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The schizophrenic individual’s revolt against culture

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Length: 45 minutes

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Warren E. Schwartz, PsyD           

While oppositional tendencies are not unique to the schizophrenias, they are common amongst those suffering with the disorders and create unique problems for these individuals.   

The schizophrenic individual’s opposition to the cultural milieu is seen here as an act of will related to his or her transferential perception that culturally defined notions of reality and prescriptions for behavior are terrifyingly imposing and negating.  The schizophrenic individual, already not fitting into the higher cultural order, engages in active opposition to it in order to hold on to some shred of life. 

The individual who opposes culture rightly senses that it is all a lie.  But here we begin to see where a motivation toward clearer insight, often an aspect of healthy functioning, goes awry:  what is beneath the illusion of culture is terribly unpleasant.  Culturally constructed illusions function, in part, to obscure certain existential truths (the finality of death and ubiquitousness of emotional and physical pain and illness; the constant presence of choice and responsibility).  Additionally, these highly symbolic illusions provide us with some sense of control over our physical and interpersonal environments (by naming things and people, assigning some things and people more important status than others, etc.).  In a word, cultural meaning systems allow human beings to function with minimal levels of anxiety.  So to protest and subvert the shared meaning system puts one at risk for being overwhelmed by the terror and disorder of real life.  This becomes especially true for the schizophrenic individual, who is already weakened.  In his or her opposition, the schizophrenic individual trades being overwhelmed by the imposition of the self-negating cultural meaning system for being (further) overwhelmed by life itself.  

Cultural meaning systems not only provide us with a symbolic order and escapes from unsettling truths, but with opportunities and mechanisms for acquiring self-esteem.  Beside physical survival and safety, there is nothing more central to psychological equanimity than the feeling that one is a valued contributor to a meaningful reality.  Without such opportunities for acquiring primary value and meaning, human life is almost unimaginable.  When the schizophrenic individual turns away from or against the system that offers him pathways for acquiring symbolic (illusory) value, he is compelled to create his own, and these attempts are destined to fail as we know from clinical experience.  No one can sustain such a grand lie without the support of others who believe it too.  Surely, his mental health workers won’t support his delusional constructions!  And those that populate his delusions don’t quite cut it either - after all, they are not real flesh-and-blood individuals concerned with sustaining a shared and mutually necessary illusion - but are rather the shoddily fabricated symbolic constructions of a chaotic, terror soaked mind.    

The upshot of the schizophrenic individual’s opposition to culture is a lack of a secure sense of meaning, order, and value.  As such, the individual, with nothing left to hold himself together but his tenuous, self-constructed reality, falls apart.  Here we have an individual, already weakened by his or her current and early experience, opposing that which is necessary for sustaining meaningful life.

Case examples reflecting these themes will be woven into the paper.  Examples will include patients’ progressions from “schizoidal” and oppositional states to more socially motivated and engaged states. 


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