[Editor’s Note: I am honored and delighted to be able to write this brief introduction to a series of blogs written by a courageous Malaysian student and her journey into her own existence. The person that I’d like to introduce to you is JoAnn Loo who I met during one of my workshops in Malaysia.
Prior to our meeting, Joann had already made the challenging decision to take one year off from her work and further her studies in existential psychology by relocating to the US on her own and pursuing the Certificate Program at Existential Humanistic Institute in San Francisco (https://www.ehinstitute.org/). Psychology is a developing field here in Asia and students here hunger for knowledge from the West.
There is no established institute in Southeast Asia dedicated to the study and promotion of humanistic and existential psychology. Yet, through the translated work of Irvin Yalom, many students have been briefly exposed to existential psychology but do not know how to further their studies in this area. For many students, they simply stop at this stage of their development.
For a courageous few, this is not enough. They know that existence cannot be postponed and that if they are to grow and enter further into their own beings, they must emerge from the crowd, create their own paths and heed the responsibility for their own creation. Zheng Liren is one such individual who has undertaken this journey. He has already contributed several blogs and has taken steps to promote existential psychology to his fellow mental health professionals in Singapore (https://www.facebook.com/thepause.sg, https://thepause.sg/centre-for-existence/). JoAnn is another such individual and here is the story of her journey which is well worth reading. — Mark Yang]
It takes a lot of courage to release the familiar and seemingly secure, to embrace the new. But there is no real security in what is no longer meaningful. There is more security in the adventurous and exciting, for in movement there is life, and in change there is power. — Alan Cohen
Before leaving Malaysia to come to the Bay Area, I received this quote from a close friend of mine as parting words, of a sort. I guess she must have sensed my excitement for the new adventure ahead, mixed with the anxiety of leaving behind what most would describe as a relatively comfortable life. Although I wasn’t entirely sure what was in store for me, beyond attending the Existential-Humanistic Institute (EHI) Certification course, the move somehow felt right. It may sound a little cliché, but deep within, I could hear a voice reassuring me that everything would work out all right. Perhaps it was the voice of God, or maybe it was just the voice of my trapped inner self, waiting to be released.
Nonetheless, the decision came with many uncertainties—how long I could stay, how I would support myself, what I would learn from the course, what I could do with it thereafter, how I could maximize my learning experience, and most importantly (at that time), would it be worth the while? I could sense my constant feeling of unease from not having definite answers to any of these questions, yet still wanting to forge ahead.
It was not until I read Kirk Schneider’s The Paradoxical Self (1990/1999) that this contradiction within me finally made sense. I realized that in embarking on this journey, I was subjecting myself to the experience of both the “constriction”—from desperately wanting to hold on to who I used to be, what I believed in, and the comfort of a secured life as I know it—and the desire for “expansion”—by stepping outside my comfort zone to fully experience what it means to relate to myself (and to others), and to experience being alive again. And little did I know then that in seeking this unfamiliar path, I would learn of life’s immense possibilities, rediscover my deeper sense of self, and re-experience the awe of life.
I must admit it did not start out as such, nor was it that way all the time. I took the first step of expanding my life by leaving the comfort of home, company of loved ones and great friends, stable job, and the familiarities of life, in search of what I believed to be some meaning and purpose in my life, and in the hopes of acquiring the knowledge and skills to be an existential therapist. With my mind set on accomplishing that, I surrounded myself with an entirely new environment, new people, a new way of life and thinking, and a new way of being with myself. I guess you could say that I practically threw myself into the deep abyss and immersed in what existential-humanistic therapists would call “the work,” full time! As the saying goes, with great risk comes the possibility of great gains. But as I soon discovered, it was not without a price.
My first obstacle upon arriving was to find myself a place to call home for at least the next six months. From having my own car and living in my own apartment, to being confined to a room with just four walls and being at the mercy of public transportation wasn’t exactly easy to adjust to at the beginning. I found myself asking, “why am I subjecting myself to this?” more times than I would like to admit.
When I first arrived, I didn’t know anyone in the Bay Area (save for a friend of my sister’s). But part of me was hopeful that I would make new friends, starting with those from the EHI course at the experiential session. Unfortunately, my insecurities stopped me in my tracks. I felt really small! Granted, I was physically the smallest in the group (being the only Asian), but I could literally feel myself shrinking by the minute as I listened to each of them share their many years of experiences in psychotherapy, their understanding and knowledge about existential philosophy, and their life experiences. I felt like a fish out of water, and was struggling so hard to make my presence felt throughout the first day. All I could focus on was that I was an outsider who looked different, sounded different, and had very little knowledge to share. I really didn’t want to sound stupid in front of everyone. I felt like a failure then—that after having flew so many miles to be there, I couldn’t even bring myself to share my views, my curiosity, or most of all who I am. In a way, it felt like I was strangling myself, to quiet myself down, to stop my inner voice from having a chance to speak. I left the first experiential session feeling disappointed in myself. All I kept thinking about on my way home was “I could have done so much better!”
As much as I wished to change for the better, I struggled a great deal at the beginning with my need to remain “unchanged,” to stick to the default modes of operating that I had been so used to. These ways of being, although restrictive, made life more predictable, controllable, and manageable. And that was what I was doing—merely managing my life, not living it. It was no wonder that life had lost its meaning for me. For the first time, I could honestly say I fully appreciated and empathized with how some clients feel about wanting to change yet “couldn’t.” It was an emotional rollercoaster, being pulled back and forth between wanting to take a step forward, yet feeling the urge to stay within the boundaries I’d carved out so clearly over the years.
But in learning to be more present each day with myself and with others, whether through my interactions with the residents of AgeSong (an assisted living center in San Francisco where I volunteered), my consultations with Orah Krug, or my own struggles in individual therapy, all my ideas about who I am and how I thought I should be were slowly called into question. My perceptions about things, about people, about life, and about myself, that I used to hold strongly as “reality,” like how one should approach life, how decisions should be made, or how one should act—a simple case of black or white—began to look less and less certain. I realized that I had been relying on this way of being as a form of protection all these years, because it was comforting to assume that I had a sense of certainty, albeit perhaps a false sense, than to deal with the anxiety of not knowing. It was tempting to keep these protective measures that have allowed me to function the way that I needed to. Nonetheless, after much resistance, consciously and unconsciously, I gradually began to accept that they no longer served me. And as I began to grow more aware of my sense of self and my being, I learned to appreciate (and eventually came to embrace) that in life, there is no certainty (besides death and maybe taxes!), just possibilities.
First came the awareness and willingness, next came the shift. It was very liberating when I first became aware that my views were beginning to expand. Life was suddenly filled with possibilities as I began to experience small changes within, day by day. I became more open, in my interactions with people, my views of life possibilities, and ways of being that I’ve never been before. Words like “friendly, warm, patient, and kind,” which would have never been used to describe me before, were now what others saw in me. I was no longer just the “smart, determined, responsible” person that everyone back home knew. I also began to pay more attention to my own experience and encounters with others from moment to moment. I was no longer a slave to my reactions. Rather, I learned to take the time to pause and understand them, and choose how I wanted to respond. And I slowly began to learn to appreciate the concept of presence that we value greatly in E-H therapy.
Soon after, I began to romanticize what life could be like for me now, as part of me wanted things to change so badly. I imagined the possibility of being a great therapist and a great writer who will inspire others, of being a great friend, sister, and lover, of living in the Bay Area for good—the possibilities were just endless. I think in a way this may be what clients experience at the initial stages of therapy when they first begin to feel that they are expanding, and are hopeful that life will change for the better.
But not long thereafter, it became apparent to me that “the work” is not that easy. As I began to challenge my old ways of being, things became less clear cut to me. Decisions were not as easy to make, as I was no longer so certain about what I know but I could not fully embrace the idea of not knowing. At the same time, confusion set in as I tried to experience new ways of being while not fully letting go of my old ways. I was overwhelmed, discouraged and frustrated. I was tired, emotionally and psychologically, moving back and forth between experiencing the constriction and expansion of my being. It became apparent to me that “the work” is a lifelong learning process that requires continuous awareness and effort. I often wondered, if I were to continue along, what would be in store for me at the end of this journey?
…to be continued…
Schneider, K. (1990/1999). The paradoxical self: Toward an understanding of our contradictory nature. Amherst, NY: Humanity Books.
— JoAnn Loo
Today’s guest contributor, JoAnn Loo, is a therapist-in-training from Malaysia. Inspired by the great existentialist psychologists including Yalom, Bugental, and May, she came to the U.S. a year ago to learn the workings of existential therapy through the Existential-Humanistic Institute in San Francisco, CA, and has been consciously practicing her new-found way of being ever since.