What Does It Mean to be “Psychologically Minded?”

A good observer of the human condition notices some fellow creatures who don’t get it. Several are obtuse. Many can be described as too logical. Others naïve or unworldly. More than a few don’t think through what they do and why, dismissing opinions different from their own. Their certainty of everything betrays their awareness of nothing. Large numbers can’t recognize the obvious ingredients in their complicated emotional stew.

They don’t even hear the stewpot boiling over.

I’d characterize such folks as lacking a certain “psychological mindedness.” Though this is not my own term of art, it is a phrase without a single definition understood and accepted in the field of mental health. Still, I’ll try to describe one possible understanding of such a state of mind and why it might be useful to us. If you are psychologically minded, several of these qualities will be characteristic of you:

  • All your decisions are not understood by you. Mystery resides in everyone. We are each some combination of genetic programming, the formative influence of our parents, education, experience, and choice. Emotion and reason both play their part. Should you be so unwise as to claim understanding of all your motives, you are mistaken.
  • Illogic troubles your thought process and you know you aren’t alone. You don’t insist your every idea is structured like an architectural work of art, nor hold others to this standard. Were logic alone in charge, you’d be a robot. We arrive at some of our most vehement opinions intuitively and only then find justifying reasons with blinding speed, a process invisible to the internal eye.
  • You are aware mom and dad were imperfect and don’t dismiss their effect on you, for good or ill, probably both.
  • You don’t believe your achievements are the singular product of your special genius and effort. We are interdependent, all of us: impacted by the color of our skin, the economic and social circumstances of our birth, the presence or absence of societal and political unrest, the power of love and loneliness; and by a helping or dismissive hand, not to mention the accident of our appearance. You are on board with John Donne’s poetic truth, “No man is an island, entire of itself.” As my friend, Life in a Bind, suggests, “you think about yourself in the world from a slightly more distanced stance than others do, and with a longer lens stretching back into the past.”
  • You know grieving takes its own time and is best done with one or more faithful witnesses, not by the toughness required for bullet-biting; or burying sadness in perpetuity. Others are not advised by you to “get over it.”
  • Unfairness, you think to yourself, can be subjective and therefore a matter of perspective.
  • To a degree you know the danger of being hostage to the opinion of others.
  • You don’t “blame the victim” by asserting you’d have been smarter in a difficult situation: made a better choice, demonstrated more resilience, or maintained a higher moral standard. Without experience in the same circumstance, in truth, you cannot predict what you’d have done.

  • You recognize your lack of “all the answers.” You are humble in the face of the things you don’t understand and accept the need to learn more. You grasp at least a bit of the human necessity for continual transformation as you age and face unexpected situations requiring new solutions.
  • You don’t reflexively condemn others when something goes wrong, instead demonstrating occasional willingness to look into the mirror. Nor do you make automatic assignment of blame to yourself, realizing, at least, the cost of doing so, even if you cannot yet stop.
  • Once in a while you ask, “Why did I do that” or “Why did I say that?”
  • To paraphrase Life in a Bind again, psychological mindedness permits insight into mind traps: the alteration of perception when gripped by defenses like projection. What feels real emotionally may not be true.
  • To your dismay, you are cognizant of the human capacity to rationalize almost anything, murder included. Perhaps it has dawned on you that you too rationalize. You regret another painful truth: even wonderful and wonderfully talented people possess a dark side.
  • While some challenges are uncomfortable to face, you believe avoidance of a direct glance or assertive action might be a costly life strategy.
  • You are a part-time observer of yourself, not obsessed with yourself. You are neither totally inward-focused, unable to get out of your own head; or totally outward-focused – mindlessly “in the moment” – never reckoning with who you are. You agree with Socrates (“The unexamined life is not worth living”), but not so far as to spend all your time in examination, avoiding action and risk. If you cannot yet venture forth, your realize you must find a way.
  • You either play or wish to learn how to play.
  • Self-righteousness is something you avoid.
  • You understand that openness is double-edged: the pursuit of intimacy means guaranteed risk in search of potential reward. You opt for openness, at least in theory.
  • From time to time you think about your default tendencies. Perhaps you are inclined to approach or avoid, argue or make peace, court danger or play it safe, etc. On occasion you even think your strengths (and the penchant to overplay them) are your weaknesses.

If you recognize several of these qualities in yourself, you are a good psychotherapy candidate, assuming you muster the courage to gamble something great for something good. Your psychological mindedness is now and again misunderstood by friends who do not view the world with the nuance you do.

Keep going and growing. The world then becomes a bit more explicable and your understanding of yourself enlarged. The planet will take on colors never noticed on the black-and-white globe you used to inhabit. Your perspective may also attract new acquaintances.

Some will think you unnecessarily troubled, others conclude you are wise.

No free lunch.


The image of The Human Mind comes from Wikimedia Commons via Flicker. No author is identified. The second Wikimedia photo is a Psychic Apparition. It comes from the collection of Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums, from a series called Psychic Photography From a New Angle.

Three Words Therapists Do Not Speak: Strength of Will


Imagine a game in which you alone determine when play begins and ends. Although not an easy contest, you get to set the goals and mark the finish line. You can interrupt the match whenever you want and restart later if you wish. The game may last a long time or a short time, but you are assisted by another player who will help your cause.

Now guess the name of the game.


As I’ve described it — and I hope you agree — there is no opponent other than the one you face daily in the mirror. Then why is “the talking cure” so hard?

Lack of willpower is one of the reasons. And, ironically, strength of will (or rather, its absence) is the one least discussed with patients.

Counselors don’t talk to clients about will because doing so sounds critical and blaming, as well as being unhelpful. Examples? “You need courage. You must push through.” Or, worse yet, “man up.” In practice, that means tolerating the emotional pain of facing yourself and uncovering difficult truths about yourself; spade in hand, excavating excruciating memories you’ve dismissed or buried. It presents one of the greatest challenges any of us ever face: change.

Therapists are also hesitant to admit their own lack of all the tools to heal. Yet, we are helpless without your motivation, persistence, and courage. If you dodge self-revelation, keep your barriers high, are unwilling or unable to try new things, don’t show up faithfully to appointments, fail to give negative feedback when necessary, don’t bother to do therapeutic homework between sessions or think carefully about what happened in the meeting — well then, the doc’s job is hard if not impossible.

Sports metaphors come to mind: “the team that wants victory more will win.” Or, “we must give everything we’ve got.” Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi encouraged his players by saying, “Winning isn’t everything. The will to win is the only thing.”*

Even military examples apply. In criticizing a recent failure of the Iraqi forces against the Islāmic State (ISIS or ISIL), US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said, the Iraqis had “no will to fight” despite vastly outnumbering the enemy.

A psychiatric mentor of mine called the presence of this will, “therapeutic integrity.” With those two words he was referring to people who stop at almost nothing to improve their lives, sometimes leading the treatment by their own self-exploration and risk taking — demonstrating tenacity and quiet determination. This is not a question of fear, but rather of heroic triumph over fear. Indeed, some wonderful models of this characteristic don’t even realize they exhibit anything special.

An example: a middle class, middle-aged woman suffered sexual and physical abuse in childhood, and was much criticized as an adult — to the point of becoming the family scapegoat. Psychiatrically hospitalized, the exposure of painful repressed memories of her abuse contributed to a brief catatonic state in which she was mute. After a long process of treatment she went from terrible guilt and depression to recognizing and grieving what had been done to her by those she loved. Eventually, this person (who had been fearful of noises and male strangers) wound up providing humanitarian aid in Africa in the midst of a civil war.

She had therapeutic integrity. Heaps of it.


This doesn’t mean the lady didn’t falter or struggle. It doesn’t mean she had no issues with her therapist (me) or an easy time when I went on vacation. It means she “hung in” until she was where she wanted to be. I don’t know whether my client was gifted with resilience due to her genetic makeup. On first encounter her voice was quiet, her body language suggested timidity, her eyes downcast. She was bolstered by a powerful religious faith, but did express temporary doubts about a superior being who would permit what happened to her. Somehow she found strength in herself beyond a therapist’s ability to create.

Not every patient must possess great amounts of intestinal fortitude. Not every person’s durability is stretched to the limit by the arduous road bringing him to treatment and by the therapy itself. Sometimes, however, the presence of “will” is the difference between success and failure of the heroic assault against psychopathological demons.

I don’t blame those who can’t find this quality. Sometimes the therapist is at fault for lacking skill. I think it another one of life’s inequities that resilience is not evenly distributed. I tried to enable everyone in my practice to find this ability.

Many times the resilience seemed to take forever to retrieve. I looked hard for the tiniest of eggs fertilized by a therapeutic spark. No matter how small the egg, with progress the zygote of willpower grew. On other occasions dedication in the face of terrible odds wasn’t anywhere to be found.

In the consulting room, alone with the therapist, you are pitted against yourself. No enemy is fighting you but what is inside, the echoes of past defeats, the injuries still fettering you. I won’t criticize you if the steam roller of the world flattened you and left you unable to get up. I only know I never succeeded in lifting anyone who didn’t (at least in some small part of himself) want to be lifted or who required me to do the heaviest part of the lifting.

Norman Cousins said, “Free will and determinism are like a game of cards. The hand that is dealt you is determinism. The way you play your hand is free will.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson put it this way: ”They can conquer who believe they can. He has not learned the first lesson in life who does not every day surmount a fear.”**

The game is over only when you say so. That is as much control as any of us get.

*Actually, there is some argument whether Lombardi wished to say precisely this or something close: “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

**The italics are mine.

The top photo is of Sultan Rakhmanov in a 1980 weight lifting competition. It is the work of Vitaliy Saveliev. The second photo is called Weight Lifting: Black and White by imagesbywestfall. Both are sourced from Wikimedia Commons.