Creative Maladjustment: DBT, psychoanalysis, and Martin Luther King collide

As I was browsing the internets this past Martin Luther King Day, nursing a transitory cold while reflecting on the meaning of his legacy/not looking at cat memes, I came across this video.

Here Dr. King discusses what he calls "creative maladjustment," a concept he explored over the course of a number of speeches, including lectures at Western Michigan University (1963), UCLA (1965), and also the American Psychological Association's Annual Convention in 1967 (more on that later). Let's take a closer look at what he meant by that, and unpack what I think is a fresh perspective on mental health and liberation.

Maladjustment and its discontents

Dr. King deconstructs that age-old marker of mental health, "adjustment." "Adjustment" is the extent to which a person can adapt to changing circumstances and environmental challenges, "rolling with the punches," so to speak, while still functioning adequately in most areas of their life (having loving relationships, performing at work, etc). What is "abnormal," or suggests that one is mentally unfit, is the degree to which a person cannot adapt to their environment, cannot cope with daily stressors, cannot adjust to the demands of daily life, of others, and of society. When we cannot make this shift, we become maladjusted. We get stuck. We get demoralized. We fall into depression or become overwhelmed with anxiety, becoming prisoners in our own mind. Or, alternatively, we get angry. We become despondent. We lose control and lash out against a world we feel has done us wrong. Many are the roads that lead to maladjustment. makes perfect sense to be maladjusted.

I remember when I first heard the word in Spanish as a native Spanish speaker. Even today, I can't help but hear the word mala whenever I hear the word maladjustment. Mala, as in the Spanish feminine word for "bad." The Spanish form of maladjustment itself reveals a layer of meaning that is more implicit in English: Mal ajustado(a). As in,

"Ella esta mal ajustada."

"She is badly adjusted."

This phrase even goes hand in hand with other echoes of childhood:

"Portate bien! No te portes mal." "No seas malcriado!"

"Be well behaved! Do not behave badly." "Don't be an ill-bred person!"

The associations we have as a culture (whether North or Latin American) to this term are vivid. Somebody who does not adjust is not just having difficulty coping--they are misbehaving, bad, crazy, ill, sick, out of control. The line between psychiatric diagnosis and moral judgement becomes blurred.

Dr. King was not simply making a statement about mental health stigma. He called out the ways in which marginalized people of color are invalidated as maladjusted for the very act of surviving oppression and systemic violence. His critique should give us pause when we try to reduce a complex sociopolitical issue to one of personal responsibility or mental health. He pointed out that there were things in our society, "to which we should never be adjusted... things concerning which we must always be maladjusted if we are to be people of good will" (King, 1968). He spoke of racial injustice and discrimination, religious intolerance, economic inequality, and the military-industrial complex, things before which it makes perfect sense to be maladjusted

Mind you, in these speeches he was not blind to the actual toll that trauma, especially societal trauma, can have on vulnerable communities. Dr. King was aware of the drive toward anger, violence, and aggression as tools of resistance (much like Freud), and was critical of them. He was also well aware that individual people can become destructive, even self-destructive, in response to chronic exposure to trauma and violence (and there's no lack of commentary on this, whether from Memmi, Fanon, or Freire). How then, do we balance this conflict between individual mental health and societal conditions?

Compromise Formations and Survival

This basic tension in psychology and the social sciences, between the individual and society, is at the heart of a lot of misunderstandings regarding mental health and the impact of oppressive conditions. Human beings have a natural instinct for self-preservation. Life circumstances often pit this instinct against external pressures and demands, finding ourselves struggling to find a solution, a compromise where we are somehow able to get our needs met, while also acquiescing to the demands of other people, of society, or adversity. In psychodynamic theory, this is called a compromise formation. We sacrifice parts of ourselves in order to live.

You may not have caused all of your problems, but you have to solve them anyway.
— Marsha Linehan, PhD

We compromise ourselves in order to make others happy. Or to protect ourselves from rejection, or the wrath of an abuser, or the tyranny of oppressive conditions. The compromise formations we create often serve a purpose. Over time, these same compromises may no longer work. They may become rigid and fixed, making it difficult for us to change and take in new information. Our relationships become strained, perceiving potential rejection or abuse at every turn. We fall ill. 

We have to remember that these compromises exist for our survival. I'm reminded of Dialectical Behavior Therapy's (DBT) basic assumptions, among them that you are doing the best you can with the circumstances you find themselves in. There is no truer statement than this, and remembering it whenever we begin to judge or cast blame can help restore our sense of empathy. At the same time, this needs to be tempered with another, equally important assumption in DBT--you may not have caused all of your problems, but you have to solve them anyway

creative maladjustment: Dr. king speaks to psychology

In most conversations about mental health and oppression, professionals, activists, and politicians often argue from two different positions. One position claims that marginalized people are "maladjusted," need to "clean up" their communities, and are ultimately to blame for their lot in life. This essentially pathologizes the experience of the oppressed and silences their voice. Another position, alternatively, argues that the behavior of the oppressed, their "maladjustment," is a necessary, human, and natural reaction to injustice, and one that represents attempts to both resist and survive oppression. This position does indeed validate the struggles of marginalized communities, the compromise formations they craft to make sense of a world gone mad. However, in its more extreme form, this position further dis-empowers the victim by framing them as a passive victim, subject to the powers that be, unable to exert agency over their reality. This conflict cleaves right to the heart of the matter: is it society that must change, or the oppressed that must adapt? It is here where Dr. King's speech to the American Psychological Association's Annual Convention in 1967 introduces a third position--a creative solution.

In his address to the American Psychological Association, Dr. King argued that in understanding the plight of people of color, "Discrimination explains a great deal, but not everything. The picture is so dark even a few rays of light may signal a useful direction." Despite the ills that plague our society, there is a capacity for "inner transformation" that can liberate the psyche from the deadlock of oppression. This inner liberation can help shift the individual from merely submitting or reacting to society, towards finding a new solution that is both freeing and transformative to both. Real, substantive change then begins with a change in perspective. This change in perspective is so fresh, such a turn from the typical ways that we think about these problems, that Dr. King even proclaimed--tongue in cheek--that we needed a new organization to promote it, "The International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment."

Creative maladjustment envisions a new solution to the tension between social change and individual change. One in which we move from survival and resistance, to thriving and renewal. This idea resonates with contemporary thinking in different schools of clinical psychology. Psychodynamic theories talk more and more about moving  "beyond do'er and done-to," and finding a "third" point, an in-between space, from which to apperceive new truths. DBT talks about "walking the Middle Path," acknowledging that there is some form of truth to both sides (individual vs. social change). That truth comes from sitting with the discomfort that change in our world will to an extent mirror change in how we see and relate to the world. It is the feeling of radical freedom that emerges when we realize that even though we did not create these problems, and it is not our fault, we still have to solve them. And we can.

To be clear, this interpretation of Dr. King's creative maladjustment is not meant to make us fall squarely on the side of simply changing the self, or making change in communities of color without challenging injustice. Rather, it alerts us to the fact that how we look at the problem can also contribute to the problem itself. Changing our perspective, even making changes in our own behavior, can illuminate new approaches to not only resistance and survival, but make new inroads toward thriving and self-care. 


Thus, it may well be that our world is in dire need of a new organization, The International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment... And through such creative maladjustment, we may be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man, into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.
— Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King: a flawed revolutionary

When I saw that video, and then read his 1967 speech to the APA, my first response was "Why didn't anybody tell me about this in graduate school?!" There is so much work being done today in writing, advocacy, and activism, that we often forget that these issues have been raised long before from outside the field. Not only by Dr. King, but by communities and activists calling for greater inclusion and a stronger voice for social justice in mental health. It was a sobering reminder of how much more work there is left to do. 

As much as this post is a reflection on Dr. King's legacy and its relevance to psychology and mental health, it is also a meditation on his thinking, and his limitations. 

In a Q&A section in the January 1958 edition of Ebony magazine, Dr. King took questions from readers looking for "Advice for Living." Among those who submitted was a boy who had a problem "different from the ones most people have." The young man expressed that he "[felt] about boys the way I ought to feel about girls," and did not want his parents to know this about him. Dr. King's response was that what he felt was not "innate" but something that could and should be changed, recommending he find "a good psychiatrist" to "solve" this problem. 

In this case Dr. King did not invite this young man to consider a creative solution to his "problem." Nor did he encourage him to be creatively maladjusted, resisting the homophobia in the world around him by making peace with his inner truth. Rather, he agreed with the boy's self-understanding as one who is maladjusted, and guided him on the "straight path" toward becoming a well "adjusted" man. I can only respond to Dr. King's limitations, by placing a mirror with his own genius:

“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

It is possible Dr. King matured after this exchange, and that intersectionality was implicit in this statement. It is up to us to verbalize an intersectional vision of creative maladjustment.