matrix is exclusively made up of stuff that matters or is important to the socialised persona – that’s the whole point of it after all. What else would the social matrix be made up of? When we live the life of the construct that is derived from the social milieu then this is not a ‘healthy’ situation, to say the least…
When we live life on the basis that identity that is constructed by reference to the social milieu then this is an artificial loop that ‘feeds upon itself’, so to speak. It’s an example of Jean Baudrillard’s hyperreality. It feeds on itself and so our actual individuality never comes into it, even though we don’t usually notice this because we have the ‘false individuality’ of the adapted self to trade on instead, which seems to be the real thing as far as we’re concerned. This has to be the case because – as we have already said – our actual individuality is, by its very nature, completely unadapted. Individuality is always non-adapted (or ‘out of equilibrium’) – that’s what makes it individual, or unique, after all!
In our ‘rush to belong’ we’ve lost sight of this and we’ve lost sight of it in a big way – the problem being that when we are ‘100% adapted to the presented reality’ then we have nothing else to go on. In order to see consensus reality for what it is – and not what it presents itself as being – we would have to ‘take a step sideways’, so to speak, and look at it from a non-adapted viewpoint, and that is that very thing we are most disincentivized to do. Who wants to look or be laughed at, after all? Who wants to be an outsider? This is a lesson we learn very early in life. We learn it for sure, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a healthy thing to learn…