Vulnerability is the Price of Value

By Will Meecham, MD, MA

We all hope to pursue certain directions in life. We may not always admit how much our values affect us, but they greatly influence our thoughts, emotions, and actions.

The person who makes a mistake and loses a cherished job feels shame. The mental obsessions that surround the shame may center on what went wrong, on the boss who couldn’t tolerate errors, or on the spouse who will be disappointed. Despite these different thoughts, the shamed response is driven by the conviction that doing a good job is important.

Mistakes matter because the work matters (consider a surgeon who made a dreadful error—he or she is concerned about the patient’s outcome, not just personal consequences). Performance matters because work well done brings social approval, which is painfully lost when the boss fires a failing worker. Employment matters because material support keeps family fed, clothed, and sheltered. But most of all, work matters because it is a central value in the lives of most people.

If the job is lost because of addiction, then the addict feels shame about his or her dependence on substance use. But the shame remains driven by the underlying value: useful work.

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Living Values

By Will Meecham, MD, MA

On my personal blog, WillSpirit, I wrote a few posts about Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Writing about ACT seemed like a valuable blogging direction, because the method has helped me live more effectively than ever before. As I’ve worked on my emotions and moods over nearly forty years, I’ve tried many therapies, spiritualities, and activities, but only with ACT have I seen robust improvement. Part of ACT’s effectiveness in my case may be due to the groundwork laid by earlier practices, but there’s much more to it than that. I therefore feel called to help popularize the approach.

I began the discussion with the last post on this site, entitled How Much Can We Endure?, That piece made the point that hardship can become enriching when we find meaning within it, which is a central theme of ACT. But I also emphasized that some people have trouble bearing up under life’s burdens, by which I specifically meant they die due to poorly chosen coping strategies. Suicide, and death caused by substance abuse, seem like clear signs of failure to manage life effectively.

But does addiction, by itself, mean a person is living poorly? Does chronic depression? Workaholism? High anxiety? Extreme sensitivity? Low self-esteem?

In evaluating these questions, we come to ACT’s emphasis on values as one of the six dimensions of psychological flexibility, and hence wellness.

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How Much Can We Endure?

By Will Meecham, MD, MA

God never gives us more than we can handle.

IMHO, this famous saying speaks nonsense! Consider that between preschool and first grade I watched my mother slowly wither away and then die from depression after a painful divorce. Consider that my sister recently succumbed to alcoholic liver disease after drinking against her pain for decades.

Consider that I’ve watched friends destroy themselves in various direct and indirect ways, or that countless patients of mine suffered from self-inflicted wounds and diseases that finally killed them. If you weigh all that evidence (plus any of your own you’d care to add to the mix), you’ll recognize that life overwhelms many people; they cannot endure the hardship and pass from this world in misery. Where is the evidence to suggest that the universe serves up only ordeals we can handle?

On the other hand, there is no trauma or loss so severe it cannot be transmuted into something valuable. The fact that many people never effect such alchemy does not negate the truth that many others do. Transcendence of suffering is always within our reach, though we often don’t know how to grasp it.

Once I viewed a YouTube clip that showed psychiatrist Viktor Frankl talking with a young man afflicted with quadriplegia. This youth described in convincing terms how he gained meaning and insight through his devastating injury. Perhaps only a few paralyzed patients embrace their fate with this level of acceptance, but at least one did, so it must be possible.

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The Body Didactic

By Will Meecham, MD, MA

Too many of us grew up in families wracked with pain. Emotional wounds accumulate in settings of neglect, abuse, bereavement, molestation, violence, and misery. As adults, these ancient injuries undermine our happiness. We often choose poorly in relationships, careers, and pastimes. Even if we don’t make gross mistakes, we lack the confidence to endorse our own choices. We feel uneasy in good times and overwhelmed in bad. This is the legacy of childhood trauma.

At times we shut down emotionally, closing ourselves off from the affection we crave. Other times we act out and hurt the ones we love or destroy our own reputations.

Still, healing can happen after even the worst of upbringings. It takes time, and backslides are unavoidable, but eventually we stabilize in greater maturity and emotional openness than we ever imagined.

In the last post we highlighted the body’s gentle wisdom and how often we ignore it. As I move further along the path to peace of mind, the importance of befriending physical nature becomes ever more obvious. The injuries of the past are stored in our biology, where they affect every aspect of our lives.

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Bodily Seduction as Invitation to Mindfulness

By Will Meecham, MD, MA

Imagine someone asks you this question: “What are you?”

We seldom get queried in this way, since the more typical questions are: “Who are you?” or “What do you do?”

So take a moment to answer the question of what you consider yourself to be, first and foremost. Some of us will answer with our careers: “I’m a physician.” or “I’m a writer.” Others will state an important social connection: “I’m a mother.” or “I’m an American.” A few will refer to religion: “I’m a Muslim (or Atheist, Christian, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist, etc).”

But few of us will reply, without forethought: “I am a warm-blooded animal that walks upright on its hind limbs and possesses an enlarged brain.” And yet, that is probably the most central and accurate description we could provide.

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Rising Above Words

By Will Meecham, MD, MA

Language has enabled humanity’s success, but it has also caused many of our problems. As a result, and even though I like to think of myself as a writer, my relationship with words feels conflicted.

On the one hand, they’re fun to work with and they communicate ideas, but on the other they lead to big conflicts in society, relationships, and the human mind.

One problem is that language is unconstrained; you can say or think almost anything, whether it is helpful or not. Furthermore, a single object or event can be described in a multitude of ways, which invites disagreement. This leads to intense discord because we are programmed (either by evolution, society, or both) to take words very seriously. As people we attack our neighbors for saying ‘forbidden’ things, and we attack ourselves for thinking them.

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The Advantage of Disadvantage

By Will Meecham, MD, MA


Life promises us nothing but the experience of living until we die. We cannot expect our dreams to be fulfilled. We cannot avoid hardship and loss. These principles apply to all.

But even though no one can squeeze guarantees out of fate, there is great unevenness in our fortunes. Some people simply seem luckier than others. They enjoy families that provide more resources of love and support. As a consequence, or maybe because of inborn personality factors, they grow into confident, resourceful, and resilient adults.

They suffer little self-doubt and have no sense of self-loathing. Their lives unfold relatively smoothly, and as they enter the later stages of adulthood they can look back with pride at how they built success. They may have achieved career acclaim, raised happy children, and/or simply radiated good cheer as they walked upright through the world.

Unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way for everyone, and we all know of human situations that fall short of such comfort and success. First, there are the large populations across the globe that suffer under extreme poverty, chronic warfare, and oppression. We see the images of shantytowns and war-torn cities in which stunned and dusty children wander wide-eyed and alone. We observe their innocent, wounded faces and wonder: what can these orphans possibly hope for in the future?

And yet, they seem far away and unconnected to our affluent societies. We try to reassure ourselves that these kids don’t suffer like we would in the same situation, because they don’t know what they’re missing. It’s a vain and selfish hope, of course, but sometimes it’s our only defense against feeling overwhelmed by the unfairness in the world.

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The Threefold Power of Silence

By Will Meecham, MD, MA

At some point in every human life, pain threatens to unravel everything that matters. For some of us the day comes in childhood. We may suffer the death of a parent, unspeakable trauma, or simple grinding neglect. For others life feels fairly comfortable until adulthood, but sooner or later fate steers us off our desired road into threatening territory.

Perhaps a child gets sick, or a marriage ends, or a career fails. Maybe illness strikes and the end of life comes into view. Grief, failure, and injury shatter our peace, so we begin to seek answers.

At first, we search in all the usual places. We ask our close friends and trusted relatives for advice. Some of us consult therapists or psychiatrists who guide us back into our past or write us prescriptions. Some of us enter houses of worship or meditation in hope of enlisting the help of profound mystical or mental forces. We pray and meditate, desperate for answers.

Even with all this exploration, solutions seldom come. All too often, life deals ever more hardship as we scramble to find a lifeline that will help us endure the escalating pain. We may begin to waver in our resolve to continue; we begin to question whether life offers enough enrichment to make its difficulties worthwhile. We wonder why, as we try so hard to solve our dilemma, we feel no better.

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The First Steps Toward Freedom From Despair

By Will Meecham, MD, MA

Do you feel anxious, hopeless, discouraged, or depressed?

If so I have good news: you can break free from all that negativity. The trick is to learn to make the mind work toward your best interests rather than against them.

Ever since starting this blog, I’ve sung the praises of meditation and right attitude as tools for building mental health. Not that many years ago I felt horribly familiar all the adjectives that open this post. I had tried many types of therapy and many different pharmaceuticals without much improvement. Eventually, I turned attention inward and began to work with my thoughts and feelings directly.

By clearing out misconceptions and misperceptions, I found clarity and readiness to accept whatever happens in life. I am not immune to grief and disappointment, but I am much more resistant to despair. Meditation succeeded where medication failed.

With the aid of such skills, my mental life improved so dramatically that I now question the value of all the diagnoses that were tossed my direction by doctors. Decisive recovery from longstanding problems shows the capacity of the mind to rework itself; resolution of symptoms also seriously challenges the “brain disease” hypothesis of mood disorders. There was plenty of cognitive detritus obstructing my path, but I doubt there was ever any organic problem in my synapses.

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Evolved Madness

By Will Meecham, MD, MA

Why did our minds evolve with the capacity to go mad? Why are our emotions capable of disabling us? Why did we end up with feelings at all?

Let’s start with the last question. When evolutionary biologists study emotion, they usually ask about its survival value. What is it that makes feelings useful to a creature’s reproductive success?

This approach troubles me, because it suggests (implicitly) that animals might just as well have evolved as heartless robots, devoid of any true investment in life. The only reason for feelings in this style of evolutionary logic is that they increased mammalian ability to foster viable offspring. And note that the word mammalian is not arbitrary. Such hypotheses generally go on to assert that reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates are devoid of meaningful emotion. Which, if you think about it, is another way of saying they don’t care about their lives.

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