The Pathological Arrow

Emily Mills writes that boiled down, the fear of dissolving the self leads to a lot of psychopathology, and the way we deal with that fear as clinicians might speak to how we address it in our own lives. Do we seek to alleviate it, or do we call it into the light of day?

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Starting with the Ancient Greeks, psychologists have been trying to understand the human being through the mechanics of the body, through the workings of the mind and the relationships between people. Different tacts have been taken in that span of time, and today there are a number of different ways people are trying to make sense of the senseless—because human beings are ultimately confusing, complex, wonderful creations. Thereʼs a reason the DSM-IV is thought of by clinicians as “the Bible.” It doesn’t just list disorders. It provides guidance to clinicians trying to interpret behavior; itʼs something that we can cling to when weʼre trying to be with someone who doesʼt understand herself, or why he does what he does, or who has a different grasp on reality than we do.

As a graduate student in a depth psychology program, a reluctant Buddhist and a recovering Catholic, I often times shy away from the intersections between psychology and spirituality. My own desire to know who I was and why lead me to the study of psychology, and even now I cringe when I think about admitting to the interwebs that Iʼm pursuing a graduate degree to understand myself. “Donʼt most people just know themselves?” Some little voice asks me. “Not everybody has to spend three years and an incomprehensible amount of money to do it.” It sounds like my Republican* parents’ worst nightmare: undertaking a course of expensive study to “find myself.” How did I ever get lost in the first place?

Since Ancient Greece, and probably before, human beings have been trying to figure out the mind. Psychology was actually a branch of philosophy until 1879, when Wilhelm Wundt founded the first laboratory dedicated exclusively to the study of psychology. The word “psychology” can be broken down into two parts, psyche and logia (both from Greek). Logia means “the study of.”

Psyche was the subject of a Greek myth. She was said to be a beautiful young mortal woman who drew the jealousy of Venus, the goddess of love. Venus convinced her son, Cupid to shoot one of his arrows at Psyche and she would fall in love with the first being she saw when she awoke. Well, Cupid fumbles, and scratches himself with the arrow intended for Psyche; he falls madly in love with her, which of course angers Venus further.

It’s not overly promising start for a relationship, and Psyche and Cupid do have their share of trials and tribulations. Eventually, though, there’s a happy ending. The two marry and Psyche is deified. Sheʼs thought of as the personification of the human soul.

Psychology, then, is the study of the human soul—a far cry from laboratories filled with cages of rats or walls of brain scans. Studying the human soul is a tall order, and one of the reasons that psychology has a difficult time being accepted as a hard science. Hence, the labs full of rats and the walls of brain scans, like weʼre looking for a location of the pathology (which, by the way, means suffering, so psychopathology? Suffering of the soul). Psychology is not simply a study of the brain, or of human behavior. Psychology attempts to explain and make sense of why we do what we do, something science has always struggled with. Neither though can it be relegated completely to the realm of the spiritual. Psychology strives for a balance between the two.

Of course I aspire to understand much more than solely myself, and I hope my journey of self-discovery and study will be beneficial to my family, my community, and the clients that I serve, but the study of psychology, when undertaken responsibly, is ultimately a journey of self-discovery. The reluctant Buddhist in me believes that this desire to understand and dissolve self is what connects sentient beings and that whatʼs lovely about the study of psychology is that it highlights the incredible power of fear. Boiled down, the fear of dissolving the self leads to a lot of psychopathology (remember? suffering of the soul).

Psychology doesnʼt tell me what do do with that fear, though. Spirituality does that. And what we do with that is an interesting question for clinicians. Do we seek to alleviate that fear, in the hopes of lessening the symptoms that are also trying to address that fear? Do we call it into the light of day? The way we deal with it as clinicians speaks to how we deal with it in our own lives. It is a call to recognize our role as healers is primarily to heal ourselves, to let our healing be a testament to the possibility of health. It is an invitation to recognize the similarities between clinician and client and realize that weʼre all trying to do the same thing.

* For the record: my parents are indeed Republicans; they’re also many many many other things, among them lovely, wonderful, altruistic human beings who love me madly and who are proud of the career I’ve chosen.


Emily Mills is Colorado native transplanted on the West Coast. She a graduate student at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, California. After eight years of non-profit work during and after her undergraduate studies, Emily is pursuing an MA in Integral Psychology.


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5 responses to “The Pathological Arrow

  1. Thanks, Wendy. I became a psychiatrist for similar reasons. And I tell my children, and believe strongly, that “following our bliss” and becoming most fully who we’re called/meant/choose to be will also be of most benefit to others/the world.

    • Erin

      You sound like a great dad!

      Following your heart does take a kind of courage of its own. One of my friends, who like me is a therapist, told me one day that she “just kind of followed [her] dreams and things always seem to work out for the best.” I was inspired by that approach to life, but it also provoked a sense of fear for me because something inside of myself quailed at that laissez-faire approach. Clearly, I am not ready to relinquish all illusions of control over life just yet, no matter how false those illusions are, and they are often very false indeed. 🙂

      The soul is willing but the flesh is weak…

  2. Dad

    Shoooeeeee. I was beginning to feel like a parent in Rent

    • Erin

      Don’t worry, there are worse things in this world than a parent who worries about their child!!

      God knows my parents have questioned me from time to time. Doesn’t mean they don’t support me, just means they think I’m crazy sometimes 🙂 sometimes I’m right and those crazy schemes work out. Sometimes not and my parents probably are biting their tongues trying not to tell me that they told me so. It’s all part of learning.

  3. David

    Wow. Thanks, Emily. A great description of the interface of spirituality and psychology. Suffering always raises spiritual issues whether one is an atheist, Unitarian, Catholic (recovering), Jew, Buddhist (however reluctant), etc. There are a large number of psychotherapists with a specialty of working on the spiritual and psychological dimensions when the client wishes to do so. We work according to the client’s understanding, struggles, or religious practice. In this kind of therapy there are no spiritual agendas other than helping the client to find her/his path and work toward healing. Directly relevant to Emily’s point the psychotherapist does this best when they are on a path of discovery, encoutner, and practice with what they consider sacred. I think people are looking for this and the world desperately needs all people who find healthy spirituality that promotes peace, healing, and reconciliation.

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