It is not uncommon for a person in distress to decide that he would like some help with what’s ailing him: a certain malaise, a certain sort of sadness, and a certain inability or unwillingness to go on.
In his search for help, he might turn to spiritual and religious practices, to traditional psychotherapy and psychopharmacology, to filling his day with activities that he hopes will prove meaningful. Then one day he stumbles on something that has a familiar, comforting and even exciting ring to it: existential psychology. He reads about it. It sounds more like philosophy than psychology but he’s nevertheless drawn to it.
It calls you a person and not a client or a patient. That sounds promising. It acknowledges that we die. That seems relevant. It talks about anxiety, freedom, absurdity, meaninglessness, responsibility, authenticity, action, choice, and isolation. Those sound right! He begins hunting for an existential psychotherapist, only to discover how few and far between they are. But actually that makes sense! Since he has had such difficulty finding help in the past, he concludes that must mean that only a few people are in the know about what ails him. And if their numbers are few, surely they will be hard to find!
He finally finds one. The existential therapist, however, is a little disappointing, not actually talking about anxiety, freedom, isolation, or responsibility but rather about “seeking the spiritual dimension” in life. Before long, he realizes that an existential psychologist with a taste for the “spiritual dimension” does not really understand his presenting problem any better than a psychiatrist or a pastor does. Indeed, an existential psychologist with spiritual inclinations may actually be a pastor of sorts, and our sufferer sees that what this practitioner is offering him is a God/spirit based therapy that does not help.
He resumes his hunt and discovers that it is not so easy to find an existential psychotherapist without a taste for “the spiritual dimension.” This rather surprises him, as in the old days there seemed to be at least one Sartre for every Buber. But he persists and finally finds a woman who, at least according to her website copy, does not seem to hold to spiritual allegiances. He gives her a try.
Indeed, he discovers that she is happy to refrain from any “seeking” language whatsoever. She offers him a certain vision: that he become more comfortable in his own skin, that he break old patterns for the sake of kindling new passions, that he take more responsibility for the project of his life, that he learn to deal better with life’s core anxieties, that he get clearer on what he would like to accomplish and how he would like to be in the world, that he learn the difference between what he can control and what he can influence … it all makes good sense. And still! It is as if they are chatting about things that would be wonderful to chat about if his sadness and malaise were already gone.
It feels as if some cart has been put in front of some horse. This is so close to what he needs to be hearing … and yet something is missing. He can’t say what is missing and he desperately wishes that the practitioner would just include it, whatever it is! Her presentation is somehow too philosophical and not psychological enough, it offers up no vision of “what meaning is,” it says just too little about why he ought to stay motivated, why he ought to bother, why he ought to care, why he ought to do the sensible things she is proposing.
Yes, it is fine to tell him that his aim is to become clearer, freer, more aware, more reflective, and so on. But where should he focus his clearer attention, and why, exactly, should he become more aware? He is getting conclusions but not the premises that were used to arrive at those conclusions. And he is not getting the part that talks to his psychological self, the self of weird dreams and rude impulses, the self of beauty and shadows, the self that classic literature talks to but psychology rarely addresses. She calls him a person and treats him like a person but somehow not like a psychological person, like a person who knows better than the next creature how to mislead himself, defeat himself, and also sometimes make himself proud of his own efforts.
After awhile he stops seeing her. She doesn’t have quite enough to offer. It seems to him, having left her and returned to his private universe, the sadness and malaise still coldly and insistently in place, that he has probably exhausted the cadre of helpers available to him. He suspects that he is obliged to go it alone again. Then he stumbles upon someone calling himself a natural psychology specialist. If this means “natural” as in vitamins and homeopathy cures, he knows that he is not interested. But perhaps it means “natural” in some other sense? After awhile he decides that he might as well try a phone session with this person.
He calls and describes his sadness and malaise as best as he can. The natural psychology specialist listens and calmly replies, “Your feelings are natural. They spring from an absence of meaning. Since meaning is a subjective psychological experience that sometimes visits us but that is better created, you will continue to experience these feelings until you begin making meaning for yourself. You can’t get rid of sadness and malaise by looking for meaning or seeking meaning, as that only occasionally generates the experience you crave. Rather, you will be better off making your own meaning. Should I elaborate?”
“These desolate feelings are caused by the fact that we understand a lot about ourselves and a lot about the universe, and we have inadvertently extrapolated from that knowledge the belief that we do not matter and that our efforts do not matter. We have made ourselves sad and ineffectual by virtue of taking in several centuries’ worth of the deconstruction of everything. But that belief, that we do not matter and that our efforts do not matter, is a mental mistake. It is that exact mental mistake that makes us disconsolate. Once you understand that the meaninglessness you are experiencing is an artifact of wishful thinking about a universe you think ought to exist and instead accept the reality of this precise natural world, created as a result of natural forces and without the sort of purposefulness or fairness you want for it, you can get on with making meaning!
“So you will need to change your mind about what you need life to be—objectively purposeful, part of a cosmic plan, watched over by unseen eyes or guided by some unseen hand, and so on—and hold instead to a new, clear vision, that you do not need to be happy, that you do not need to move mountains, but that you do need to make yourself proud of your own efforts by engaging in what we call in natural psychology value-based meaning-making. Are you following?”
“You make yourself proud of your efforts by donning the mantle of meaning-maker and engaging in value-based meaning-making and then the sadness and malaise shrink to a manageable size. The feeling becomes a pinprick—maybe still a constant one, but only a pinprick—rather than the gaping, unmanageable, painful thing that it is now. Is that clear?”
“As to the natural in natural psychology, let me repeat what we mean. Existential psychology posits certain core issues facing human beings, issues like existential anxiety and dread, and it is strong and sensible in that regard. Natural psychology posits those same issues but reminds us that we have evolved into a certain sort of creature, and it is that creature that must deal with those issues. We are creatures without an adequate off switch for our brain, and therefore racing brain issues like mania afflict us. We are creatures with the contradictory impulses to destroy the world or save the world, often depending on nothing more than our mood. Most poignantly, we are creatures with a persistent but nevertheless still only intermittent need for the subjective psychological experience of meaning. We are very particular and specific creatures, maybe not like our distant ancestors were and maybe not like our far future descendants will be, but exactly as we are right now, and we are obliged to take that into account.
“In natural psychology we do not argue the philosophical question about whether existence precedes essence or vice versa. Rather, we assert that we are creatures who have evolved into exactly the creature that we are, with a psychological and biological creatureliness that can’t be ignored. This creature can make meaning, but only exactly and precisely as a human being can make meaning: that is, with the knowledge that it is doing the making, that it has made a decision about life, and that nothing out there is monitoring that decision, smiling or frowning about that decision, or caring about that decision. Maybe you wanted life to mean something more than that or different from that: that desire, which is the exact equivalent of a negative evaluation of life as it is, helps maintain your distress.
“And by the way, we have a vision of personality! We take you to be a member of a species that comes with a personality. We have a way of honoring the logic and reality of original personality, that genetic inheritance that includes your baseline intelligence, sadness, anxiety, and even core mindset, the intractability of your formed personality, that personality that accretes over time with its built-in loss of freedom, and all the remaining freedom of your available personality. Our model of original personality, formed personality, and available personality helps us not only better discuss your emotional distress but paints a picture that includes necessary emotional distress, the distress that arises as you engage in value-based meaning-making. And so we explain that there are varieties of emotional health, including a variety where you experience emotional distress and emotional health at the same time! That is liberating information.
“We also have tactics, strategies, and techniques to help guide your journey. We have the idea of a morning meaning check-in where you make your meaning choices for the day and organize your day around meaning investments and periods of what we call meaning neutral, portions of the day when you relax about meaning and refrain from pestering yourself about meaning. We have the idea of a life purpose vision and a life purpose icon, the personalized visual representation of your life purpose vision that can work for you as nicely as a cross works for a Christian or a Star of David works for a Jew.
“But enough about us. There’s certainly more to say. But it’s past time that we got to you!”
The session ends with our sufferer announcing what meaning investments he thinks he would like to make, what meaning opportunities he thinks he would like to seize, and what upgrades to his personality he thinks are needed if he is to pull off the feat of living a life of value-based meaning-making. He finds himself with new tasks, a new vision, and that thing that existential psychotherapists and natural psychology specialists alike believe is tremendously important, new hope. Finally, he thinks, that lovely word “authentic” has some flesh on its bones! It does not mean living in alignment with anything “out there.” It is now a simple-to-say thing: living a life of value-based meaning-making where you decide what life purposes to choose, what thoughts to think, and what next right thing to do.
For a split second he feels happy.
— Eric Maisel
Today’s guest contributor, Eric Maisel, is the author of 40+ books, writes the Rethinking Psychology blog for Psychology Today, and recently developed natural psychology: the new psychology of meaning. Visit him at https://www.ericmaisel.com or write him at [email protected]. You can learn more about natural psychology at https://www.naturalpsychology.net.
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