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At Eternity's Gate by Vincent van Gogh (A grieving old man)

Psychotherapy seeks to liberate the sufferer from emotional pain thus restoring greater freedom of action. (Photo: Wikipedia)

I have been in psychotherapy for a very long time and have acquired a philosophical interest in some of the ideas behind the various psychological schools of thought. Inherent in them all is the concept of “liberating” the patient or client. I am sure no professional would ever put it this way, but psychologists are like the Allies storming ashore in Normandy to liberate Europe from the tyrant’s grip and restore democracy.

No matter how one conceptualizes it, liberation implies some kind of oppressive situation from which the sufferer would like to be freed. Right away, we have a two-part scenario: the source of the oppression and the subject who suffers yet is not able (either from ignorance or incapacity) to do anything about the painful situation.

The most fundamental genuine “split” in the psyche lies in the obvious difference between the conscious ego and the unconscious mind. Bright consciousness is assumed to be the sufferer while the dark unconscious is the source of the misery. Psychologists have long been aware of the divide and its significance, yet there is no unanimous view on whether the conscious mind or the unconscious mind should be the dominant factor when dealing with the emotional issues that are the most common form of psychological distress.

Traditional methods of bringing about a talking (as opposed to shooting!) cure centre on unearthing the unconscious and revealing all. The assumption is that a patient’s problems arise from the emotional effects of repressed – or simply unconscious – material acquired in the past. The technique worms past counter-productive conscious defences to expose the origin and nature of fears or complexes thereby reducing their power to manageable proportions. Expressing, or even reliving, repressed emotions is cathartic and the patient is liberated. Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung are the most famous pioneers of these ideas.

Existential psychology does not want to see the unconscious as a decision maker (or even a determining factor) in the psyche. The unconscious is the manageable place where one’s troubling emotions live. The emphasis here is on consciously formulated free will and personal responsibility. This more modern approach has the client learn a set of conscious skills designed to engage with emotional problems. Clients merely accept emotional distress “as is” and take responsibility for the decisions that brought about the suffering. (That is to say, they stop blaming others.)

The past is not explored except to understand how certain decisions led to the present problems, although, critically, this does entail exposing the beliefs that prompted those decisions. The technique is forward looking in that it emphasizes the client’s future possibilities and the realistic conscious choices available within them. Again, the idea is liberation, in this case, the freedom to be assertive or pro-active in dealing with situations and making further decisions. The goal is to exercise one’s free will and give birth to or grow one’s own life.

This all sounds wonderful, but the sticking point is those beliefs that prompted the bad decisions of the past. Of necessity, existentialists believe in the subject in process rather than the Self assumed to be there from the start. This position ignores both the important role of genetics (impossible to change hardware) in determining character, and the early establishment of subjectively formed guiding principles (difficult to change firmware) in the unconscious. Existentialists want to reduce the formation of the subject to arbitrary conscious decision-making (easily changeable software). The existentialist idea of liberation amounts to a power grab on the part of the conscious mind. It also resembles Buddhism.

In reality, the evidence is abundant that we cannot decide simply and arbitrarily who we are or where we are going in life. To live by arbitrary decision making, with no reference made to the authentic self, is to live as a self-alienated false persona. Free will as the existentialists conceive it is a non-starter. Like it or not, the unconscious is home to much of the authentic self and therefore a huge player in the psyche. This is not a problem. After all, the authentic self is who we really are! When we become free of damaging emotional disturbances, we (in the sense of the conscious mind) are still subject to our own genuine will – which originates in the self. Responsibility, of course, remains. Conscious or not, we are obligated to take responsibility for what we do.

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