Not so long ago psychoanalyst Adam Phillips - a man not shy of expressing complex ideas - wrote these alarming words about the definition of sanity in his book, Going Sane, ‘… it [sanity] has never been systematically studied or defined’. His argument said if we don’t actually know what sanity is, how do we know if we're sane or not? After reading Philippa Perry’s new book, How to Stay Sane, I’m happy to inform Mr. Philips he can now relax. Perry has nailed a useful definition of sanity.
In this self help book just published by The School of Life, we’re given less a scientific outline of sanity than an evocative – and mercifully simple – definition based on Perry’s extensive clinical observations from her years as a psychotherapist.
Sanity is to be found in the middle ground between two extremes, she says. At one end there’s what she calls ‘chaos’, which is being so at one with one’s feelings and emotions there is no self-awareness. These people stagger through life lurching from catastrophe to catastrophe like off-the-rail trains. They lack the necessary filters and self-awareness to self-soothe, and manage their feelings in healthy ways.
At the other pole is a kind of rigidity where a person’s feelings are boxed up and buried, inhibiting their chances of personal growth or change. The depressed, isolated and reclusive would fall into this category. Between these two poles is where sanity lies, ‘a broad path, with many forks and diversions, and no single ‘right’ way.’
Backing up her arguments with recent neuroscience - which, as a fellow therapist, I’m also pleased to report is increasingly corroborating the therapeutic world’s hunches and insights from the past 100 years – Perry usefully pins down this workable definition of sanity without head-spinning jargon. An observation you’d be pushed to offer others in this field.
The book examines four areas we should all develop to keep on sanity’s broad path. These are - self-observation, relating to others, stress and personal narrative. Stress? Yes, stress can be good, Perry argues, as long as it involves pushing ourselves to take healthy risks and step outside our comfortable self. The result is an expansion of our experience, and new neural pathways giving our brains greater adaptability to meet life’s challenges. Good stress creates a virtuous circle giving us the confidence to challenge ourselves in increasingly creative ways. Being brave enough to step into a therapy room for the first time, for instance, might give us a sense of our courage.
The other key areas require inner reflection, nurturing relationships and the positive use of stories to make sense of our lives. How to Stay Sane ends with a practical chapter of exercises to help the reader explore these ideas using their own life and experiences. I haven’t yet attempted the Genogram exercise – creating a sort of family tree based on a family’s emotional relationships to give insight into unconscious ways of relating. But it sounds fascinating – and challenging.
I spoke to Grayson Perry, the author’s husband, at the book series launch. He said reading a book about therapy isn't the same as having therapy, like being told about a work of art isn’t the same as experiencing it. Yet by acknowledging the challenges we face to keep us on the broad road of sanity, while offering us useful tools to strengthen our sense of self, How to Stay Sane is a practical, pocket-sized simulacrum of the therapeutic process.