The paradox of identity, Part 1

This post begins with my approximation of one of my “standard raps” (talks) as a leader of psycho-educational therapy groups – my examination of the concept of identity: “We think of identity as that which is unique to us, that which characterizes us as the singular person we are, But there’s a riddle embedded in the concept. How do we know who we really are? Think of Robinson Crusoe, or Tom Hanks’ character in “Cast Away,” alone on an island for a long time. As time goes on without human contact, how can he know who he is? How can he know if he’s kind or sensitive, or if he’s kept his sense of humor? Only when he meets Friday can Robinson Crusoe begin to reconstruct an identity.

The paradox of identity is that it relies on relationships with others to define it, and doesn’t exist in a social vacuum. No one person is the absolute authority on your identity – but neither are you, because you can’t be objective about yourself. The person your intimates know you as might not always validate your Cherished Self Image. (We all have one.) I remember one of the first times I was with my divorced first wife, Doris, in the company of my then-girlfriend Maria – my wife of twenty-seven years. (We all remain close friends.) When I made some reference to myself as a laid-back person, they both laughed loud and long.

I’m not a laid-back person by nature; that was just part of my Cherished Self Image. People who know me well know that I’m an intense person, with lots of energy. That doesn’t mean I can’t ever be laid back, just that it’s not my default mode.”

In my career as a psychotherapist I came across a number of folks who were people pleasers. I was good at spotting the insecurities that go along with being a people pleaser, because I used to be one, myself. People pleasers want to be liked by everyone – even people they don’t like. Some people in therapy with me had, or developed, insight into their compulsion to please others, even at their own expense, and made it a goal of therapy to get over their “phony” people pleasing ways. The opposite of phony-ness is “authenticity,” which can be learned with attention and practice.

As a young man, just out of four years in the Army, I felt like everybody  in the psychology program knew more than me. I hadn’t developed a secure sense of who I was. I’d gotten over some bad habits of my youth, but I had a lot of self-doubt about my fitness to be a psychotherapist. What I recognized was that when I met new people – especially if I liked or respected them – I tried to come across as the person I thought they might want me to be. I sought their approval by trying to please them. I said things I didn’t really mean, and did favors it wasn’t in my heart to do. I monitored others for signs of disapproval, so I could improve my act.

I knew I couldn’t be an effective therapist unless I stopped being phony with others. Providence supplied my mentor in this process, in the form of my gestalt therapy professor. Dr. Fred Axelberd was known for a frankness in personal encounters that some saw as brutal, but he became my primary role model for being authentic. As an example: If a grad student asked him after class, “Hey, do you want to go have a beer and finish this conversation?” and he didn’t want to , he’d simply say, “No.” and walk away. No context, no explanation, no excuse. If the student felt hurt or rejected, that was on him. Fred didn’t feel like he had to justify his social decisions to others. One day Fred looked me in the eye and asked me, “You want everyone to like you, don’t you?” I couldn’t deny it, and resolved to change.

People pleasers are excessively “polite” and have to justify any “no” they might express. They say polite/phony things rather than simply expressing their wishes. “Sorry, I’d like to stay but I can’t. I’ve got to ______.” Recognizing my own need to seek approval from everyone, I set about emulating Fred and not making excuses for my decisions about what I wanted to do with whom, when. It’s a cognitive behavioral therapy technique called “exposure,” where you confront your fear of drowning by getting in the water. I taught myself over time that if I said or did something authentic, and someone didn’t like me or disapproved as a result, it wasn’t the end of the world. I could survive someone’s disapproval.

Fred Axelberd’s “Gestalt Man” course provided fertile ground for my personal growth, as well as experiences that trained me to do therapy in the gestalt mode. One of the course requirements was being videotaped in front of the class, both as the client in a gestalt session, and as the therapist. I spent time in what gestalt therapists call “the hot seat,” and got a taste of the vulnerability that psychotherapy clients can feel. After each session, we’d all watch the videotape, which could be stopped at any point if Fred or a classmate had an observation or suggestion. It felt like being examined naked in public, but I learned a lot about myself in the process. There’ll be more about identity – and gestalt therapy – in my next post.









The virtues of ignorance

The 2014 film “Birdman” was subtitled “The Unexpected Virtues of Ignorance.” I have my own thoughts on that topic, but first I’ll  deal with the more obvious downside. Ignorance might be bliss for some, but it tends to lead to bad judgment and errors. There is individual ignorance and group, or shared, ignorance. In the political arena, ignorance on the part of voters or legislators leads to bad governance. Propagandists know that perception frequently trumps facts, and often cultivate public ignorance in service of their employers. The anticipated result of a successful propaganda campaign is orchestrated ignorance on a mass scale.

A general principle that I learned in grad school lodged itself in my brain and has helped me to think critcally ever since: “Beware the mono-factorial hypothesis” The mono-factorial hypothesis says that A causes B, ignoring other possible factors in tho equation.  On a graph this is a straight line correlation: for every additional unit on the X-axis, there is a corresponding movement on the Y-axis. Connect the dots and you get a straight line.

The mono-factorial hypothesis provides simple answers to complex questions. “He beats his kids because his daddy used to beat him.” If childhood abuse caused people to abuse their own children in adulthood, then everyone who was ever abused would go on to be an abuser. Not settling for a simple, mono-factorial explanation leads one to look for other factors and generate multi-factorial explanations. For instance, what are the other factors that explain why not all abused children go on to be abusive parents?

This may seem elementary, but in my years of clinical practice, I often saw people who were locked into mono-factorial explanations, such as, “He wouldn’t be an addict if he hadn’t stopped going to church.” Or, “Women are all alike.” Or, “Men can’t be trusted.” Such simplistic thinking also leads to Good Guy/Bad Guy thinking in relationships, as well as other over-simplifications of complex issues and situations.

In therapy groups, my “standard rap” (talk) on the virtues of ignorance went something like this. “I can’t take any credit for my intelligence; it comes from inherited genes. But I’m a pretty smart person who was lucky enough to get a good education and to earn a graduate degree. I read a lot and I know a lot about a lot of things. BUT, no matter how much I know, my knowledge will always be finite. It will always have boundaries, limits, shortfalls. No matter how much I learn, there’s no way to keep up with the explosion of knowledge. My ignorance, on the other hand, is VAST, limitless. It goes on and on. That applies to you, too. Knowing this, and living with a humbling awareness of all that you DON’T know is, I think, the beginning of wisdom.

Some of the worst mistakes are made when people think they know something that they really don’t. By paying close attention to your knowledge and beliefs, and trying to distinguish what you’re sure you know from what you think you know and what you have to admit you don’t know, you can avoid many mistakes. Keeping this mind-set has saved me from a lot of foolish decisions, based on thinking I knew something I really didn’t.” Since I often tried to inject some philosophy lessons into my group presentations, at this point I’d introduce the groups members to epistemology, the branch of philosophy that examines how we know what we know.

It’s not just our knowledge and beliefs that guide our decisions and our behavior, it’s also clusters of beliefs, called schemas: “this is what marriage is like,” or “this is what manhood/womanhood is about,” or “this is what I have to do to make it in this world.” Our personal schemas are learned from our families, religions and cultures. A man with a male-dominant schema for marriage (like the family he grew up in) is going to have a hard time if the woman he wants  to marry has an “equal partners” marriage schema. Some schemas are functional, and tend to promote love and harmony, while others are dysfunctional, and tend to promote hatred and disharmony – even violence.  The latter often stem from mono-factorial hypotheses and from the mistaking of beliefs for facts.

First blog post

You don’t have to be sick to get better


My psychology graduate program at West Georgia College (now the University of West Georgia) was the only program in the Southeast, in the grad school catalogs I studied, to promote itself as a “humanistic psychology” program. For a while humanistic psychology was anathema to many fundamentalist Christians, some of whom saw it as having Satanic origins and goals. All I’ll say about that is that there was nothing in the humanistic psychology movement that was dissonant with the Christian values I was raised with, and some of my classmates were Christians.

Humanistic psychology was practically synonymous with the “human potential movement” in psychology, and was referred to as the Third Force in psychology – the first being Freudian psychodynamic theory and the second being Behaviorism. It was an umbrella term for new theories and therapies that didn’t fit neatly into either psychodynamic or behavioral theory or practice, and wasn’t grounded in remediation of psychopathology. Many or most humanistic psychologists were interested in psychologically healthy persons, as well as therapies that didn’t rely on psychodynamic interpretations or behavior modification techniques.

Among the theories and therapies in the movement were Carl Rogers’ client-centered therapy, gestalt theory and therapy, Transactional Analysis, William Glasser’s Reality Therapy, as well as various movement therapies (Feldenkreis, Alexander Technique, structural integration), encounter groups, systems theory, Eriksonian hypnosis, and neuro-linguistic programming. I’ll have more to say about some of these theories and therapies in later posts. It was an exciting time to study psychotherapy, and I couldn’t have chosen a better Masters program to prepare me for my career.

Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” was an important part of the foundation of the human potential movement. Like all models it has its flaws, but it’s a model that explains how potentials for growth are limited by identifiable life circumstances. It isn’t grounded in psychopathology; everyone can be located somewhere in the model. Maslow described a universal hierarchy of needs, generally depicted as a pyramid. The most basic human needs are physiological, such as the need for air, food, water and shelter. According to Maslow, if these basic survival needs aren’t being met, you stay stuck in survival mode and can’t grow, or meet higher-level goals. Once these needs are met, you have the potential to grow.

Next up on the pyramid are safety needs. If you aren’t safe or secure in your life, you have to devote your efforts to security issues before you can move on and try to live up to your potentials. The third level of needs according to Maslow is social needs – healthy relating with family and friends. Our relationships are an integral part of who we are, and without them we’re incomplete. Maslow suggested that once we’ve met our essential needs up to this level, we can work on esteem needs: self-esteem, confidence, competence and achievement. Those who’ve reached this level in meeting their hierarchal needs have the potential to rise to the highest level: self-actualization.

Self-actualization is a process, not a goal. People who have their physiological, safety, social and esteem needs adequately met can devote their energies to personal growth – which may involve helping others and/or developing new competencies. Self-actualizing people can be authentic and spontaneous in relationships, and can follow their creative impulses, doing what they most want to do to the best of their ability. Of course life circumstances and obligations can limit what self-actualizing people are able to accomplish in terms of self-expression and achievement, but they can continue to grow and learn until they either lose their capacities or die.

Just because you’re grown up doesn’t mean you have to stop growing. Growth can be a life-long process if you cultivate the garden of your unique life. My next few posts will be about factors – including thoughts and beliefs – that can either facilitate or impede personal growth.