Compassion Matters

How to save a life

What is a Mentally Healthy Person?

An Interview with Robert Firestone, Ph.D.

A few weeks ago at Esalen, a retreat center in Big Sur, CA, I co-taught a two-day workshop called “Conquer Your Critical Inner Voice.” As part of the weekend, I showed the participants a video clip of an interview I did with my father Dr. Robert Firestone. The participants found it inspirational, so I thought I would share some of the contents of the interview in this blog.

In the film, I asked my father, who’s spent the past 40 years working as a psychologist, theorist, and author, how he would define an emotionally healthy individual. He responded by describing what his goals would be for a person as an outcome of successful psychotherapy.

Robert Firestone: First of all, it depends a lot on their own motivation and their particular goals for themselves.  But in general, the kind of person I would like to see them be is one who had a strong sense of themselves; a person who could deal with feelings; a person who was non-defensive; a person who had a strong sense of values; a person whose values were inner directed, rather than outer directed; a person who was neither defiant nor submissive, but independent.

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Basically, I would like them to have human qualities; the capacity to be compassionate, the capacity to deal with abstract reasoning, the capacity to be creative, to express their uniqueness as a person.  Without a sense of your own values, you are like a ship without a rudder; without a sense of direction. And one of the things people block out early in their lives are their personal goals.  The biggest defense if you are being hurt or damaged is to not want. The easiest thing is to not want anything or be self-denying; instead of pursuing one’s goals cleanly.  I would like a person to be able to go after the things they want in life, to compete when necessary for what they believe in and to struggle to achieve their goals.  I would like them to be free of what would normally be considered pathology, or symptoms of mental illness. I would like them not to be suspicious or distrustful of other people; but instead open to people and to be alive to life. So many people are dead to life; so defended that they lose their vitality.  They lose their ability to love.  They lose their ability to be close to another person.  I consider it important to be able to tolerate intimacy, to have a strong sense of one’s own sexual identity and a strong sense of pleasure in one’s sexuality.

But all of these goals depend on how much a person is willing to struggle, because within the defensive apparatus, many of these things are limited or blunted or destroyed.  The uniqueness of a person can be, you know, actually destroyed. I would like them to go as far as they are willing to go.  But how far are they willing to go?  How much are they going to rely on character defenses-how much courage do they have to challenge these defenses and develop themselves?  Ideally they would be free to live as a human being and have pleasure and satisfaction in life.  In being themselves they would be unique and creative.  It would just come out of their individuality and their autonomy.

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This is the dilemma we all face in developing ourselves to our full potential as a human being.  Are we willing to challenge our defenses and differentiate ourselves from the negative influences and self-limiting adaptations to our past?  Are we willing to feel our wanting and pursue our goals directly?  If we are brave and take up this struggle, we can regain and further develop our uniqueness as an individual. After watching the film clip, attendees at the workshop went on to formulate aspects of themselves that they wanted to develop. I share these thoughts with you in the hopes of inspiring each of you to consider taking up the same challenge.  Reflect on where you stand in relation to these characteristics of a “psychologically healthy person.” Whenever I read my father’s above statements, I feel motivated to think about my own personal goals. I hope in sharing them with you, I offer you the chance to do the same.                   

You can watch a clip from this interview at PsychAlive.org.

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, author, and the Director of Research and Education for the Glendon Association.

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