Why is society so anxious about delusional beliefs?

Desperately striving for an objective view of reality is a technique to reduce anxiety-provoking uncertainty. It promises itself as a way to stop a descent into madness, to avoid being completely disorientated in a nonsensical confusion.

Belief is by its very nature a personal phenomenon, I cannot objectively hold a belief, it is a subjective experience. There can be objective evidence that proves or disproves my belief, or there can be objective evidence or reasoning that points to my belief being highly unlikely, therefore objectively the belief can be false. The definition of the word delusional shows its idiosyncratic, personal nature. Take this alongside its synonyms which point to something incorrect, an error, a falsehood and it would be easy to define a delusion as a false belief. But as the very nature of a belief is subjective this tells me exceptionally little about the belief, the experience of having it or the person who holds it.

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A child at Christmas thinks Father Christmas has come and delivered her presents, but as adults we know this is false, a delusion, does this then mean that we reject the experience of opening presents on Christmas morning for the child and call it all nonsense? If we are trying to engage with the child it would be interesting to wonder what it means for the child to think that an old fat man she has never met has deemed her to be not naughty but nice enough to therefore (hopefully)  recieve presents she will like and enjoy? How about if her brother gets more than her and she doesn’t receive her most wanted gift this year? The answers to these questions open us up to the rich, complicated, idiosyncratic narrative of the child that would be completely missed if we had dismissed her belief in Father Christmas as a false delusion.

When we read about psychosis or delusions we come across phrases such as “removed from reality”, “strong conviction despite superior evidence”, “abnormality of thought”. This discourse provides a story about a superior viewpoint on reality, a truth about the world that you either share or you don’t, and if you don’t you are Other, you are separate and not in a good way, in an abnormal and deviant way. This discourse only serves to alienate and coerce. It creates an atmosphere of hopelessness and fear around a person who is probably suffering enough already.

Nothing new is being said here! Deleuze & Guattari in Anti-Oedipus famously said “A schizophrenic out for a walk is a better model than a neurotic lying on the analyst’s couch. A breath of fresh air, a relationship with the outside world”. Laing, Foucault, etc have been encouraging people to see delusions or unusual experiences as something more than a false belief and always as a product of something else (even though they disagree about what that something else may be, Marxist critique’s of capitalism aside) for decades. However, these themes rarely appear in mainstream “mental health” culture, both inside and out of the clinic. It takes a programme like BBC Horizons “Why did I go mad?” for people to even start to question whether the narrative is starting to change.

Why do we cling to such simplistic views about truth or falsehood? Why is it counter-intuitive to go with the belief itself rather than try to provide evidence to the contrary? CBT uses this technique to look at evidence “for” and “against” beliefs and while this may be effective for some people there is another way.

Desperately striving for an objective view of reality is a technique to reduce uncertainty, it promises itself as a way to stop a descent into madness, to avoid being completely disorientated in a nonsensical confusion. Which in part it achieves, it has a function and a role to play. Yet the downsides to this approach are clear; the human suffering caused by this obsessive rejection of subjectivity should not be ignored just because doing the opposite has an advantage too.

What would happen if we were more able to bear the anxiety of not knowing? If we were willing to risk feeling disoriented by trying to put ourselves in the position of the person experiencing the ‘false belief’ and join in the descent into madness, however bewildering that may feel at times?

When we try to empathise, when we curiously ask about those valid, subjective narratives. When we try to engage in a non-judgemental, accepting way towards experiences of psychosis/delusions/unusual beliefs instead of focusing on the flawed logic that objectively the belief is false, we are dramatically increasing the chances of helping someone. To feel heard, to feel accepted, to have value, and to belong somewhere.

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6 thoughts on “Why is society so anxious about delusional beliefs?

  1. Very interesting. I am going to make two observations:
    Firstly, in a terribly old textbook on psychiatry entitiled “Key to Psychiatry” a chap by the name of Sainsbury added the idea that delusions did not include the persons spiritual, social and /or cultural background, so Santa would be an acceptable delusion for most as would my belief in Leprechauns being Irish.

    The second is around how we deal with delusional thought. During my training as a mental Health Nurse I was lucky to have an inspirational tutor for a time who suggested that rather than pull delusions apart or bombard the person with the objective truth, we should grab the underlying feeling, fear, anger, elation and work with that.
    He pointed out that regardless of how disengaged a person was from objective reality, the experience of feelings was the same. Fear for a person with persecutory delusions is experienced in the same way as a “normal” person experiencing persecution.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh old Sainsburys! He’s got a good point. Some indigenous people believe in ancestors speaking to them, doesn’t make them ‘delusional’.
      Looking at the underlying emotion sounds very wise too, useful to do this with lots of things – traumatic memories / challenging behaviour, etc. Someone once said to me that focussing on the unmet need, be it safety, thirst, validation, whatever, was a much better way to engage people than trying to “fix” whatever they are doing. Hard to understand what the underlying need is sometimes though.

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  2. Absolutely! It is bewildering that after all the work by these great thinkers over the years, we still live in a society that is so neurotic-centric. Apart from the arts where people writing, creating art, creating music who happen to have a psychotic structure can not only stabilise their own psychosis but also with their “flawed logic” bring their idiosyncratic belief and impression to a shared understanding of human creativity. (Great to see you back here).

    Liked by 1 person

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