There is a saying common among physicists, which is actually applicable to any science: “There is nothing more practical than good theory”. This statement is especially relevant to clinical psychology. The theory a psychologist adheres to determines his entire attitude to his client and, in the final analysis, the success or failure of his psychological help. And it’s not just a matter of what particular strategy of help the psychologist chooses. Much more important is that the theory the psychologist adopts as a rule reflects his views on life, his own individual philosophy, his personality. In the humanities, and especially in psychology, the links between a preferred theory, philosophy of life and personality are much closer than in the so-called exact sciences. And if even in quantum physics, which aims at maximum objectivity, the researcher is not neutral with regard to the object under his observation and influences it, where does that leave us with psychology, in which everything depends on the interaction between therapist and patient, on the personality of each?
As an example of the role a philosophical position can play in clinical practice, I would like to quote a specific case I was involved in a few years ago.
A man came to me for help. He was in late middle age and had led an enviably happy life. He was absorbed by his profession and very successful in it. He had no money worries. What was especially important for him, though, was that he had had an excellent family life. He had married for love as a young man, when he met the woman of his dreams and knew it immediately, which is not often the case. Their marriage was happy and during the years they were together he never once felt disappointed in his wife. On the contrary, he became more and more convinced of her exceptional personal qualities, the range of her talents and her absolute loyalty to him and their home. For his part, he felt the bond between them grow ever stronger. Whenever he heard the usual stories from other people about family quarrels, infidelities and divorces, he thought with horror how he could never go through all that and thanked his lucky stars that sort of thing would never happen to him. He knew things like this happened, but they happened in another world which was quite unreal to him. Rounding off this idyll, the family was surrounded by a narrow, but close circle of friends, who he and his wife knew so well, they thought of them almost as members of their own family. My client also projected his perception of what he saw as the normal human relationships he felt comfortable with onto this circle of friends. This was his world, one that he had actively built for himself and kept secure from the outside world.
A few years before my client came to see me, his wife died suddenly. He took the loss very hard, but it did not break him, to a large extent thanks to the image of his wife, which gave him the strength to persevere in the face of difficulties. He was now retired, though still leading an active life, coping with everyday problems, often serious ones, and keeping in touch with his friends. At home he maintained a kind of cult of his late wife: she was continually in his thoughts, he kept all her little knick-knacks, he would re-read the books they had once read together. Memories of their happy times together were a constant source of support and gave his life meaning. All the same, I should stress, they didn’t stop him solving everyday problems or make him feel depressed. This was not a retreat from reality into the past. Quite the opposite, good memories of times past helped him carry on. This was, in fact, proof positive of the genuineness of his relationship with his wife, for only in this case can the grief associated with the loss of a loved one become a source of strength and not be loaded with a sense of guilt, regret and debilitating dependency.
This marks the basic difference between two ways of experiencing an irretrievable loss.
In some cases the past can become the sole content of a person’s life, blocking out the world. A person who experiences loss in this way is himself lost to life and he cannot cope with its problems. This, by the way, very often happens when the relationship between the survivor and the deceased was not harmonious, when a number of problems in the relationship remained unresolved, when the survivor’s relationship to the deceased was full of self-reproach and self-justification. This is sometimes the way when the relationship was very unequal and the survivor was in a perpetual and difficult one-sided emotional (and existential) dependency on the deceased partner.
(It is in cases like this when it can be said that you have to find the inner strength to bury your dead, and until this symbolic burial takes place, the dead hold the living fast, hold them tightly in their grip and provide them no support.)
My client, however, demonstrated the entirely opposite type of experiencing loss: memories of past happiness gave him the strength to cope with problems, energised him with a feeling of a life lived well and to the full, kept him at peace with himself. He spoke about his past a lot, willingly and with enthusiasm, especially with his friends. It was this reminiscing that was the cause of tragedy.
One day he was visiting an old friend, a woman he counted as among his closest confidants, and he began talking about his late wife in his usual way. Suddenly she turned on him and said quite sharply: “I don’t understand why you should be so inconsolable. Didn’t you know your wife was having an affair with my former husband?”
With this, my client’s world fell apart. His tragedy was that he could not settle on one single, definite position with regard to this information. Either he would believe his friend unreservedly, since why would an old friend tell such a monstrous lie without good reason? And he could think of no such reason. And when he believed her, he tried to destroy his ideal image of his wife, reproaching himself for being so blind and credulous. He would recall some incident or other which could, even if it stretched the imagination, be evidence of suspicious behaviour on the part of his wife. Or, coming to his senses, he would realise his suspicions were quite imaginary and bore no relationship to the living image which withstood all his attempts to demolish it. Then he would hate and despise himself for his suspicions. Nevertheless, he was unable to draw the unambiguous conclusion that what he had been told was simply slander. He hated his friend, not as a slanderer, but as the messenger bringing bad news which he could not dismiss as false.
Meanwhile, the total lack of consistency between the accusation and the image of his wife (for he continued to talk about their life together with love and admiration) made him suspect that the allegation was not true.
It was, of course, far too late to prove anything by this stage. But there was certain serious, though circumstantial evidence in favour of this last conjecture. At the time their conversation took place, his friend was in very difficult circumstances. Her husband of many years had left her shortly before. Their divorce was, no doubt, the outcome of a very complicated relationship, which was markedly different from the one my client had enjoyed with his wife. The woman felt bitter towards her husband and life in general. It’s not difficult to imagine, with this background, how she would have felt irritated and jealous listening to a person who was still in love with his wife even after she had died, and who drew strength and inspiration from this love. Black envy for a relationship that had transcended even death and for my client’s spiritual harmony could well have pushed a woman wronged by life and her husband into a vengeful lie. At any rate, this version seemed more convincing to me, in the context of this story, than the version of infidelity, which was in such contrast with the image of the dead wife. I was, however, mystified why my client used to dismiss this version out of hand. So I decided to ask around my colleagues.
The results of my consultation made such an indelible impression on me that now, several years later, as I reflect on how practical psychology is rooted in its practitioners’ outlook on life, I felt the need to revisit this story. One of my colleagues provided the following confident interpretation.
My client’s main problem was his inner conflict, which was connected with an unrealistic, obviously idealised image of his wife and generally inadequate perception of the world. The client did not see his wife as she was in reality, a real, live woman with all the attendant weaknesses and faults, including being unfaithful, and now he was paying the price for building an unrealistic image. It was completely irrelevant whether his friend was lying or not. This question was absolutely external to the client’s basic problem. We don’t need to examine the motives for this woman’s behaviour. What she said was not the cause of my client’s crisis, it was merely a coincidental circumstance illuminating the basic conflict connected with an inadequate perception of his late wife’s image (my colleague had no doubt at all that it was inadequate).
The task of the therapist was to teach the client to live with a new, more realistic attitude to the world, within which disappointment with his late wife’s conduct would be integrated into a wider perception of a world where treachery and betrayal are normal and natural, and to help him adapt to this reality.
I asked my colleague whether his position would be the same if my client’s friend had told him that his wife had been setting fire to kindergartens in her spare time. He replied that, in so far as my client did not reject completely the allegation of his wife’s infidelity as a lie, it meant he had an inner problem involving a conflict between an idealised image of his wife and a reality which he could not ignore and which the therapist had to help him accept.
Behind this approach to this concrete case lies a philosophy which I think needs to be discussed. Oversimplifying somewhat, it can be reduced to a formula: “Man is born, lives and dies in isolation”. Looked at in this way, the problems of a person’s inner world and his inner conflicts can be examined with no reference to the outside world and the behaviour of others. Furthermore, this philosophy implicitly adopts a position approximating Murphy’s law: “If anything can go wrong, it will”. Applied to psychology, the principle goes like this: “If something amoral can be done, it is safest to assume it has been. Any other approach would be to idealise”. This way it doesn’t matter whether his wife really was unfaithful (although she probably was) and what were the motives of his friend. These questions are not part of this discussion, they’re other people’s problems. The client’s only problem is his dependency on an idealised vision of his wife, which is the root cause of his tragic doubts. The psychologist’s job is to rid the client of this harmful dependency, widen his view of the world, so that he can learn to live with a new image of his wife who was regularly unfaithful (since it is impossible to prove the contrary with any degree of certainty). In the end the client will be happy and content if his state and his peace with himself are no longer dependent on the behaviour of others and as long as he is prepared for all sorts of behaviour on their part. Any dependency on other people and their behaviour is a mark of weakness. A psychologist must help a person preserve his autonomy in an inevitably destructive world. A person has to look for support within, and success in resisting an imperfect world depends on a readiness to see this imperfection clearly.
At first glance, it may indeed appear that such a position really does make a person stronger, less vulnerable, less dependent.
My view, which I hope to explain right now, is that, on the contrary, it places a person in a hopeless situation and dooms him to misery.
A person begins to form a complex and polysemantic image of himself in a complex and polysemantic world from early childhood. He continues to develop and enrich his self-image throughout his life. The self-image is the central ruling body of our personality, defining both our attitude to the world and all our behaviour. So, when a person says about a situation or an offer somebody makes him, “That doesn’t suit me”, without even asking himself what exactly about it doesn’t suit him, this means that the objection is coming from his self-image, which evaluates what is happening without the direct participation of the consciousness, but taking into account the person’s realised fundamental motivations. The self-image subsumes these as well.
During its formation the self-image absorbs, like a sponge, everything that makes an impression on us and has touched our imagination: natural and cultural phenomena, the images and actions of other people. Our self-image is unique, it belongs to us alone, but it is not wholly autonomous. Through an infinite multitude of connections it is interwoven with our image of the world, and the more of these connections there are, the richer and more multifaceted it is, and the stronger a person’s feeling of belonging to the world.
This sensory feeling of belonging is akin to the feeling of happiness caused by nothing in particular and by everything at once: the sun or the rain, children’s laughter, a beautiful building and so on. Naturally, emotional links with other people play a special role in this feeling. For this reason it is not possible to be independent of them. We are always dependent on other people, especially our immediate family, because these people have a part in the formation of our self-image, through their relationship with us and our relationship with them. For example, in the case of my client his relationship with the image of a loved and loving wife, his memories of her, were a crucial component of his self-image. Let me emphasise here, not only of his image of the world, but also of his self-image, because without the relationship with his wife, without her constant presence in his life, he would be a completely different person. This applies to any emotional relationship. People who are meaningful to us are included in our self-image and without an attitude towards them, towards their relationship to us and to everything we do and feel, we would be slightly different, or even completely different. And the richer and more multifaceted the connections with the world and especially with other people, people who are close or have special meaning, the more a person feels he belongs to the world and the less he depends on each concrete situation, on chance and coincidence. The more strands there are in a rope, the less its strength depends on an individual strand.
This reality is the direct opposite of the concept of fatal loneliness, of a person resisting a potentially hostile world, which he must learn to cope with on his own, relying on help from nobody and banking only on his own inner resources. Imposing such a view of the world on a person in an unnatural way deprives him of connections with the world and himself, and is capable of bringing him great unhappiness, depriving him of the ability to be close to those who are genuinely close to him, in spirit and feeling.
Besides, an objective and impartial attitude to a person does not chime well with love, and to ask for them to be combined is like trying to build a perpetual motion machine.
Idealisation may be harmful only if the object of attraction bears absolutely no relation to an illusory image, with the result that the illusion places the person in a dependent or humiliated position should he become a victim of manipulation and should the ending of the illusion threaten the person with the collapse of his entire image of the world and destruction of his personality. If there is no such gross distortion, then idealisation helps what Stendhal called the “crystallisation” of feeling. Such crystallisation is not only needed for completeness of the lover’s feelings, for the natural incorporation of the object of love into the self-image, but also very frequently elevates and ennobles the object of love, which instinctively strives as it were to live up to its idealised image. In any case, idealisation is really not something you should be rid of under any circumstances and at any price. If it isn’t a hindrance, and is in fact helping life, then delivery from ‘illusions’ can end up as a senseless, unjustifiable tragedy. In this particular case, idealisation of the wife, even if we admit that it really was, in fact, an idealisation, helped my client live. In a formal sense, his friend’s accusation could with equal justification have been accepted as true, or rejected as impossible to prove. It was accepted, and destroyed his image of the world and his self-image. If you adopted an informal approach and took into account the sharp contradiction of the allegation with the image of the wife and the very understandable motives for possible slander (the friend embittered by her own unhappiness, jealous of someone else’s love and harmony that stood up to the test of death even), there were many more grounds for rejecting the accusation. Therefore, the presumption of the wife’s guilt implicit in my colleague’s approach reflected not a psychological reality, but only his own philosophy. It was a projection of his view of human nature and the world. But a reader has the right to ask, why didn’t the client himself, without consulting a psychologist, reject this allegation as slander? Why did he waver, when he had such a spotless image of his wife? Surely this image should have been enough for his immediate and absolute disbelief in what he was told? Maybe he unconsciously admitted the possibility of infidelity? No. All my work with the client showed that though he periodically made a mental effort to find his wife guilty and revise his attitude towards her, his natural feelings rebelled against these attempts. So what prevented him simply forgetting about the accusation as a deliberate lie?
The answer to this question, too, is connected with an understanding of the role of emotional relationships in the formation of the self-image. The friend had always been very close to their family, she had always been seen by my client in the most positive light. He had opened his heart to her unreservedly for a long time, in just the same way as the image of his late wife. In his conception of the world the image of this friend had an important place, and his relationship to it and his wife over many years represented a huge part of his relationship with the world and his self-image. He did not see the changes that took place in her, did not see any characteristics that might explain these changes. For this reason he could not understand and accept the motives for her possible slander, and anyway admitting a slander without foundation would have destroyed his entire holistic understanding of the world. My client’s attitude towards his friend was undoubtedly idealised and it was the cause of the inner conflict. My colleague, despite his intention to help my client rid himself of a supposed idealisation of his wife and make his view of the world more adequate and sober, in reality would have helped him preserve this truly unrealistic position with regard to his friend, and damage his personality into the bargain. While destroying the image of the wife, he would have remained blind to the motives behind his friend’s behaviour, and his picture of the world really would have been distorted.
Practice confirmed the rightness of my approach to the problem. It didn’t happen immediately, but after successfully establishing a trusting and empathetic relationship between therapist and client, it proved possible for him to realise the motives that lay behind the behaviour of his wife’s unfortunate friend. He suddenly saw how his happy family life, his love which had survived his wife’s death, made this woman’s unhappy and unsuccessful life appear worthless. He was simultaneously released both from his nagging doubts and his antipathy towards his friend, and he recovered his positive attitude to life.
I recalled this story as I began to reflect on the part played by a psychologist’s personal philosophy in his understanding of a client’s problems, and I wanted to share this experience with others.