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Psychological Crutches: Ten Myths and Three Tips

The healthy quest for "optimal illusion"

This post is in response to
Five Steps to Optimal Illusion

Myth 1. Psychological crutches are bad: We accuse people of using psychological crutches, as though they’re always bad. That’s odd when you think about it, since we think of crutches as good in medicine to, for example, support for a weak knee, a sore hip, or a healing leg, as scaffolding when the structure is weak so patients can get on with their lives. Of course, one can become over-dependent upon a physical crutch. Spending too long on a crutch can distort your posture too. Still, crutches have they’re place in medicine and in psychology too.

What is a psychological crutch? Here I’ll define it in parallel to a physical crutch as anything you rely on through vulnerability. What you rely on could be chemical, emotional, intellectual, even physical, for example shopping or aerobic exercise when you’re going through a psychologically painful breakup. And the vulnerability could be of any kind too, a breakup, a lost job, disappointed goals, aging, disease, even a sore hip. A psychological crutch is whatever gets you through the night or nights (since vulnerabilities can last a while), the dark night of the soul, which can even be a terminal vulnerability, for example when you’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness.

We have other names for crutches. When people distract themselves from painful vulnerabilities, we say they’re “in denial.” More technically, we speak of “dissociation,” disconnecting from thoughts and feelings, typically by means of distraction. Mild dissociation is seen as a way to cope with mild discomfort, daydreaming when bored, or watching a movie when bummed. But mostly psychologists think of dissociation as maladaptive, as in the many dissociative disorders psychiatrists diagnose.

Recently social scientists have noted the benefits of daydreaming, getting away from work, and mindfulness practice, all of which are forms of dissociation, distracting ourselves from our travails when we’re in too deep for our own good. It’s time to distinguish between good and bad crutches or dissociations, or we could say between dissociative orders and disorders.

Myth 2. Psychological crutches are rare: When my mother, a non-smoker in her mid-fifties, was diagnosed with lung cancer metastasized to the brain, in the shock of the first few days she moved very quickly toward the consolations of philosophy and spirituality, an almost manic leap toward elation. A somewhat famous friend, famous too for his tendency to bend the truth himself, took me aside and diagnosed her with an authoritative and somewhat disdainful air as being “in denial.”

We do that when disdaining a trait in others, which may be some of the fun of identifying other people’s faults. In catty moments, distracted by what’s wrong with others we can forget our own faults. Indeed such disdain can serve as its own kind of crutch, in his case, temporary dissociation from awareness of our own crutches. Truth is, psychological crutches, as I’ve defined them aren’t a rare pathology found in weaker souls. We all use them and the question is not whether, but when and how to use them. Elsewhere I’ve called this the quest for “optimal illusion” kidding yourself where it helps, rather than hurts.

Myth 3. Psychological crutches aren’t natural. We talk of people using drugs as a crutch. In the past 50 years scientists have discovered that we all have receptors for many of the mind-altering drugs, and internal equivalents for them too, for example endorphin, the body’s natural equivalent to morphine. A runner’s high, or the little tingle we feel after eating spicy food is really the equivalent of a minor morphine buzz. Apparently, we’re all equipped with evolved natural pain-killers—psychological crutches like endorphin to get us through. These endogenous drugs aren’t the only example, but as exceptions they disprove the rule. Apparently all crutches aren’t unnatural.

Myth 4. Psychological crutches are all like drugs, and shopping, things you get from outside yourself: Many crutches are our mind’s inventions, fantasies, for example about how we’re destined to be popular, right, and successful, distractions for dealing with the disappointments we experience, the bad news of daily life.

Myth 5. Psychological crutches are only healthy when used temporarily: In looking for ways to tell good crutches from bad ones, we might think good ones are used sparingly and temporarily like physical crutches. But then physical crutches aren’t all temporary. For example, a quadriplegic’s wheelchair is forever. Everything’s temporary including our lives but some crutches last that long. Religions can be a crutch, and not necessarily a bad one. Many have coped ‘til death with the stresses of life by distracting themselves with visions of the afterlife. Is it a good thing? You can’t tell simply by how long they last. Indeed one could argue is that a good crutch is one you can rely on for a long time.

Myth 6. Using psychological crutches is cheating: If crutches are sometimes natural, and if all of us use them, they aren’t inherently cheating unless you claim we all cheat. We’re ambivalent about psychological crutches, but simplify by talking about the ones we like in positive terms. For example we admire optimistic people, people who during bad times can distract themselves with hopeful if somewhat unrealistic visions of a better tomorrow. We don’t bellow at people on crutches, “Hey cheater, quit pretending! You don’t walk that good. Get real!” And we don’t bellow that at optimists ether. We tolerate each other’s crutches and often even admire them.

Myth 7. Any time you ignore things you’re in denial or using a crutch: Using a crutch, being in denial, or dissociating all make ignorance seem like an active process. To understand why ignoring isn’t always an active process, just think of all the things you’re not actively ignoring and yet aren’t aware of. We can’t pay attention to everything. We can’t even pay attention to every choice about what to attend to and ignore. The mind is a pinhole in a flood. Only a little gets through. We pay attention to what we intuit to be significant, sometimes significant reality checks and sometimes significant distractions to deal with the pain of reality checks.

Myth 8. Psychological crutches always reduce your integrity: A crutch is often necessary to maintaining integrity, a constant commitment to a plan or goal. Psychological crutches are how we keep moving over psychologically bumpy terrain. Like a crutch for a bad leg, a psychological crutch, whether it’s a rationalization or a shopping spree is a way to lighten the load of bad news, as you walk through life’s vicissitudes, left, right, left, right, good news; bad news, good news, bad news. And as with coin tosses sometimes the good news “heads,” and bad news “tails” don’t come with reliable alternating regularity. Sometimes you’ll get a string of bad news for no reason but the random draw. Crutches are a buffer. They enable you to keep breathing when the news is bad enough that otherwise you’d have the wind knocked out of you. Psychological crutches are like clutches, a way to spin your wheels while you think about how to respond, perhaps downshifting your expectations, but often plowing ahead with integrity and consistency.

Crutches can reduce integrity too, of course. Rationalize anything long enough so you can maintain integrity about it (“nope, I meant to do that. I stand by my action.”), and you’ll increase your general self-gullibility. Like any habit, rationalization gets easier with practice. The trick isn’t to stop rationalizing but to rationalize where it helps rather than hurts. This is the art of optimal illusion, kidding yourself right, not wrong.

Myth 9. There’s an easy way to tell good from bad crutches: We mostly rely on intuition when accusing someone of being in denial, or using a psychological crutch. If you think someone should pay attention to what you are, your gut criticism is that they’re ignoring what’s important, distracted by what isn’t important. They say “It’s just not as interesting to me as it is to you,” and our intuitions say “They’re just in denial.”

Likewise our guts declare people ignorant, which at core means ignoring what we think they should attend to. Our assessments of what to attend to and ignore are inherently subjective, the products of our diverse temperaments, experiences, statuses, histories, environment, and cultures.

When we accuse people of being in denial or using a crutch and they push back, we can easily find rationales that justify our gut sense that the accusation applies. We often reach for reasonable-sounding rules. For example “We should all attend to the suffering of others, and you’re not, that’s why I say you’re in denial.”

A rule like that sounds reasonable until you remember that no one attends to the suffering of all others. Apparently there’s no litmus test that if you ignore the suffering of another, you're in bad denial.

We might also justify based on social norms, for example that drugs are crutches. But again, we’re all on drugs, if not the wine we drink at night, the endorphins we swim in after a workout or a jalapeno, and anyway there are so many ways to dissociate, so many ways to distract ourselves.

No one has yet come up with a good simple rule for what constitutes a healthy and unhealthy distraction. Some would say meditation is always a good distraction and TV is a bad one, but it’s not hard to come up with examples whereby the opposite is true, the delusional spiritualist who believes meditation solves everything; the hardworking and productive aid worker, who recharges efficiently with an hour of TV.

I got the ideas for this article while sitting in the dentist’s chair on nitrous, a drug that calms and soothes my body while leaving my mind alert. Dissociating from discomfort long enough to step back from my life and get philosophical like that is a crutch I enjoy, a side benefit of good dental hygiene. I’m not alone in that. William James, often cited as the founder of psychology was a fan too. Some would say since it’s a drug it’s a crutch, and a bad one. I’d say it’s a crutch, but a good one.

Myth 10. There’s no way to tell good from bad crutches: Still, there is something to our intuitions about good and bad crutches, not an objective rule by which we would all agree about what’s a good and bad crutch but still a standard by which we all make our subjective assessments.

We depend on crutches, at least temporarily. We do what’s necessary to maintain access to them and would miss them if we lost access to them, the way the wheelchair-bound miss their wheelchair when it’s in the shop. This suggests three rules to apply, albeit subjectively:

1. It’s bad if it’s unsustainable: We all intuit that a crutch is bad if maintaining access to it is unsustainable. We intuit for example that a drug is a crutch if a person can’t do without it and that someday the user will have to, for example, going cold turkey off morphine. That’s a reasonable intuition. Don’t get hooked on crutches you can’t maintain access too. Or at least don’t get so dependent that when it’s gone, you’re ruined.

2. It’s bad if it bends you off your better path: We also intuit that a crutch is bad if grows people in the wrong direction, drug addicts toward crime, religion devotees toward delusional thinking about practical matters, shopaholics toward poverty and debt, whatever you look at a person relying upon and say “hmmm… this won’t end well.”

3. It’s good if it inspires effort, not if it stands in for it: Boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl, and she with him, thinking he can do no wrong. So he starts doing lots of wrong, using her devotion as a bad crutch, a reason he doesn’t have to try anymore to make it in the real world. Instead he melts joblessly into her couch, basking in her support, and she doesn’t complain. And you think “That’s bad.” Boy meets girl, boy falls in love with girl and she with him, which inspires confidence in him that he then parlays into better work in the world. And you think “that’s good.” We intuit that good crutches are a complement to good work, not a substitute for it.

Of course we disagree about what meets these three intuitive standards. The debate that follows from our disagreements is healthy and useful. But it’s a debate over what to use as a crutch, not whether to use a crutch, which we all do. After all, we all have those vulnerabilities, the dark nights and the need for whatever gets us through them.