Mental health: cages and structures

Sometimes, in an over-reaction to childhood, we misinterpret useful structures as limiting cages. Photo by Modestas Urbonas on Unsplash

In managing our mental health, we need to find a balance between freedom (which tends towards chaos), and limitation (which tends towards order).  Many mental health conditions are a result of a negative spin on this dilemma.  The sufferer finds themselves stuck in a world of chaos and limitation, the worst of both worlds.  Much recovery depends on finding a more positive way of achieving the balance.  When healed, we experience both freedom and order in our lives.

I want to talk about the limitation side of this equation.


If we see ourselves as loving freedom, we may see our spirit as a kind of bird flying, without restriction, where it wishes.  If we have been emotionally restricted in childhood, we may have a particular love of spiritual freedom in adulthood.  This is a kind of reaction against suffering.  If we were over-controlled by parents or carers, and suffered because of it, then we are likely, later in life, to react against attempts by friends and partners to do the same thing.

This results in a particular interpretation whenever we are  given rules, routines or systems.  We are more likely to interpret them negatively, as cages, or traps.  We will be sceptical of attempts to control, assuming that people are only doing it for selfish, malevolent reasons.  ‘Don’t put me in a cage,’ we will say, ‘I need to be free.’


The trouble is, in our negative ‘cage’ interpretation, we may be throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  One person’s cage is another person’s useful structure.  We may reject anything that looks like a systematic imposition of control.  But, in doing so, we may deprive ourselves of useful structures.

Think of a skeleton.  All humans have an internal system of bones, connected together in a very systematic way.  They’re terribly limiting.  They stop our hands from extending like worms.  They force us to move in stereotypical ways.  But they are also a useful structure.  They prevent us from overextending.  They allow us to construct traditional or habitual movements which we can repeat and get better at.


I wonder if this is you.  I wonder if you have some structures in your life that you perceive as limiting, but which could also be reinterpreted as useful.

Examples include:

  • Business processes – instead of reacting against business processes, could you reinterpret them as useful structures which keep you disciplined, and which act as a reassuring communication tools to give your customers a known path to experiencing your services.
  • Disabilities – if you have a personal physical or mental restriction, could you use this as a pathway to a new understanding of yourself and the world around you?  Could you help others with similar disabilities in a positive way?
  • Controlling behaviours in others – instead of reacting with your own attempts to control others back, or to escape, could you learn to engage with them in a positive way?  Controlling behaviours can be a useful structure for learning patience or assertiveness.

There are many more examples of reinterpreting limitations as useful structures.  We are surrounded by houses, transport, and other feats of engineering which we can see as either limiting cages, or as useful to us for accommodation and travel.  We are surrounded by beings, cultures, and conventions which can feel, at times, oppressive.  But if can we learn to use their implicit structures, we can ride them like waves, using our understanding as a surfboard.

All it takes is a bit of imagination, a positive attitude, and a little confidence.  See what you can reinterpret today.  Next time you feel frustrated, ask yourself: can I turn this limitation into a useful structure?