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Beyond Diagnoses

Often students are quite dismayed to learn, upon seeking services at CAPS, that they meet the criteria for a diagnosis of some psychological disorder. “She told me I was depressed” is a relatively frequent statement of intense disappointment after meeting with one of our psychiatrists or other clinicians. Whether a student actually meets the criteria for a psychological disorder or not (for example, “Depression,” “Anxiety Disorder,” “Bulimia,” or “OCD”), the approach to helping that person seldom focuses on the diagnostic criteria exclusively (if even primarily). In fact, there are many interventions that students can, in some way, incorporate into their lives whether they are receiving services from mental health professionals or not. One approach students can employ is to focus on some useful guiding concepts to help them prevent some of the situations and mindsets that lead to the problems captured in psychiatric diagnosis. In fact, often the presence of symptoms often simply reflects a deficit of some healthy or enhancing life experiences or personal truths. Condensing these into a manageable number of concepts or themes can be helpful. For example, consider these four words: Authenticity. Connection. Purpose. Harmony.

Each of these words, individually, can provide a rich landscape conducive to reflection and conversation. Perhaps more curious than how each of these words can be helpful is whether this collection of words, including the myriad ways in which dimensions of these concepts intersect and overlap with each other, can offer a framework for self-exploration and mapping out a life-approach toward well-being.

Authenticity

Authenticity refers to our willingness and ability to operate in congruence with our evolving values, expanding field of interests, and emotional and philosophical (or spiritual) sense of Self. This need not only refer to our individual sense of Self but also our understanding of our Self-in-Community. In short, it refers to living according to our personal Truths. The concept of authenticity, in and of itself, does not assume perpetual expression. Rather, it invites an ongoing assessment of when, how, and why we are communicating and acting according to our personal truths.

Connection

Connection refers to the experience of having relationships with a sufficient sense of mutual understanding and acceptance of each other to allow and enjoy Trust. We can experience Connection through responsible and satisfying interpersonal peer experiences, through maturing relationships with family members, through mentoring relationships with faculty, staff, and other caring professionals, and even with some serendipitous encounters with kindred spirits we discover in a spontaneous interaction. Each of these connections can be informed by wise and trusting degrees of authenticity, including understanding of and capacity for Intimacy, in both platonic and sexual encounters. So often, students enjoy a sense of contact with each other that provides an experience of Belonging. However, we all run the risk of having plenty of contact and participation in the social scenes of our lives and still end up feeling lonely. Such contact, without the beautiful vulnerability inherent in Authenticity, can be of value, but it does not constitute Connection. To have Connection requires the vulnerability that gives rise to Trust and Acceptance.

Purpose

Purpose refers to the personal meaning that informs how we live our lives, including our lives in relation to the world and others. It is the implicit or explicit “Why?” that fuels our actions and our aspirations. Students often concerned with the concept of motivation, especially graduate students who are constantly living under a sky of evaluation and obligation to perform with emerging expertise. Too much struggle with motivation, lacking a sense of Purpose, often leads to struggles with meaninglessness. This does not mean, however, that our sense of Purpose is only self-serving. Human beings are social creatures, and we are also always part of a larger collective, whether that refers to our personal social circles, our local communities, our nation or people, or the whole of humanity and the world, itself. In other words, Purpose also inherently involves one’s sense of social responsibility and duty through the relationships to others and to life, itself. In this way, Purpose also links with Connection as we find and create meaning through our goals and our efforts to achieve them for our singular and plural pronouns, allowing our ambitions and our altruism to remain in constant respectful dialogue with each other.

Harmony

Harmony refers to one’s overall organization of self and life dimensions. If we think of the many dimensions and priorities of our lives as musical notes and chords, we can explore how to perform them in such a way that represents both the individual value of each along with the richness of joining them to offer an additional and deeper experience. In order to pursue this harmony, it’s important to acknowledge one’s own Intricacy, the acknowledgment and appreciation of the myriad dimensions that make up a one’s Self, including physical, academic, social, relational, vocational and philosophical or spiritual arenas and the various dimensions within each of these. Valuing Harmony, then, enhances our Self-Awareness regarding our emotions, thoughts, and actions, recognizing and resolving areas of disproportionate emphasis that can cause distress, dysfunction, or both. Harmony allows and requires a dialogue between our many identities and priorities, an ongoing conversation within one’s self between the myriad dimensions of personhood and community-memberships, a non-criticizing but compassionately critiquing of self, assessing direction and purpose.

These four words, Authenticity, Connection, Purpose and Harmony, are not accomplishments to pursue, they are guiding themes to invite, windows and mirrors to help us understand and celebrate who we are as individuals and as a community. It’s important to keep in mind that a check-list approach to these concepts may lead us down a similar path to the one that resulted in the very stress that leads to diagnoses. Rather than thinking of these in a competitive or accomplishment-minded stance, invite these words and the meaning you can find in them to remain in dialogue. Consider what the absence of Authenticity, Connection, Purpose, and Harmony creates in your life. Contemplate, perhaps, what your unique understanding of these are, to you, and what the opposite of these would be, for you. However, you construe them, consider this invitation to allow the dimensions of your lives that can be expressed by these words to maintain conversation with you and with each other, allowing an ongoing movement toward something that expresses what is meaningful to you.

—Gary D. Glass, Ph.D., Counseling and Psychological Services