Normal illusions

Having a good grasp on reality, i.e., an accurate understanding of the role of our self in the world, is often thought to be a prerequisite of mental health.

But this belief may be mistaken.

Some research (see below) suggests that ‘normals’ have an overly positive evaluation of themselves, exaggerated perceptions of control over their circumstances, and an unrealistically optimistic view of the future.

Yet these rosy perceptions grease the wheels of social life.

Paradoxically, mildly depressed people have more realistic estimations of their place in the world and more balanced assessments of their likely future circumstances.

This would be old news to those in the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s and 1970s (Laing, Cooper, Szasz). But they have been eclipsed.

What counts as normal is determined by the American Psychiatric Association and the pharmaceutical industry. See Paula Caplan’s They Say You’re Crazy.

But this is a precarious normality.

Broadmoor Hospital

Broadmoor Hospital

Several years ago, the Royal Shakespeare Company in England performed several of Shakespeare’s plays, including Hamlet and Othello, at Broadmoor, a secure hospital/prison for the criminally insane. The plays were performed ‘in the round’, the stage located as in the middle of a circle. So there they were: actors simulating murder and madness surrounded by inmates who had really murdered and who really were mad.

The actors found a kind of truth and honesty in performing to this audience. They discovered how much like them they were; different only in that the inmates had been overtaken by an explosive emotion or had found themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And when the actors returned to Stratford and played before those rows and columns of immobilized but well-heeled customers, they found them more constrained, more imprisoned than the mad in Broadmoor.

Fortune/misfortune are sides. A flip of the coin. Chance.

Yes, normality is a precarious condition.

Further Reading

Shelley E. Taylor and Jonathan D. Brown. ‘Illusion and Well-Being: A Social Psychological Perspective on Mental Health‘. Psychological Bulletin. 1988. vol. 103, no. 2, pp. 193-210.

Shelley E. Taylor and Jonathan D. Brown. ‘Positive Illusions and Well-Being Revisited: Separating Fact from Fiction‘. Psychological Bulletin. vol. 116, no. 1, pp. 21-21.

Shakespeare Comes to Broadmoor: The Actors Are Come Hither : The Performance of Tragedy in a Secure Psychiatric Hospital

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