“We may define therapy as a search for value.”
  —Abraham Maslow
Category: psychology blog

love your fate

Some very inspiring conversations lately make me want to write about Nietzsche, the 19th-century German philosopher, who declared in a famous vignette called The Parable of the Madman that “God is dead!”  By leading with that reference I am not looking to conduct a big discourse on institutional religion at this time, but rather to create a context for exploring Nietzsche’s theory of Eternal Recurrence and its call to abide by an ethic of Amor Fati: love of fate.  To see that all these things are completely connected in Nietzsche is to dwell very deeply in his personal vision of life and the human condition.  To dwell there with him as a serious exercise about one’s own vision of life is Psychology at its best.

What was Nietzsche driving at with his assertion that God is dead?  He was talking about the decline and disintegration of the moral foundations of late Western civilization.  Oh, that.  Stated alternately, he was calling attention to how human beings make moral claims and pointing out that people base those claims on questionable foundations.  For Nietzsche, morality did not come into the world through infallible divine agency as an absolute and eternal standard to guide proper living, but rather arose out of the human agendas of the people curating the moral code, if not outright creating it in their own interest.  By stating God is dead, Nietzsche was announcing about the moral climate in sway over western civilization since the rise of Christianity that humanity must move on to a new vision.  He imagined that transition as a needful evolution for the species.

Such is the context for Nietzsche’s infamous portrait of the Ubermensch, a so-called over-man, who sees beyond the crumbling foundations of the morality around him and leaves them behind as useless and untenable, called instead to develop his own vision of proper living based primarily on personal truth.  Taking on that challenge is the new road to authenticity and self-realization, according to Nietzsche.  He preaches on its behalf through the visionary hero of his most prophetic and artistic work Thus Spoke Zarathustra, a new bible of sorts for an age losing its last one.  The replacement, however, is not like for like, but a sea change of the highest order, involving maximum self-responsibility and personal reflection.  That universality about truth and ethics is a fiction is only the starting point, leading powerfully inward.

It would not be a stretch to regard Nietzsche as an advance expression of many of the 20th century’s most revolutionary developments.  Prepare for some bold claims in that regard.  For instance, when Albert Einstein shifted Physics from its Newtonian center to a paradigm of Relativity, he was accomplishing a fundamentally Nietzschean coup, turning Time itself into something malleable.   When we use the word Postmodern to capture the breakdown of any unifying structure binding culture together, we may just as plausibly say Post-Nietzschean instead, since he forged and landed that hammer.  In Psychology, when we note that hierarchical models such as Freudian Analysis led to more egalitarian approaches involving client-centered emphasis, we are noting the influence of Nietzsche that authority resides within each subjective self only.  Nor is there another or better home for it elsewhere.

For Nietzsche that discovery opened a thought experiment called The Eternal Recurrence of the Same.  He imagined a situation in which a demon comes to you with the shocking factual pronouncement that you will live every detail of your present life over again into the future infinite times without the slightest variation in the details and that you have already lived it that way infinite times in the past.  This airtight loop has the potential drawback that whatever you lament most about your choices and destiny are indelibly written into it and any longing for one iota to be otherwise is an impossible folly.  In fact, that longing is the source of all suffering.  Nietzsche imagines most people will gnash their teeth and fall into abject despair at this news.  On the other hand, he also offers the radical invitation that what the demon has told you is the best thing you could ever hope to hear.

At this point personal psychology enters the situation.  Why is the demon’s suggestion good news?  How could it be?  Because it positions the listener to reorient in the direction of maximum life and vitality.  If, by Nietzsche’s reckoning, someone rejoices at the prospect of living the same life repeatedly without changing anything at all, that person is saying the most categorical Yes to existence.  Such was Nietzsche’s vision of the best possible life: one which looks adversity in the eye and says I know and affirm your necessity too.  I say yes to you to say yes to myself.  Ostensibly the benefits of this attitude are the liberation of the deepest creative powers that humans can attain and a more thoroughgoing expression of one’s potential in the world.  Of course they are.  Through acceptance emerges craft.

Nietzsche’s commitment to this ideal drew him to the Latin phrase Amor Fati, a love of Fate. That word has many associations for people, such as the oppressive and often painful play of circumstances.  For Nietzsche it meant turning that point of view on its head so that even the hardest part of one’s experience, or especially the hardest parts, are the forge from which to shape one’s best self.  Imagine doing so for a moment.  Try to see yourself saying Yes to every disagreeable feeling within you and all persistent obstacles you encounter and have encountered, not because you are helpless against them, but from real appreciation of their essential role in your highest development.  Become the willing and active participant in your own evolution.  Love your fate, not as a verdict against you, but in order to shape it.  The more you love its muck, the more influence you will gain over it into the future.

As a final consideration, think about applying this vision on a wider basis, not only as a personal psychology, but also as a worldview.  Try it out.  Look at the world (or the whole universe) as the operation of necessity, as Fate.  See about the world that absolutely everything is interdependent to such an extent that none of what you like about it exists without what you don’t.  I’m not suggesting a resignation about the undesirable parts, but rather a genuine appreciation of them that goes infinitely further in quality and integrity than a sustained aversion and lopsided disposition ever will.  From this new worldview, diversity becomes clearly inevitable and, if you can see it that way, very beautiful.  Even that which contradicts the beholder’s natural subjective biases gains an exhilarating attraction as the ceaseless coming forth of creativity in life, affirming all creativity, including one’s own.  The agent of Amor Fati affirms the world and the self as a unity.

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Growth and Grieving

Imagine for a second that you and I are replaying an early moment in the history of Psychotherapy.  Let’s use the original wording from that period and say that one of us is the analyst and the other is the patient.  Our method for this pretend session will be word association: the analyst states a series of seemingly random words and the patient responds to each one by stating the first thing that comes up, sincerely if possible.  Although we might engage this way for hours, the following pairing still stands out for us as one of the more haunting ones: when one of us says “growth”, the other solemnly responds “grieving.”

That pairing is jarring because of how we customarily regard these two ideas.  We think of growth as something positive, implying gains, while grieving, because it is painful and involves major loss, more often figures as something negative.  Except for that possible link between them as characteristic antonyms, why associate one with the other?  Why juxtapose growth and grieving?  Their apparent incongruity makes a good case against uniting them at all.  The case in favor of uniting them rests on its possible higher alignment with common experience.

When people grow, they often grieve.  I see it all the time in my psychotherapy practice.  For me that timing for grieving gives a stamp of authenticity to the growth, as if sealing it in place.  One explanation might be that a process we all understand and accept when we see it in one direction is simply happening in the other direction, but no less sensibly.  That is, we expect grief to come first.  When we lose something, we grieve our loss.  Then when the grieving finishes, the inner space becomes available for expansion and growth to refill us.  Does this process have to take place in that order?  No, not really.  When people start new relationships to get over a prior one or whenever they unexpectedly break down in tears while things are going very well, the process expresses in reverse.

But I think there’s more to it than sequence.  I think growth brings out grieving because once we have grown in some way, we have moved to a new vantage point from which our past becomes clearer.  When we then look back on who we were before the growth took place, we see how that former self painfully lacked what the new self now contains.  For instance, when one of my clients gains greater capacity for setting personal boundaries, that new habit further clarifies for the client how he or she has been living without sufficient boundaries until now, and the costs.  There is terrible pain to reckon with in that accounting of the past.  There is typically a sense that a lot of time has been lost, that opportunities for deeper living have been missed or misused. Sometimes trauma surfaces, as if for the first time.   Grieving such losses, actual or imagined, is one way we claim our new growth as something highly significant.

Take a moment to reflect on times when you have grown in some way.  Maybe you graduated from a challenging course of study.  Maybe you made a bold move to take your life to the next level.  Maybe your heart opened more deeply to relationship and love.  Maybe your spiritual path became more compelling in quality.  In every case, one aspect of your expanded capacity will be its power newly to illuminate how you did not access that capacity before, and how painful it may seem in retrospect to have lived out of touch with it.  The grief from that reflection need not be a problem or a strike against success.  Rather, it usefully corroborates that personal evolution has taken place for you.  It is simply part of being human that rich expressions of emotion usually punctuate our most expansive experiences.

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Teenage Seat Snatchers

Some of my therapy work with teenagers takes places at a clinic devoted to serving a younger population.  That setting offers multiple offices for conducting sessions and I have used them all, owing to scheduling needs.  This inevitable shuffle of rooms has put an unexpected characteristic of my teenage clients into high reliefhigh enough that I feel like writing about it for both its humor potential and its possible meaning as a noteworthy trend.  I never anticipated it as one.

With more than negligible frequency, as I guide teenage clients from the waiting area to our assigned room and open the door to let them go in, no matter which room it is, they walk directly to the chair for the therapist and plop down into it without any compunction about relegating me to one of the couches or armchairs.  They choose the big leather swivel chair in the most central location in the room and make themselves ingenuously at home in it without a pause or remark.  Then they watch me sit down in the customary location for clients.

There’s a lot to enjoy about this behavior.  I always appreciate unconventional moments, and I’d like to think my ego is strong enough to tolerate and savor an inadvertent affront to it now and then—especially professionally.  The experience is actually healthy for me if only for shaking me out of possible counterproductive ruts about being in charge or having special status as represented by which seat I inhabit.  Plus, my delight in the mix up is genuine enough, not something I’m contriving for the sake of making myself feel better.  I feel fine.  I want all my clients to express themselves comprehensively.  I want to know their every extemporaneous flourish.

Meanwhile, it’s also my job to reflect on how that expression takes place.  I therefore pause to ask myself what is it about this repeating action of seat snatching that gives it such statistical over-representation among my teenage clients?  Don’t get me wrong.  If the most banal explanation passes the truth test, I’m all for it.  I have no special wish to make an excessive big deal of something trivial.   Do the teens keep commandeering my chair because it has the most sophisticated construction?  Are they drawn to it on the principle that an office recliner simply makes for the most comfortable sitting?

I have come to suspect otherwise.  When Erik Erikson outlined his eight famous stages of psychosocial development, thereby mapping the major epochs of the human lifespan, he determined that adolescence mainly involves the inner task of developing an identity or else lapsing into perpetual role confusion.   This mounting tension in teenagers is why they have a reputation for experimenting, often rapidly, with so many different versions of who they are.  They need to try on enough self-templates to find out what fits adequately for an initial transition into adulthood.  Is that why they sit in my chair?  Consciously or not, are they trying my role as data?

Or what about a psychodynamic explanation?  Following in Freud’s feisty footsteps, what we’re looking for here is some compelling indication that intolerable instinctive drives are emerging in secondary expression instead.  Teenagers are notorious for defying authority, so maybe their nonchalant displacement of the therapist from the traditional location of power is a form of indirect aggression.  If so, who can blame them?  At the same time that they want some support from me, needing it must be incredibly vulnerable for them.  On first installment it would therefore make sense to unseat me, letting me know with that action that power goes both ways, but making that statement in an underhanded fashion, as if getting the point across without any liability about doing anything confrontational.

From a social constructionist lens, their behavior also suggests there are discourses at work within our culture that influence how we act.  In this case, the discourse would have something to do with entitlement and who really has any.  Once upon a time an automatic respect for one’s elders may have been a social norm, but nowadays might the opposite be true?  Might not the behavior of my younger clients demonstrate that the cultural expectation now is the dominance of youth as a coded value?  It will come as no secret that our culture favors staying young and being young.   Magazines and social media pump that message like crude oil.  When my teenage clients claim the customary location of the therapist, perhaps they are simply expressing collective conformity to the underlying message that youth rules the day.

I like to consider all these possibilities before I take the rash action of telling my clients they are in my chair and ought to sit in another one.  Sensitivity about shaming the people I work with is one important guideline in my work.  Nothing good comes from correcting someone unnecessarily, while tremendous good often follows from curiosity and tolerance about the unexpected.  Only then is it occasionally valid to settle into a traditional parental disposition of setting firm boundaries.  In those cases, I play the role of a missing fatherly presence, establishing a moral compass for my teenage clients to experience and eventually internalize.  I often find out in those moments that my client’s history with fathering has been exceedingly poor.

The profound influence of one’s upbringing is a cornerstone of much psychotherapy.  Building on it is sensitive work.  The therapist must perform the proper due diligence before any substitution of present adult for past adult in the client’s psychic situation is useful and integrative.  I tend to feel I can wait.  I can sit in the client’s position for as long as it takes to reveal the real point of it.  Paradoxically, that access to patience will often help my teenage clients regress internally to wherever the real obstacles to their development took place.  Once that happens, they typically choose the proper seat on their own.   It becomes a soothing refuge as the next phase of healing begins and the ability to depend on someone risks a real return.

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Can I Get a Witness?

One of the many functions of a therapist is to bear witness to you as a client.  This function is, on the one hand, very obvious in that the therapist is clearly an audience to your self-expression, while on the other hand, the witness function is quite subtle.  The subtle aspects pertain to the deeper purpose of having a witness in one’s life.  Ideally, what influence can it have for a client in therapy to receive consistent and receptive witnessing from a therapist over time?

The answer I would like to suggest will benefit from a short description of one major development in the field of Clinical Psychology.  In the years after World War II, a psychoanalyst named Heinz Kohut began to question his Freudian training, mostly because it wasn’t working very well with his clients.  He looked for a more effective way to regard his relationships with them and eventually came up with a new model that took the name Self Psychology.

One of its key ideas is that our earliest years are naturally a time of deep narcissism and our development into mature mutual relationship with the world and others requires that our early narcissism receives a good reception from our caregivers.  The best reception is for our caregivers regularly to meet our need for recognition and celebration by them.  According to Kohut, when our natural narcissism receives that kind of favorable response, it later transforms into adult ambitions and ideals that align with the world.  Otherwise, our development suffers.

On first blush, it is therefore often a corrective measure for a therapist to witness a client warmly and consistently.  That seemingly simple action by the therapist recreates a long lost opportunity for many clients to receive the kind of good reception that inner growth originally required, but did not properly receive.  Receiving it now, although belatedly, many clients will successfully reconnect to the original thread of their stunted development and move it forward into the present as rediscovered goals, dreams, and abilities.  They will reclaim their aliveness.

That benefit of witnessing by the therapist would, in itself, be enough to sell me on the service, which is not actually as simple as it seems to the onlooker.  It requires a deep ability from the therapist fully to be there for someone else.  Therapists must have their inner world sufficiently in order such that none of the therapist’s personal baggage or bias overly interferes in the witnessing function to obscure or misdirect it.  If it were easy to provide that kind of reception, original caregivers would not drop the ball so often in the first place.  Nor would there be so many poor therapists.

Meanwhile, in those wonderful cases where the witnessing shines, its deeper purpose has its first fighting chance to enter the relationship also.  The deepest benefit of consistent, favorable witnessing is that clients may eventually internalize that treatment as a way to treat themselves.  They may take the witnessing that was originally outside them in the therapist and move it inward as a new and reliable aspect of the personal self.  According to Kohut, many key advances in supporting oneself derive from this natural process of internalizing support originally provided by someone else.  I am simply bumping this idea forward to include witnessing as its most refined application.

How might you benefit from an increased ability to witness your own experience with greatly reduced or even zero reactivity at times?  What might you see about yourself and your life that otherwise eludes you whenever you react too strongly to connect the chief dots, not to mention the more subtle ones?  Might you find out more readily how you get in your own way, especially under stress?  Might you learn there are clear and consistent patterns of behavior and emotion that conspire to regular experiences of suffering in your life?  The witness comes to see these connections, offering first freedom from them based on greater awareness.  The witness gains choice by the very act of witnessing well and witnessing clearly.  Yes, you can get a witness, and thereby become one as well.

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