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Mental Health Involves the Ability to Ignore Much

Personal Perspective: Prince Harry as "grievance collector."

Key points

  • "Awfulizing" about family unfairness was at one time encouraged by psychotherapists but today a philosophical disputation method is preferred.
  • Prince Harry, in his book and subsequent media interviews, has asserted that dredging up past family mistreatment is a step toward mental health.
  • This may be an unhelpful message to disseminate, as it prevents people high in neuroticism from learning how to get over becoming upset.

I want to make clear that I am not attempting to diagnose Prince Harry or evaluate the validity of his claim to have experienced mental illness. Nor do I wish to either validate or invalidate his view that he has, both as a child and recently, been mistreated by his family, its supporting bureaucracy, or the British tabloids. Personally, I welcome his interest in mental health as a charitable focus and envy his move to Montecito (although buying a mansion with 14,000 square feet seems not much of a break from the past he claims he is seeking to move on from).

But I believe it is appropriate and potentially useful for me to comment on the Prince’s apparent belief that venting about family grievances is a good thing to do (recognizing of course, that expressing those grievances in book form helps to fund his lifestyle).

For a long time, the prevailing view among psychotherapists, echoing the view of the then-prevalent psychoanalytic model, was that “kvetching” (Yiddish for complaining) about the awfulness of one’s family was a key to overcoming neurosis. Today, an alternative cognitive-behavioral (CB) model has supplanted psychoanalysis in popularity, and the essential message of CB therapy is that kvetching about the past is a continuation rather than a cure for neurosis. (Freud insightfully defined neurosis as “an abnormal preoccupation with the past” although that did not stop him from encouraging such preoccupation in his patients). An early form of CB therapy termed “Rational-Emotive Behavior Therapy” (REBT), which changed my life dramatically, came to my attention almost 50 years ago when I attended a lecture by its founder, Albert Ellis, and followed that up with reading books and attending occasional Friday night demonstrations by Ellis at his Manhattan townhouse.

According to Ellis, REBT is derived from an ancient Greco-Roman philosophical system known as Stoicism. The central message of Stoicism, and REBT, is that when we become disturbed after experiencing a disappointing event, it is not the event itself that makes one upset—others might laugh the same event off—but rather the things we say to ourselves about it: "It shouldn’t have happened"; "It is awful"; "Only a bad person—including myself—would have done such a thing”, etc. The key to attaining better mental health, according to Ellis, is not kvetching but asking oneself questions, such as “Why is it awful?", ”Where is it written that only good things should happen to me?", etc. The healing insights that flow from such questions are: (a) Something is awful only because we say it is awful; (b) There is no logical reason why bad things should only happen to other people; and (c) The best approach to a disappointing event is to ask what one can learn from it.

When I began to practice such an “affect-disputation” method, I went from someone who was constantly in a state of emotional turmoil to someone who could routinely take most things in stride (including my own foolish behavior) that in the past would have sent me to bed for two days. While a Freudian might label this as a temporary fix, in my experience acquiring an ability to ignore previously upsetting family or other events makes for a more mature and emotionally stable person.

That grievance collecting (and consequent blaming of oneself or others) is not a healthy lifestyle choice can be seen in the example of people who are paranoid—the ultimate grievance collectors—and who commit wildly irrational acts. This is not to equate Harry’s form of grievance collecting with an unhinged or extreme form—but in my opinion, no form of grievance collecting is healthy. I am not disputing the possibility that Harry has grown up and is thus better able to decide how to respond to unfairness or disappointment than he was when he was younger. But I hope the day is not far off when Harry can say "Isn’t it interesting [and maybe even funny]," rather than "Isn’t it awful" that he has a flawed father, brother, social structure, etc. to deal with.

Copyright Stephen Greenspan.

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