The False Paradigm
Revisiting the Domains of Existential coaching and Psychotherapy*
Part one: Introduction – My journey towards Existential Coaching Psychology
During my many years of practice as a clinical psychologist I participated in innumerable workshops, lectures and seminars in psychoanalysis, psycho-dynamic theories and different forms of psychotherapy. I became aware of few remarkable facts:
We often come across many theories of brilliant scientist/practitioners describing in captivating concepts, paved by many insights some basic facts about events and experiences in human development and their influence upon the grown up person. All these theories assume that the assimilation of those early experiences highly influence human kinesthetic and emotional behaviors, and the human conscious and unconscious mind.
- Those theories are sustained by the experiences of the therapist and a qualitative analysis of case studies of his clients. Yet, no therapist could justify a claim that his own analysis, be it Jungian, Freudian or Kohutian is more valid than the other ones. Notwithstanding this, each psychologist continues to adhere to his own main theory which is in fact his own professional and personal conviction.
- I do not claim that the prevailing theories are not convincing, bright, insightful and valid. What I claim is known to every psychologist: those theories are not just heuristic theories that develop the scientific knowledge as we notice in other disciplines. Those theories are the main instrument of change in different forms of psychotherapy, be it Winnicottian, Kohutian or Bionian approach.
- My second claim is that theory formation as the main instrument for change in psychotherapy is the heritage of the Freudian tradition described as hermaneutics – the interpretation of texts and the textual interpretation of events.
- This approach originated in the positivist tradition that prevailed at the beginning of the 20th century and posited the supremacy of the logical-scientific principle in understanding reality. In a longer distance this principle is deeply rooted at the age of enlightenment of the 18th century and its avatars through the 19th century up to the beginning of the 20thcentury.
- The enlightenment ideal posited that science and knowledge would redeem humanity from its unfortunate ignorance. The famous Freudian aphorism concerning the practical goal of psychoanalysis: “conscious thinking will be where there was the unconscious” was the expression of the positivist ideal in psychoanalysis and in modern psychotherapy.
- The idea of enlightenment that inspired Freud’s thinking, and the concept of logical positivism, belonging to the late modern era, are no longer considered valid today. Today, in the post-modern era, we do not take it for granted that revealing “the truth” would make a revolutionary change in the client’s mind. Notwithstanding this, for many therapists the hermeneutic principle is still central in their practice. One reason for that is that explaining is the default choice for experts. As knowledgeable experts of psychotherapy our default choice is to interpret, to explain the unknown.
- It should be noted here that what is at stake is not the validity of the hermeneutic methodology. Personally I often realized from my practice the effectiveness of the hermeneutic principle and I am personally often inspired by the insightful psychodynamic theories. Notwithstanding this as a scientist/practitioner my purpose and destination is to heal my clients or to coach them to self-actualization in the optimal way, the way that provides the maximal ROI. Being affiliated with a dominant theory and using almost exclusively the hermeneutic methodology is counter-productive to the development of psychotherapy and coaching.
- My fellow-psychologists (and other academically trained helping professionals) know more than something about scientific methodology. They know that their theoretical affiliation and convictions are only one way to see what happens among other different approaches. They also know that the hermeneutic approach generates the desired change in the client but is not the optimal way to do so nowadays.
- “Why are you not trying to examine your conceptions according to the methodologies and principles of self-criticism and objective research that you learned in your academic studies ?” I often asked my colleagues but never received a satisfying answer. Until one day a distinguished colleague answered me at a moment of sincerity: “We stick to these theories because we fall in love. We love these theories with which we were professionally brought up and we are loyal to our teachers-supervisors, the agents of these theories, that so much invested in our instruction to become good therapists”.
- This was the end of my journey in the land of “conventional” psychotherapy and the beginning of a new way where I started to look for the “ground zero” from which the demand of the client for change begins. Ground zero for any demand for change in psychotherapy or coaching is the existential human condition.
- Whenever we suffer from anxiety or from a low self-esteem, or we experience meaninglessness in our lives or maybe we are aspiring for self-actualization we come to the psychotherapist or the coach. In all these situations we are human beings subjugated to physical, biological laws, as much as to psychological and cultural constraints. We live in this universe, in our country, in our culture and within ourselves as human beings.
- We are subjugated to the laws of the universe to the cultural paradigms that molded out mind and to the formative experiences in our lives. At the same time we may struggle occasionally against these laws and can change some of them creating changes in our environment and in ourselves. The existential human condition in which we live could be studied scientifically through an interdisciplinary perspective.
- Existentialism is much more than a philosophical inquiry. Unlike other philosophical conceptions it has been a philosophy based upon the human existence, the human condition and human Life experiencing. Existential therapy and coaching psychology deal with the human value system, with authentic identity, with meaningfulness in human life.
- While traditional existentialism was considered as a sort of “practical philosophy” it seems that the study of the human value systems, of authentic identity of the self, and the formation of meaningfulness in human life has relevance to culture studies, evolutionary science, developmental psychology and ethological research. The study of the self as a non-linear complex self- organizing system could be enriched by the study of systems theories and neuroscience. This is our starting point to suggest that Existential Coaching Psychology should develop as a multidisciplinary field.
- Coaches can identify the implications of this approach in practice; e.g. coaches notice how the self acts as a self-organizing complex adaptive system. This could be noticed while the coachee’s behavior is often unpredictable yet it contains a major adaptive trait. When a new insight breaks forth or a new attitude becomes assimilated into the existing mental/behavioral paradigms and modifies the existing paradigm. The self organizing function may be considered as resonance of the auto-organizing complex adaptive system activity of the human brain.
Part two: The False Paradigm
- Existentialism has been an extraordinary philosophical outlook that dominated western culture at the second half of the 20th century in the fields of art, theatre. Psychotherapy, literature and social and political activism. Unlike other philosophical theories it has been a philosophy based upon the human existence, the human condition and human Life experiencing, rather than merely on philosophical conceptualizations.
- Existentialism is about the most fundamental issues of the human existence (hence its name) which were elsewhere tagged as “The Big Five”: Freedom, Meaning, Identity, Lonliness, and Death. To this I may add, responsibility, accountability, authenticity, decisive determination centring on the human value system and more intrinsic human attributes. 19. In this blog we discuss the phenomenal rise and decline of existentialism during the 20th century to these days, its repercussions on psychotherapy and its great promise for the 21st century in the form of Existential Coaching Psychology.
- The decline of existentialism is related to the rise of post-modern approaches: the post-structuralist, the narrative, the constructivist etc. that positioned the narrative, the structure or the construct at the center of philosophical inquiry rather than the human condition or human life experiences.
- Notwithstanding this, let me suggest that the relevance and vitality of existential psychotherapy and coaching seems to be increasing these days. The proliferation of experiential forms of life coaching and experiential forms of psychotherapy – focusing, mindfulness, marathon workshops, gestalt, Buddhist Psychology, and body-mind-spirit psychotherapies accentuate the direct experiencing of the client and challenge sometimes his value system – what was unconceivable in classical psychotherapies
- It seems that the apparent inconsistency between the waning of existentialism by post-modern approaches on one hand and the growing interest in the basic premises of existentialism and its implementations into psychotherapy and coaching on the other hand posit a challenge that should be contemplated of.
- Let me suggest that the human search for meaningful life and the formation of an existing and ideal value systems are not philosophical imperatives. These are intrinsic human needs which are formed in different periods of one’s lifespan. Throughout life the human being is compelled to form paradigms of meaning in order to embody his humanity. The formation of these paradigms of meaning is vital and is unavoidable in human life.
- Some scientific discplines such as: developmental psychology, evolutionary theory, culture studies, neuroscience and large system theory studies, and the recent experimental existentialism approach, that study the human formation of paradigms of meaning and value systems suggest that scientific methodologies and existential conceptions could live in a happy marriage.
- The false paradigm occurs when an individual uses stereotypic paradigms of meaning which were molded through formative experiences during different periods in his lifespan. These paradigms form the automatic pilot in one’s life; they impair the possibility of new learning because they obstruct the internalization of new experiences and the formation of new paradigms. The false paradigms (which are not only cognitive but involve unconscious assumptions and emotional experiencing) are source of distress and disrupt self actualization
- I therefore suggest here the approach that change-producing-interventions in order to modify the false paradigms and to generate more adaptive paradigms (in psychotherapy) or to generate paradigms that express the unique, self actualizing and transcendental character of the person (existential coaching psychology).
- A suggestion to a revised approach in existential coaching and psychotherapy, presented here, joins philosophical thinking, existential experiencing with modern scientific research. It enables us to construe the self as a self-organizing, non-linear complex adaptive system. Our role as therapists and coaches is not to restore the self (as suggested by Kohut) but to enable its spontaneous self organization within an authentic creative and optimal functioning. By doing so we accomplish the Hiedegerian imperative of Dasein – the human “being in the world” in a scientific creative and proactive mode.
* This blog is the first draft of an article presenting the “False Paradigm” more thoroughly, to be published shortly. All rights reserved to Arnon Levy Ph. D.
- Frank, Jerome D Psychotherapy, rhetoric, and hermeneutics: Implications for practice and research. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training, Vol 24(3), 1987, 293-30
- Doweny, Parsloe in Palmer S. & Whybrow A. Handbook of Coaching Psychology. 2007. Routledge; East Sussex, New York.
- Bugental J. The Search for Authenticity, 1965 Irvington Pub.
- Mike Cooper- Existential Therapies, 2003 Sage publications Ltd. London.
- Levy A. Beyond the Empty Glass (in Hebrew) 1998, Cherickover Pub. Tel Aviv
- Levy A. The False Paradigm: Revisiting the Domains of the Existential Psychotherapy Sihot-Israel review of Psychotherapy. 2006/3