ISSUE Magazine

The Cynical Psychology Student by Ai Ming

Does comfort mean stillness and tranquility?

Maybe it means peace and quiet.

But on a cold winter day, comfort means the indulgent desire to stay in bed, hide under the duvet, successfully blocking out the depressing sight of the grey, gloomy sky.

In other times, that word, “comfort”, reminds me of the sense of joy I get from visiting the museums, where I learnt that everything is transient: the glory of an empire did not last for long, while the doom days of tragic war were rather short-lived.

It convinces me that though I could be feeling down and prickly at some point in life, I would soon rediscover my comfort again. Likewise, a piece of good news could send me over the moon for a few days but I would descend to earth level again to go on with my quotidian tasks.

Comfort is the safety zone we are drawn to, a place that has become very dear and familiar to us.

It’s the equilibrium that makes us feel at ease. It is a state where we could experience a complex mixture of movements, fluctuations as well as stagnation.

Thus, it is extremely tricky, as this sense of comfort that we seek, could come in disguise as an extremely unpleasant discomfort. A lot of times it is not easy to draw the line between “comfort” and “discomfort” because the meanings of words are so fluid.

Words are polysemy. Words as texts are often open to interpretations and interrogations. Everyone’s understanding of “comfort” could vary to a great extend. It could be black or white, or even the assorted shades of grey. “Comfort” could mean one thing to me, yet it could come to represent a different thing to someone else. It is ambiguous and chaotic.

It is partly due to my training in psychology that I am a total skeptic of “words”.

I agree that words are powerful. It is through words that ideas and messages get spread and communicated throughout the world. Using the right words, one could influence an entire nation to strive for the better or for the worse. However, I think words could only say so much.

In psychology, we do not usually take words at face value because we are made aware of the unconscious. We believe that people do things they themselves cannot fathom. We are made aware that words could be said in contradictory to what a person actually mean.

Instead, there is a general consensus in psychology that “the numbers don’t lie”. It is when we put people through psychological testing and neuroimaging machines that, we were able to capture hidden messages unexpressed in words. Sometimes, these signs we had come to identify, could be categorised as “symptoms” of mental disorders.

There is a symptom of mental conditions called “word salad” which I was particularly intrigued by. It is when a person attempts to communicate an idea but random words come out.

More often than not, the person is unaware that he or she did not make logical sense.  A famous example is the phrase, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” Although it is common among people diagnosed with disorders such as schizophrenia and dementia, I feel that I too experience my very own “word salad moment” when I’m being put to speak on stage, especially in front of a sea of people.

I would like to think that it’s normal to feel that way, but when it is identified in a schizophrenic patient, it is a psychological symptom worthy of concern and treatments.

Let alone “comfort” and “discomfort”, it is equally challenging for highly trained practitioners to define what is “normal” behaviour and “abnormal” behaviour.

There is the 886-page long Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) published by the American Psychiatric Association that is used for diagnosis but even that is reviewed every few years and there are no absolute boundaries in the classification system. The contents in the manual simply cannot be applied in a cookbook fashion. So, what we have come to acknowledge is that widely accepted theories could be flawed, while perfect systems that are based on numerical precisions could be as equally imperfect.

Such is the paradoxical nature of things.

Nonetheless, it is in the shifty paradoxes that we stumble upon new insights and innovative discoveries. As we are often told, the way forward may requires a step back and the easy way seems to be the hardest. It is in the darkness that one finds the light. It is in the discomfort that one crafts his or her own comfort.

Such is the beauty of living.

Personally, I love it  when I get my friends to tell me about their current states, and all I get is a pause, followed by the reply, “I’m lost for words”, or “I don’t want to talk about it”.

To me, that is a telltale sign that he or she is dealing with discomfort and I should have known better than to force words out of them.

What was I thinking? I am a psychology student, but I’m also a friend! It is in my best intentions to not psychoanalyse my friends.

Instead, I should choose to trust that they would soon come to a place where they are comfortable enough to put their stories into words.

There, in the light of their growth and newly gained wisdom, is where my comfort lies.


Ai Ming is fascinated by people and their ideas; these range from the most mundane to the evolutionary. Her educational background spans across psychology, cultural studies and business. She’s a dreamer – an introverted one.

This entry was written by Ai Ming and published on 05/08/2012 at 13:18. It’s filed under Ai Ming, Essays, ISSUE3, Musings, Writings and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

One thought on “The Cynical Psychology Student by Ai Ming

  1. alzaquan on said:

    I love the observation of how you listen acutely to what your friends are saying, when they are trying to convey their ‘current states’. Sometimes words betray us, misrepresenting how we feel – and sometimes the reluctance to talk is even a more telling symptom. Also,as a writer,I found your whole spiel on words very fascinating – writers can manipulate with words,they appear on the page pregnant with pre-assigned meanings and messages – even when the writer claims to be unbiased, he is swaying you to a direction. I love words, how they can shape how I feel and think, but I also don’t trust them fully – your own smartness and cunningness can use language as a way to fool your own mind. You’ve really taken this month’s theme onto a really interesting interpretation, I really enjoyed it Ai Ming.

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