We often focus on the signs and symptoms of emotional and psychiatric problems, but what are the indicators for emotional wellbeing and psychological health?

Here are some of the factors that are important for psychological health.

A capacity to love, work and play: To love without fear and be authentically yourself with at least one other person is important for human beings.  To love others despite their flaws. To integrate love and sexuality – meaning that you can have a loving and sexual relationship with the same person.  To accept your child for whom he/she really is and the capacity to see things from your child’s perspective.

A capacity to contribute to society and to feel what you do matters.   It is hard for people when they are unemployed and they feel worthless in the larger scheme.  A capacity to play is an important indicator of emotional health.  Play includes humor, a capacity to enjoy the moment.  To sing and dance and enjoy sport.

Secure attachment: The capacity to trust another human being and to attach to another person.  Trauma and disorganized early relationships can have a severe impact on these capacities and make it very difficult to form a deep and trusting bond with another human being.

A sense of agency: It is important to feel that you have an impact on your own life.  That you have options and some choice. Adolescents need to feel that they are not living to fulfill their parent’s dreams, but that they have their own internal reasons for the choices they make.

Identity integration: This means that you can see your own strengths and weaknesses and can also see the good and bad in others.  In other words, you can integrate yourself and others as complex human beings with flaws and strengths and you do not just see certain people or groups as all bad or all good.  A sense that my body is part of me.  The capacity to remember my childhood with a sense that it was I that lived that childhood.  This means not feeling detached from my body or my past as if it belongs to another person. The knowledge that your loved ones do not disappear or stop loving you when you are not with them.  That you are still in their minds and the capacity to keep your loved ones in mind when you are not with them.

Resilience: The capacity to tolerate some stress and find adaptive ways to deal with stress. Some people always deal with stres in the same way or find stres debilitating.

Realistic and reliable self-esteem: Not feeling worthless, meaning that you are not too harsh in your judgment of yourself.  That you can see your own good and strengths as well as your shortcomings.  It is also healthy not to feel overly special and entitled. If there is a pattern that a child receives excessive praise the child can have a sense of feeling empty, but entitled.

Having values:  Having a conscience is a significant indicator of mental health.  Relationships built on love and warmth and not just on power indicates this capacity.  The capacity to live with integrity and to feel regret about hurting others.

Capacity to tolerate feelings and thoughts: A capacity to feel and accept the full range of human emotions.  To allow, tolerate and name these emotions.  A capacity to think about unacceptable wishes without acting them out.  A capacity to feel and think about yourself and not just act without thinking.

Capacity for insight: Meaning that you can stand back and think about yourself and gain insight into yourself. That you can consider how others experience you and what your issues are.

A sense of vitality and passion for life: Living with interest and joy and not just feeling that everything is uninteresting and meaningless and empty.

A capacity to accept what cannot be changed and mourn:  It is hard to accept reality and our own mortality and limits.  There are certain things that we cannot change about our past, others and ourselves.  There are losses that we cannot replace, but have to mourn.   We have to accept that we cannot have everything and be grateful for what we have.

I hope this helps us think about ourselves and grow towards being more emotionally healthy and integrated human beings.

(I want to acknowledge Nancy McWilliams for this information that I gained during a workshop with her in Cape Town.)