My psychology grad school reunion

I’ve already written about humanistic psychology as the “third force” in twentieth century psychology, after Freudian psychodynamic theory and behaviorism. I recently attended a reunion of my psychology graduate program at the University of West Georgia (West Georgia College when I attended), and I’d like to share with you some of the reasons I’m so thankful for my preparation as a psychotherapist in this particular program.

Dr. Chris Aanstoos, a faculty member for over two decades, wrote that the graduates of the program have gone on to be “not only psychologists and professors, but also city commissioners, college presidents, U.S. congressmen, computer wizards and millionaires, as well as poets, magicians, mystics, theologians and farmers. Essentially they have gone on to become themselves.” To which list I’ll add corporate consultants, business entrepreneurs, and all sorts of holistic healers.

Part of the lyric of the Crosby, Stills, and Nash song Teach Your Children is “. . . and so become yourself/ because the past is just a goodbye.” Their are forces in our society that conspire to make us conform, to be “normal.” Becoming your authentic self and living up to your unique potentials was what the West Georgia psychology department was all about. The program wasn’t organized so much to train you for a specific profession as to help you discover and realize your potentials, and to find your vocation – your calling. Since the inception of the humanistic program in 1967, it’s always been a program freed from the conventional stereotypes of the day, and in it I learned that no scientific or therapeutic model has all the answers for everybody. I learned about holistic health long before it caught on.

The WG psychology program is characterized by cultural diversity (i.e. both Eastern and Western psychologies) and innovation, and was ahead of its time in many respects. Carl Rogers’ client-centered therapy is being re-discovered in the corporate world as person-centered management. Yoga and meditation were validated as ancient transformative psychotechnologies – ways of re-wiring the brain – long before they went mainstream. There was an emphasis on wellness, and the holistic unity of body and mind.

While I received an excellent preparation for a career as a psychotherapist dealing with (for the most part) chronically mentally ill persons, psychopathology wasn’t the primary focus. We also studied creativity, and barriers to achieving one’s highest potentials. We questioned the notion of “adjustment therapy,” asking, “adjustment to what?” (See my prior post, “Who is normal?”) Behavioral psychology was the dominant force in psychology at that time, and the medical model was the unquestioned basis for determining diagnosis and treatment.

No faculty member ever told me what model I should follow or recommended which therapeutic techniques I should use. Although behavioral psychology wasn’t popular in the program, over the years I became a practitioner of cognitive and cognitive behavioral therapies, along with Rogerian,  gestalt, and other therapeutic modalities. My faculty advisor never advised me; he dialogued with me about goals, choices, opportunities. My love of learning caught fire as never before, because I was encouraged to think for myself and choose my own path.

The man who made the WGC psychology department into a humanistic program was Dr. Mike Aarons, and at the reunion I finally heard the full story that I’d heard pieces of over the years. As a child in public school, he was labeled “unteachable/retarded,” and wasn’t expected to be able to complete high school. But he earned a high school diploma and went on to college. Working as a cab driver, he found a book someone had left on the back seat of his taxi. It was Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and it changed his life. (See my post, “Freedom of attitude.”) It introduced him to existentialist  psychology, and he found a French mentor in existentialism who encouraged him to apply to the psychology PhD program at the Sorbonne University, in Paris. Mike had no bankroll and spoke no French, but that didn’t stop him. Long story short, he returned from Paris a few years later with a French wife and a PhD from the Sorbonne. His dissertation was on the topic of creativity. He went on to post-graduate studies with Abraham Maslow, at Brandeis University.

Dr. Jim Thomas, a behaviorist in the WG psychology department, had read Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, and had a vision of  establishing a humanistic program in the department. He won over some of the other faculty members, then wrote Maslow, asking if he could recommend someone to start a humanistic psychology program. To everyone’s surprise, Maslow answered, recommending Mike Aarons without  reservation.  Mike was hired and set about recruiting a faculty on the cutting edge of the humanistic psychology revolution. The rest is history.

Not only has the UWG psychology department continued to offer an exceptional education in psychology, it has continued to grow. While a Master of Arts (MA) degree remains the only masters degree available for now, the department now offers a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree program. What used to be a Doctor of Psychology (PsyD) degree program is now a PhD program.

The department has drawn students from all over the country – as well as many international students – to the Georgia town of Carrollton. The question I heard most often at the reunion was “What brought you to the program?” I heard story after story about so-called coincidences, “accidental” meetings, and things (usually books) found – like Mike Aarons finding the copy of Man’s Search for Meaning – that pointed people in the direction of the program. What I also heard a lot over the weekend was expressions of gratitude by alumni for having had the good fortune to study in this unique psychology department.

Freedom of attitude

Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning is one of the most important books I’ve ever read. I’ve recommended it, as “bibliotherapy,” to clients in my clinical practice more than any other book, by far. I recommend it too you as a book of useful philosophy. Its conclusions resonate with cognitive therapy, Buddhism and the Serenity Prayer.

Dr. Viktor Frankl was an Austrian psychotherapist and a survivor of a Nazi death camp. The first part of the book isn’t an easy read, as it recounts the hellish circumstances of daily life in a death camp and the heartbreaking choices people were sometimes forced to make. Frankl had studied to be a doctor before he and his wife were arrested for the crime of being Jewish, and sent by train to separate death camps. He never saw her again.

In his book he separates his fellow prisoners into two categories: those who continued to fight for survival, and those who lost the will to live. There were many ways to die in a death camp. Just refusing an order from a brutal guard could get you beaten to death. Giving away your bread to others would hasten death by starvation. Some chose death over life in Hell.

A philosopher by nature, Frankl sought to determine what made the difference for those who fought to live, rather than surrendering to circumstance. His conclusion was that those who lost the will to live were those who could no longer find meaning in their suffering. Frankl found meaning in hope for survival and of possible reunion with his wife. His love for her was alive, as well as his hope. He knew he had something to live for, even if he couldn’t specify what it was, even if there were no guarantees.

Viktor Frankl asserted that we have a choice that nobody can take away from us, regardless of our circumstances. We are always free to choose our attitude toward whatever situation we find ourselves in. If I’d heard this from someone else I might not have given it much weight, but I learned it from Viktor Frankl. I’m unlikely to ever find myself in a situation nearly as dire as what Frankl lived through. If he could apply this wisdom in a Nazi death camp, surely I can apply it to any circumstance I find myself in.

Any fortunate circumstance can be sullied by a negative attitude, and any unfortunate circumstance will inevitably be made worse by negative thinking and expectations. A positive attitude, on the other hand, can make good situations even better, and a positive attitude opens the possibility that an otherwise intolerable situation can be made bearable. We find – or create – the meaning of our life circumstances by our choice of attitude. A negative attitude cannot improve anything.

Frankl called his approach to psychotherapy “logotherapy,” from the Greek word for meaning. In his professional practice, he tried to help his patients discover or create meanings that helped them in their struggles. Exercising your freedom of attitude allows you to re-frame your experience. What does it mean? Are you suffering because that’s what you deserve? Or is your suffering a test, an ordeal from which you can emerge, a better person? Nobody can decide the meaning of your life experiences but you.