Monthly Archives: April 2017

Love and Other Emotions: Reflections from the Novel The Girlfriend Project (Originally Published on the New Existentialist Blog)

This review was originally published in the New Existentialist Blog: https://www.saybrook.edu/newexistentialists/posts/07-22-14/. It is reposted here in its entirety. 

The Girlfriend Project (2014) by Jason Dias is not your typical novel about love. Although it could be considered a romantic novel given that its focus is a love story, the plot is more existential in nature. Embedded in this unlikely love story is an exploration of the nature of love and other emotions. And love takes center stage.

Ernest has been diagnosed with Asperger’s disorder and appears to accept this diagnosis as it explains many of his life challenges. Emotions, especially love, befuddle him. His recognition of emotions is not through the usual subjective process, but instead through a rather detached, somewhat objective analysis of his behavior. From his wife and his therapist, he learns to identify many emotions even if he does not emotionally identify with them.

At the beginning of the novel, Ernest characterizes himself as rather dependent upon his wife, who dies early in the novel. Because of his wife’s encouragement from before her death, he agrees to enter therapy after she dies. He does so and finds a therapist that appears to be a pretty good match.

Upon encouragement from this new therapist, he begins considering dating. However, Ernest clearly does not have much confidence or know-how in the dating department. He hires Jenny, a down-on-her-luck waitress to be his girlfriend. Jenny is attractive and socially more skilled, but also has struggled in her own pursuits of love. Out of desperation from her current financial and life predicaments, she agrees. From this very unusual situation, the love story begins.

Ernest and Jenny’s relationship traverses several unexpected twists that lead Ernest into an exploration of his childhood and his relationship with his wife. Meanwhile, Jenny has a dramatic encounter with a previous lover, which introduces an element of action to the novel. With these elements, Dias is able to keep the reader engaged at more than just the psychological level.

What is Love?
The exploration of the meaning of love has almost become cliché. Yet, this question is so essential or our very existence that it does not wear old as with many clichés—at least not when explored with sufficient psychological depth, as Dias does. But Dias adds an interesting twist: How do we understand, know, and experience love without the typical emotional understanding that most people rely upon.

Dias begins his exploration of love by taking away the most common guide to recognizing it: our subjective emotional experience. He also calls into question the many overly simplistic answers often offered by the cynics. Dias, through Ernest, recognizes that there is something important in love, even if the particular lesson eludes him. Although Ernest seems resigned that he will never know or understand love, he continues in the pursuit, even if not recognizing that it is love he is pursuing.

The description of the book says that it is an answer to Camus’s The Stranger. In a similar way to how Camus encourages the reader to examine what it means to be human, Dias lures the reader into examining what it is that they consider love. In the end, Ernest still may not understand love, but he has become convinced that it exists.

Conclusion
Many existential writers, at the end of their pursuit of meaning, seem to end up with answers in the genre of love, compassion, and relationship. Rarely, however, are the answers clear. Indeed, love may never be clear. It is at once the most compelling and elusive of the emotions. Dias, as a good existentialist, does not pretend to have solved the problem of love. He does, however, provide us with some important paths to explore in its pursuits. He also leaves us with the belief that love, even if we cannot fully comprehend what it is, is well worth pursing.

This is a novel well worth the time for those interested in existential psychology. Or even those just interested in examining the nature of love.

— Louis Hoffman

Read more New Existentialist Blogs by Louis Hoffman

The Proper Use of Tradition and Scholarly Authority (Originally a New Existentialists Blog)

This post was originally a New Existentialist Blog by Louis Hoffman, PhD. It is reposted here in its entirety from: https://www.saybrook.edu/newexistentialists/posts/07-01-14/.

Quick to kindle, quick to calm down, an even quick to grow decadent, men of letters [i.e., a type of scholar] can always find reasons and precedents from the classics to justify their shifts of allegiance. (Lu Xun, 1931/2003)

One repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil. (Nietzsche, 1892/1966)

The impulse in contemporary times, and really through all of history, is to either vilify or idealize history, tradition, and the scholars of old. We see this in our classroom, our political debates, our movies, and our books and journals. Yet, whether the impulse is to vilify or glorify, such simplistic ways of engaging tradition and history are problematic and potentially destructive.

I have long appreciated the approach of Lu Xun, an influential Chinese literary figure of the early to mid 20th century, in regard to this issue. However, as I have been working through a four-volume collection of his works, this appreciation has deepened. Lu Xun was known as a powerful critic of the cultural problems of China during his life, but this really only touches the surface of Lu Xun’s thought and work.

Lu Xun (1931/2003) wrote, “The sole hope of development for our literature lies in understanding the old and seeing the new, in comprehending the past and deducing the future” (pp. 138-139). Similarly, he was highly critical of those who were critical or defensive of tradition without understanding its history. Before we can critique any period and any scholarship or tradition from the beginning of recorded history through contemporary times, we must first seek to understand. This, too often, is missing. We are quick to debate and assert a correct position, slow to ask questions and seek to understand. And even our questions, when they are asked, are really just trickery, pretending to seek understanding while seeking to find a weakness in the position of the other. Such processes serve no constructive purposes; they only tear down and reinforce what we believe we know to be truth.

The Use of Idols

All those from ancient times till now who hold no definitive views and have no guiding principle for the changes they advocate, but make use of the arguments of different schools, deserve to be called hooligans. Take a Shanghai hooligan. If he sees a man and a woman from the country walking together, he calls out, “Hey! You’re immoral—you’ve broken the law!” Here he uses Chinese law. If a peasant makes water by the roadside he shouts, “Hey! That’s not allowed. You’ve broken the law, and deserve to be locked up!” Here he is using foreign law. But in the end the law can go by the board—if you grease his palm he will let the matter drop. (Lu Xun, 1931/2003, pp. 134-135)

I grew up in a conservative religious environment, and my early studies of psychology, philosophy, and theology began in this context. From early on, I learned the law well. Yet, I also quickly became troubled by it. I remember watching it being used to harm others and justify oneself, which to me seemed inconsistent with the deeper messages of grace. It seemed there were many ways to condemn, but few routes to understanding and forgiveness. While I believe hypocrisy to be a given for all people, as no human being can live up to what they profess or even develop a complete and coherent belief system, this hypocrisy for me was too great. It was not so much the hypocrisy, but the way the hypocrisy was used and the hurt it caused.

Yet, I’ve seen these patterns recreated in each new spiritual and intellectual home that I have found, even my beloved existential and humanistic psychology. In my own approach to existential psychology, I see love, compassion, and relationship as essential foundations. Yet, too often, I have seen “humanistic” and “existential” used as a weapon. Most often, this occurs when certain important figures in the history of our movement become elevated to the level of becoming idols. I have seen this occur with Heidegger, Rollo May, James Bugental, and other leaders in our field. I have seen our students and early career professionals fearful to present or even speak up at conferences because they fear they will be harshly criticized for not having the orthodox interpretation of one of these figures.

This is a tragedy worthy of one of Nietzsche’s tirades. We dishonor those early influential thinkers in our movement when we turn them into idols. We distort the message they were bringing to us and the message they lived in their lives. I believe (and hope) that if these figures were around today that their harshest critiques would be of the way we over-revere their contributions. We love and honor our heroes when we recognize their humanity. To be revered as an idol or infallible scholar is much less of an honor than to be revered as a human who within all the limitations of being human rose to contribute a unique voice and make an important, though imperfect, contribution worthy of a lasting influence on the history of humankind. When we look closely, the heroes of existential and humanistic psychology certainly were “human, all too human.”

Conclusion
I have long found it interesting that many outside of existential and humanistic psychology view them as outdated and label them as “dead theories” because they believe they have not changed since their inception. Too often, there is some truth to this; we often use historical ideas and figures as the measure or standard of truth. Yet, arguably more than any other major school of psychology, such a belief or process contradicts our theory.

Our history, tradition, and influential early voices are an essential foundation to the contemporary humanistic and existential psychology movement. Yet, if we treat them like idols or view their ideas as beyond reproach, they become our greatest and most powerful adversary. Even our good values hold the potential of evil when we become bound to them and cling to them so closely that we can no longer properly see them.

Lu Xun is a good model for us. Although he is known more for his critiquing of the culture and ideas of his time, a closer reading shows that he greatly values history and tradition. He honored and revered his culture and the people of China. Yet, he was very critical when people became bound to their ideas. There must be balance. We must revere, but not over-revere; we must honor, but not create idols; we must critique, but not destroy; we must preserve, but not stagnate. This honors history and tradition. Yet, many who seek to preserve tradition destroy it by holding on too tightly. We must let our history be freer than this.

References
Lu Xun (2003). A glance at Shanghai literature. In Y. Xianyia & G. Yang, Ed. & Trans.), Lu Xun: Selected works (Vol. 3; pp. 127-141). Beijing, China: Foreign Language Press.

Nietzsche, F. (1966). Thus spoke Zarathustra: A work for none and all (W. Kaufmann, Trans.). New York, NY: Penguin. (Original work published in 1892)

— Louis Hoffman

Read more New Existentialist Blogs by Louis Hoffman

Finding Oneself and Creating Oneself: Implications of the Psychotherapy Folklore

This post was original a New Existentialists blog by Dr. Louis Hoffman posted at https://www.saybrook.edu/newexistentialists/posts/10-01-14/. It is reposted here in its entirety.

“Perhaps, as we say in America, I wanted to find myself. This is an interesting phrase, not current as far as I know in the language of any other people, which certainly does not mean what it says but betrays a nagging suspicion that something has been misplaced.” –James Baldwin (Giovanni’s Room, 1956/1984)

“I am going to therapy [or on a spiritual quest] to find myself.” Phrases of this sort are common in the folklore and history of psychotherapy, particularly humanistic, existential, and other depth psychotherapies. I have even heard many therapists say this is a good reason for entering therapy as well as others who use the idea of “finding oneself” as a way of distinguishing depth psychotherapy from the solution-focused therapies. While the idea of going to therapy to find oneself may not be as popular as it was in the 60s and 70s, this idea continues through contemporary times. Given it is sometimes associated with existential and humanistic psychology, it is good to consider its implications.

The Meaning of “Finding Oneself”
The idea of trying to find oneself suggests that there is some essential self that lies outside of one’s awareness or, at the very least, some essential nature that one is trying to discover. I consider both options below.

Finding One’s Essential Self
The essential self in this context is a typically an idealized self that, by the very idealization, remains elusive if not a burden through serving as a constant reminder of one’s inability to measure up to this ideal. Yet, the vision of the search and journey toward finding oneself is often highly romanticized. Once this self is found, it is assumed that peace and happiness will come with it.

If considered in the context of humanistic psychology, it is often purported that the self is essentially good. Some humanistic perspectives can contribute to this idealization; however, this tends more common with “pop psychology” versions of humanistic psychology (see Hoffman & Rubin, 2013). Existential psychology tends to place more of an emphasis upon the paradoxical nature of being human, including the potential for good as well as the potential for evil (Hoffman, Lopez, & Moats, 2013). This suggests that any self would likely be different from the idealized self that may initiate or inspire the search.

Deeper issues lie in the assumption that there is some essential self to be found. At quick glance, it may seem that much of existential and humanistic psychology is based upon the idea of an essential self. After all, we often talk about the idea of authenticity, which is sometimes conceived of being connected to an essential self. Sometimes we talk of soul, and soul is frequently conceived of as that essential self, though not necessarily so. The soul, in particular, can be conceived as an essential self that may go beyond the bounds of biology in some spiritual, religious, and/or transpersonal perspectives.

The self, and whether there is an essential self, also has important religious, spiritual, and cultural implications. Hoffman, Stewart, Warren, and Meek (2014) maintain that the idea of the self is socially constructed with different constructions in different theories, religions, and cultures. We refer to different “myths of self” to reflect these different conceptions and maintain that there is no one understanding of the self that is “healthiest” for all people. While the nature of the self and existence of an essential self may long be debated by philosophers, theologians, and psychologists, in the more practical, lived experience, different understandings of the self have a place.

Hoffman and colleagues (2014) further suggest that there can be problems with imposing a view of the self upon people. For example, it can be very problematic and counterproductive from a mental health perspective to impose a Western conception of the self upon someone from an Eastern culture, particularly individuals holding certain spiritual perspectives about the self.

Although it may be prudent to be cautious about imposing a particular view of self, it may at the same time be wise to be skeptical about seeking an essential self. As a therapist, I have had clients begin therapy saying that they want to find themselves. When this occurs, I believe it is important for me to be upfront with them in saying that I am not sure that this is a realistic therapy goal. Even if such a self exists, I am not sure it can be found. Furthermore, I worry that seeking an essential self that is believed to innately exist can, at times, work against a client’s agency and taking responsibility for themselves and who they become.

When clients present with the desire to find oneself, I will say that I do believe gaining a better understanding of oneself is important and something for which I can offer help. I also will typically add that I believe that there are aspects of oneself that can be changed or are under the influence of the individual. It is not necessary that the client and I agree about the nature or definition of the self or engage in a philosophical discussion about this; however, I think it is important that we be honest in our conversations relevant to this topic, especially if it is connected to their reason for entering therapy. At times, if beliefs are held rigidly enough, it may signify that we are not a good fit to work together. However, I find most of the time that there are ways we can work together while honoring these differences.

Finding One’s Nature
Seeking to discover one’s nature is different than seeking an essential self. It is not searching for something as specific. Instead, it could be conceived as seeking an understanding of the human condition as well as how one personally relates to or situates oneself in connection with the human condition. This weaves together the social and personal with the nature of being human. I believe this is part of what Baldwin is getting at when he states in the quote from the beginning of this article that finding oneself, “does not mean what it says but betrays a nagging suspicion that something has been misplaced.” This suggests that there is something missing in one’s awareness or experience that is being sought rather than seeking the discovery of some essential self.

Existential and humanistic psychology both tend to purport that human nature is connected to potential and an innate growth orientation. In other words, there is something good in human nature. However, existential in particular as well as many humanistic viewpoints also acknowledge that there is innate limitation (i.e., finiteness) that is part of being human, or even the potential for destructiveness and/or evil. Awareness of both potentials can be understood as an important aspect of living in the fullness of responsibility (Hoffman et al., 2013).

The search to find how one is situated in connection to their human nature is a journey that most likely does not have a definitive destination. Yet, the search can still be valuable, and maybe more valuable, if one recognizes that one may never reach the end, or, if one does, they may not realize it.

Creating Oneself
An existential perspective is better represented as a dual process of seeking self-understanding or self-awareness and creating oneself. This is part of what Rollo May (1981) was pointing toward with his conception of freedom and destiny. There are aspects of what it means to be human (i.e., human nature) and what it means to be oneself (our personal nature, including our genes, our family, our culture, etc.) that cannot be controlled. These comprise our destiny that we cannot choose. However, we are also free. May believed that even if our freedom was minuscule in comparison to our destiny, it still makes things quite interesting. In this conception, finding oneself is also, at least to some degree, creating oneself. No matter how small the creating aspect may be, it is the one for which we have the most responsibility and the one that makes the journey to “finding” oneself the most interesting. May’s conception could be integrated with the idea of myths of self. This would suggest that there are many different conceptions of the self that can be considered valid or healthy; however, within each of them there is some degree of freedom and destiny.

Summary
The idea of “finding oneself” has a long and complicated history in psychotherapy. It is a process often misunderstood, and it may even misrepresent what psychotherapy is about. This is particularly true within an existential and humanistic paradigm. Yet, the self-discovery process, especially when combined with the recognition that we also play a role in creating who we are to become, is an exhilarating and valuable journey.

References
Baldwin, J. (1984). Giovanni’s room. New York, NY: Vintage. (Original work published in 1956)

Hoffman, L., Lopez, A., & Moats, M. (2013). Humanistic psychology and self-acceptance. In M. Bernard (Ed.), The strength of self-acceptance: Theory, research, and practice (pp. 3-17). New York: NY: Springer.

Hoffman, L. & Rubin, S. (2013, December 25). Rediscovering humanistic psychology: Understanding its complicated history. [Review of Encountering America: Humanistic psychology, sixties culture, & the shaping of the modern self]. PsycCRITIQUES-Contemporary Psychology: APA Review of Books, 58(no. 50). doi 10.1037/a0034938.

Hoffman, L., Stewart, S., Warren, D., & Meek, L. (2014). Toward a sustainable myth of self: An existential response to the postmodern condition. In K. J. Schneider, J. F. Pierson & J. F. T. Bugental (Eds.), The handbook of humanistic psychology: Theory, research, and practice (2nd edition; pp. 105-133). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

May, R. (1981). Freedom and destiny. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

— Louis Hoffman

Read more stories by Louis Hoffman on the New Existentialist Blog