What Sanity Looks Like

My blogging friend, the wonderful Pete from Couch Trip, is a trained psychotherapist, and given the soft spot I have for a bit of psychobabble, I read his best-of lists most attentively. This year he recommended James Masterson, and a fine recommendation it was. I have been reading his book The Search for the Real Self with great pleasure and interest. Masterson’s thesis is that we live in an age of personality disorders, rather than neuroses, and these are notoriously hard to cure. But disorders are very painful; they allow people to live outwardly successful lives but undermine their ability to deal with crises. His approach is to understand disorders as a form of false self, a mask created out of privileged parts of the personality destined to hide the intolerably vulnerable parts. Because such a manoeuvre cuts sufferers off from their real feelings and desires, it inevitably produces destructive behavioural patterns that ‘protect them from feeling ‘bad’ at the cost of a meaningful and fulfilling life.’ Given that disorders and neuroses are usually magnified versions of the sort of struggles we all engage in existentially, I thought that New Year’s Day was a good day for a spot of soul hygiene. What follows is the list Masterson creates of the ten main principles of the ‘real’ self, the indicators that we are in touch with our honest feelings and have healthy interactions with ourselves and others:


1. The capacity to experience a wide range of feelings deeply, with liveliness, vigour and spontaneity. When good things happen, we can be happy, when bad things happen, we can be sad or disappointed. In either case, we don’t block or deaden feelings but feel what is appropriate, to the extent that it is appropriate.

2. The capacity to expect appropriate entitlements. We can take accurate measurements of our skills and limitations and what we might expect from them, understanding that in time, we can ‘master our lives and achieve what is good for us.’ It means we don’t expect life to be excessively harsh or unrealistically rewarding, also, that we can expect reasonable behaviour from others.

3. The capacity for self-activation and assertion. This refers to our ability to identify goals, wishes and dreams, to recognise our unique individuality, and to do so independently of the desires and wishes of others. It means we can take steps towards achieving what we wish, and supporting and defending dreams when they come under attack.

4. Acknowledgement of self-esteem. People with a tendency to see only the bad side of things remain oblivious to both their positive qualities and their successes. In order to make it through the bad times, we have to be able to remind ourselves of our genuine worth and abilities. The world is rarely able to provide the recognition we desire, and so a certain amount of it must come from ourselves.

5. The ability to soothe painful feelings. Our real self will not allow us to wallow in misery. We will find suitable comforts and appeasements for ourselves, put problems in perspective and make sensible decisions with regard to the way we move forward.

6. The ability to make and stick to commitments. Relationships and career goals are often tough to achieve, but a solid connection with the real self allows us to commit to them and deal with obstacles and setbacks. We don’t quit too soon or doubt ourselves and others unjustly.

7. Creativity. Masterson’s definition of creativity is a bit unusual but I really like it. He talks about the way that creativity allows us to replace ‘old, familiar patterns of living and problem-solving with new and equally or more successful ones.’ As our situations and circumstances change, we can find the inner creativity to adapt and negotiate. We need to find new ways to cope with loss and to rearrange priorities, to meet new demands and find new means of expressing ourselves. Creativity also allows us to alter the way we think, throwing out unhelpful assumptions, false impressions and bad memories and replacing them with something more useful.

8. Intimacy. The capacity to live fully and sincerely in a relationship without excessive fear of abandonment or engulfment. It also indicates the ability to retain a sense of separateness and autonomy, and avoid the sort of compliance that can lead to resentment or a painful loss of self. If a relationship fails, we can hold onto the belief that another one will be possible in time.

9. The ability to be alone. In touch with our real selves we can be alone without feeling abandoned, and don’t need to rush off into manic distractions to avoid the thoughts and feelings that arise. Fundamentally, it’s the recognition that the ability to find meaning in life comes from within, and is not dependent on another person.

10. Continuity of self. No matter what happens to us, we can still feel in touch with the tensile wire that runs through the centre of the self and holds us together. This capacity allows us to acknowledge the core of the self that exists across space and time. It is, I think, what we might call the first rung on the ladder of spirituality.

Having typed all that out, I feel there should be an eleventh, something along the lines of the ability to read such a list without thinking a) ‘Oh my God, I am such a failure’ or b) ‘There’s nothing wrong with me, I’m fine thank you very much.’ May the New Year bring us all the courage to change what we can, the strength to accept what we can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference!


22 thoughts on “What Sanity Looks Like

  1. It’s that last bit, ‘the wisdom to know the difference’ that always catches me out. I’m never quiet certain whether I made the right choice until it becomes painfully obvious that it was the wrong one!

  2. I’m so glad you found this useful and thanks for posting on it! (BTW, I’m always amazed at your ability to read and process and review books in such a short space of time.) I was interested to see the examples Masterson gives of the “real self” and I found it reassuring to see that the model of sanity which he provides rang true to my experience. I’d like to see how his ideas link up with other psychological theories, for example Kohut’s Self Psychology, but sadly I don’t have the time and mental capacity for making the links.

    • Well no, cos it sounds quite difficult and time-consuming to make links like that – I could only do it over a week with a lot of peace and quiet! I hope it’s consolation to know that I haven’t got beyond the chapter on the Real Self, which is what, third or so in the book? 🙂 You needn’t worry, I’m not that fast! It’s an excellent book though and I am very grateful for the recommendation.

  3. It sounds like a fascinating book and a great list. What struck me about the list is what a small part of the world is privileged to even contemplate it. Just think how many people can’t possibly expect reasonable behaviour from others because they live under dictatorship. Do you know of any psychologists who have examined psychology from a social and historical standpoint? I often wonder how much misery is still rolling through the generations from the world-wide trauma of 2 world wars sandwiched around a major depression.

    • Lilian, you are of course so right. That is an excellent question about psychology from a historical perspective, and I don’t know of any book like that. I would love to read it, if it existed though. I think you would have to pick which historical event you wanted to focus on – for instance, there’s quite a lot of books on Holocaust sufferers, some of which are bound to take a psychoanalytic approach (Dori Laub was a specialist in this field, I think). But for many other countries, I don’t expect they even have a culture sufficiently steeped in psychotherapy for the help to be available. Which is a very sad thought.

  4. Very interesting and thatnks for listing all these elments. I might have to have a look at the book. It makes perfect sense that our society has less neurotic people than people with personality disorders.
    What I find hard is that if you are not one of the people displaying all the symptoms you might be judged ill by society and it’s hard to face that.

    • Caroline, I do think this is a book that would interest you. It is written very cleanly and engagingly. I think that this sort of knowledge filters down into the various layers of a society, but of course it takes a lot of time. By its nature, society will be judging something else harshly by then. Lack of compassion for ordinary woes remains one of the great flaws of modern culture.

  5. I agree with you about the eleventh step and it is clearly spelled out both in the twelve step recovery movement and Marsha Linehan’s Dialectical-Behavioral Therapy and it’s called “Balancing Acceptance and Change.” Change the things you can and accept the things you can’t . Those simple acts remove much misery from life. Accept that not one single person reading this post has mastered all those steps perfectly and that’s OK. It’s called being HUMAN.

    • Squirrel, your last line always makes me laugh. YES! We’re human, and that means we screw up – it’s probably more certain than death and taxes. And perfection isn’t actually that attractive (robots are perfect). I find it useful to know which direction I ought to be heading in, though, and sometimes even reading sane things makes me feel better.

  6. I feel silly. Somehow the name sounded so familiar and after finally getting a chance to check I found this book in my shelves. I got stuck in the middle, some five years ago. Not because it wasnßt good, just because I must have picked up another one.

    • Ah, well it’s good news that you own it! It’s easy to put psychology books to one side because they don’t have plots – or at least, that’s what I find.

  7. How many of those do you have to get right to consider yourself “sane”. I think I probably do well on most of those, but there might be one or two I waver on. Of course sometimes it’s just a matter of good day/bad day, if you know what I mean. Sounds like a really interesting book!

  8. Lol! I think the most basic recognition that these things are useful and sensible is probably enough! 🙂 I know just what you mean about good days/bad days – it’s the story of my life!

  9. I’d like to think I’m making progress in most of them, heck I”d like to say I’ve achieved equilibrium in some of them! lol Do you know if the book discusses stress, and if stress is perceived as a threat to self, or a result of the ability to adapt? or both? This book sounds interesting, I’ll be checking it out. Thanks for the review and the thoughts at the end – I’m the same, vacillating between thinking I’m doing ok, and then wondering if I’m just covering it all up from myself.

  10. Refreshing to see a list of what makes a person healthy and wise – rather than a list of symptoms. I think it’s a wonderful list.

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