There is an old joke that goes something like this: neurotics are those who build castles in the sky, psychotics move in to them, and psychoanalysts charge them rent!
Like all good jokes, there is a strange kind of truth in it. The joke reflects the idea that many troubles of the mind involve turning away from reality by being preoccupied with the search for another life, a different life, perhaps a better life somewhere else. Psychoanalysts have job security because we have an understanding that the only way to find mental health is to turn toward the life that you have and to deal with it.
Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein called this human task "the acceptance of reality"— and she viewed it as a cornerstone of mental health, contentment, inner security, and peace of mind. She is in pretty good company, as this philosophy can be found throughout the ages. Buddha once said that the way to happiness is actually quite simple; the secret is to learn to want what you have and not want what you don't have.
Troubles in life come when we believe the myth that the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. We are taken over by envy, believing that other people have the good stuff and then feeling depressed, anxious, and persecuted by the belief that we have so little. We are taken over by greed, wanting more and more and more, feeling that what we have cannot ever be enough.
The reason why this attitude undermines mental health is that it leads us to turn away from the main task of life which is to make the most of what we have. By denying the goodness of our very own lives, we believe that we have nothing good to work with nor the capacity to work with it. We lose focus, self-confidence, and hope.
Psychoanalysts spend a lot of time trying to help their patients re-orient themselves to dealing with the life that they have. At first, this can feel very deflating. We must bust the myth that we can have someone else's life, someone else's castle, someone else's lawn.
No, we only have our own. But that is the pivotal spot. If we can accept reality for what it is, we have the chance to develop it, to improve it, and to grow it.
Robert Fulghum, author of that classic book "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" put it this way: "The grass is not, in fact, always greener on the other side of the fence. No, not at all. Fences have nothing to do with it. The grass is greenest where it is watered. When crossing over fences, carry water with you and tend the grass wherever you are."
Copyright 2011 Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D.
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To see more of Jennifer’s approach to psychotherapy, check out her newly released book: Wisdom from the Couch: Knowing and Growing Yourself from the Inside Out.