Group Therapy for Social Anxiety

Introduction

Anxiety disorders are common among the population. When the various types of anxiety disorders are taken all together, they represent one of the largest reasons that people enter therapy. For those counselors who work in a private practice or agency setting, they will most likely deal with clients who experience various types of anxiety disorders, better described as phobias.

Although there are a variety of strategies for treating anxiety disorders, the primary way in which phobias are treated in counseling situations is through what is called exposure treatments. Individuals are directly exposed to, that is must encounter, the phobic situation that leads to their severe anxious responses, responses that can and often do entail panic attacks. For example, if a person has a severe phobia regarding dogs, then therapy will involve helping the individual be in the close proximity of a dog, even to the point of developing the ability to pet a dog. The best way for individuals to conquer severe phobias of elevators is simply to get on an elevator and ride it up and down over and over again.

Because therapy entails supporting individuals to physically engage that which causes their phobic reactions, such treatments are called exposure. Individuals expose themselves to that which they fear the most. The basic premise of exposure treatment is that once people are in the presence of the feared phobic object or situation, they can learn to stay in its presence, seeing that what they fear the most will not occur. While being exposed to phobic stimuli, individuals who experience anxiety disorders will be asked not to utilize compensatory and avoidance strategies that they normally use to curb their anxiety. The longer they can stay in the presence of the object or contexts that lead to their phobic reactions, they will see that their anxiety will begin to dissipate because what they catastrophize about the phobic situation does not come true.

Research results indicate that exposure treatments for phobias are highly effective. In fact, in most cases, unless people engage such exposure treatments, they rarely will overcome their phobias to the point that they can better function in the presence of what leads to their fears. It is not that some people cannot overcome their anxieties apart from exposure treatment. It is just highly doubtful that they can. Even if they do, it takes a much longer time to overcome such fears, and the relapses tend to be quicker and more numerous where exposure treatment is not used.

Social Anxiety

Social anxiety, also called social phobia, has at its roots the fear of negative evaluation by others. To some extent, most of us have experienced the fear of negative evaluation in social settings, but for individuals who struggle with social anxiety, the fear of negative evaluation reaches the extent that their functioning becomes severely impaired. For example, individuals will avoid and cease attending situations that involve social gatherings, especially social situations in which they do not know most of the people present. They may enter a social situation but stay close to a friend or friends whom they know, and then hang out on the perimeters of the social context so as to avoid interacting with people whom they don’t know. Such avoidance strategies are called compensatory strategies because they allow individuals to find ways to curtail their anxieties. While curtailing anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing, compensatory strategies prevent individuals from engaging experiences that they would prefer to engage. The ultimate compensatory strategy for social anxiety is when individuals consistently turn down social invitations, thereby avoiding social interaction all together.

The problem with such strategies is that many people do not feel good about turning down social invitations. It is something that they would actually prefer to do if they weren’t so anxious about the social contexts they must engage. The aim of therapy for social anxiety is not to turn people into party animals where they are the life of the party. The goal of such work is simply to help clients reach their own comfort levels, deciding to what degree they want to become more relaxed in social outings.

Many times social anxiety is cast in the discussion of introversion and extraversion. Nothing could be further from the truth. Introversion and extraversion have nothing to do with social anxiety. There is nothing wrong with being an introvert, irrespective of how our society highly regards extraversion. The aim of therapy is not to help one evolve from being an introvert to and extravert. Introverts as well as extraverts can function comfortably in social situations. The aim of therapy is to help individuals become more comfortable in social gatherings where their anxiety and compensatory strategies have become pronounced. Socially anxious people simply want to develop the ability to walk into social gatherings without being hampered by anxiety. They want to experience the comfort of meeting people they don’t know in social contexts. They may want to introduce themselves to people, network at parties and other social contexts, or carry on simple conversations at social gatherings.

Fear of Negative Evaluation

As stated above, the root fear of those who experience social anxiety is the fear of negative evaluation. From a cognitive behavioral perspective, people hold beliefs about what they fear will occur in social contexts. Socially anxious people state their fears in several ways, which help therapists get at their thinking related to social contexts. One client may say, people will think I’m weird somehow. Another client might say, people will think I’m unattractive. Still others believe such things as people will think I look funny – sound funny – dress funny – etc. Therapists hear clients say things like I will feel like a fool trying to carry on a conversation, especially with someone I don’t know. Others might say: I don’t like meeting people; I don’t like parties; I don’t enjoy introducing myself to people I don’t know.  Again, there is nothing wrong with these statements and actions in-and-of-themselves. If people prefer not to meet others, if they don’t like parties, and if they don’t care about turning down invitations to social events, then that’s fine. Individuals, however, come to therapy because they believe their anxiety regarding social situations is over the top. Due to their fears, they can’t do the things they would prefer to engage. They may desire to make new friends, date different people, and talk more to individuals they don’t know that well at social gatherings. Hence, they want to make some changes that can help them become more comfortable in social contexts.

Researchers have developed several Fear of Negative Evaluation (FNE) scales that therapists can use with clients who experience social anxiety. Most of these scales contain statements that clients can rate on a Likert-like measurement. For example, clients can rate from 1 to 5 with one meaning not at all and 5 meaning highly true, the statement I am extremely sensitive to what people think about me. Rather than creating some major quantitative data, these scales can be used qualitatively to generate conversations between therapists and clients. Through these conversations, therapists can obtain a good grasp of how their clients function in social settings. Additionally therapists can learn how their clients utilize avoidance and compensatory strategies when it comes to social engagements.

Clients’ beliefs about social contexts and the compensatory strategies they use  to avoid such settings are the very things that must be challenged via exposure treatment. The question becomes: how is exposure treatment best done for those who experience social anxiety?

Group Therapy for Social Anxiety

Group Design for Working with Clients Who Experience Social Anxiety

There are several pathways to help clients face their anxieties about social situations. As part of their therapy counselors can ask them to attend meet-up groups, social gatherings, office parties, and any social context where there will be people clients do not know. Therapists and clients can agree on homework assignments in which clients take on the tasks of introducing themselves to people they don’t know. If clients are in classroom situations, they can agree to speak up in class a specified number of times. Such social arrangements are useful but can be difficult to control, monitor, and structure so that the client gets optimal benefit from taking on the task.

One of the major tools used in working with individuals who experience social anxiety is group therapy. The group setting itself creates a built-in form of exposure for clients. Groups can be structured along several lines. They can be non-specific encounter groups that comprise some members who experience social anxiety and other members who do not have such concerns. Such a group is representative of most social settings clients will enter.

Group settings where all members experience social anxiety is another form of group therapy. I believe that for those clients who have never experienced group work, these specified groups are a good entrance point into this kind of work. Group meetings should be weekly for a specified period of time, for example six weeks. Groups should be limited to no more than eight members. Groups comprise people that each member does not know. Hence, each week members must enter the group room where people exist with whom they have not made contact. This act alone exposes clients to one form of fear they experience about social situations. Additionally, group activities will provide each client with opportunities to act and speak in front of the other group members. Such activities expose group members to some of their worse fears: speaking in front of people, being observed by others, and then getting feedback from all the participants. Moreover, the very act of giving feedback provides exposure for group members who can learn that feedback is neither negative evaluation nor being overtly judgmental.

Role of the Group Therapist(s)

Therapists know that socially anxious individuals excessively fear such social engagements where they must talk, interact, and in some way be observed by others. Therapists must hold a space for each participant so that all group members can feel safe, respected, attended to, and not judged. Therapists should prevent personal attacks among members, which is a cardinal rule for all group therapy, but it is especially important for social anxiety groups because such personal attacks come across as judgmental, which is the very thing group members fear. Personal attacks, however, are not the same as personal disagreements. Group members can learn that disagreements among members are neither negative evaluations nor judgmental acts on the part of others. Therapists should guide and channel any disagreements that arise in constructive ways, perhaps teaching people how to voice disagreements in ways that do not sound or look like personal attacks. Group process will allow group members to give honest but non-judgmental feedback to other members in the group. Group participants will hopefully emulate the therapists’ ways of holding a safe space for clients, and begin doing the same for each other as they interact during group activities.

Therapists should take on the role of screening group members. Although not all group dynamics include screening, I think for a specified type of group, such as one designed for social anxiety, therapists should screen clients with a one-on-one interview before admitting them into the group. The primary focus of the group, and the primary concern of each group member should be social anxiety. Therapists should also administer a short FNE scale for each group member. Therapists should also create some type of qualitative feedback form for group members to complete so as to ascertain how clients believe the group therapy setting worked for them.  

Individuals in a therapeutic group eventually get to know one another and thereby become more comfortable with one another. Although for most process groups, such comfort is a good thing that can lead to group cohesion, this presents a problem for groups designed to treat social anxiety. As members become comfortable with one another, the group setting begins to lose its exposure power. Once a social anxiety group loses its exposure edge, then how does therapy proceed so that clients can continue to work on their socially anxious concerns?

Social Gatherings of Various Groups

If therapists are working with more than one group designed to treat social anxiety, then they have a built-in mechanism for creating social gatherings. Following the six-week group therapy session, clients can be asked to attend social gatherings comprising members of other groups who have sought to deal with their social anxiety. In these social gatherings, members can introduce themselves to people they don’t know, and then talk to, and interact with individuals they don’t know. The caution for designing and setting up these social gatherings entails the logistics that must be navigated so that members will feel safe in the social gatherings. Informed consents should be developed, and therapists should work with their specific groups, discussing expectations for the social gatherings. Should they be totally voluntary or required? As therapists work with numerous groups, past group members can attend the social gatherings to provide a good mix of individuals present at the gatherings. Perhaps past members can take a couple of minutes to speak in front of the attendees at the social gathering, demonstrating how they have come to manage their social anxiety. As social gatherings continue, they will grow in number, and clients can continue to follow up by attending the gatherings as long as they feel it necessary to attend. Such social gatherings can be treated as booster sessions for past group members.

Conclusion

Existential concerns exist with social anxiety just as they exist with practically any struggle through which human beings undergo. As stated above, those who experience social anxiety have as their greatest fear that other people will somehow negatively evaluate them. The simple fact is the world comprises people who do negatively evaluate others, whether or not those who are doing the evaluating know anything at all about the people on whom they are dumping. Given that negative evaluators do exist in the world, the question becomes is how much power does one want to grant such evaluators. This is an existential question. Another existential concern revolves around the question why should individuals care if people negatively evaluate them. Therapy for those who experience social anxiety does not include a promise that they will not experience negative evaluation from someone. Helping clients manage their social anxiety and become more realistic about their catastrophic beliefs and ensuing fears can have the added benefit of helping clients adjust to a world where there are some ugly things that happen out there.

At Contemplations, I hope to begin a series of group counseling experiences for those struggling with social anxiety. Be sure to check out this website for more information regarding my practice.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/February 14th, 2020

PROFESSIONAL COUNSELING

Counseling & Valuation II

Introduction

Back in October, I wrote a blog regarding counseling and valuation, and the kind of work that transpires with clients who pursue goals of valuation. In that blog I focused on clientele who are fairly certain of what their core beliefs and values are, but they have come to realize that they are not really living their lives in alignment with their purported values. That blog focused specifically on helping clients establish the means by which they pursue their valued ends. Many times clients have clear ideas as to the values they hold, but they are not sure of the means by which to live out those values. I called that type of valuation work Level I because the counseling process does not delve into the search for clients’ values. Level I work is important work for counseling and most likely fits the needs for the majority of clients entering counseling for life transition work.

Counseling and valuation, however, can involve another level of work, a type of work that is more difficult and time consuming than Level I work. Counseling and valuation, Level II work, entails working with clients who simply are unclear as to what their core values in fact are. It’s tantamount to being in a fog regarding to where life is heading. Individuals are so unsure as to what their core values might be, they need some in-depth clarification work. What this type of counseling work will look like will be highly diversified, depending on each client. Counselors may hear clients say such things as: I’m not sure what I believe about important decisions in my life. I’m at a loss as to what my core beliefs and values are. I’ve never truly considered what my core values are and how to live out my life according to what they are. I have a difficult time making major decisions in my life because I simply do not know what it is that I believe. I know I want to do something meaningful with my life, but I’m just not sure what that is.

Unlike Level I work in valuation, Level II work cannot begin with exploring the means by which to pursue and accomplish valued ends. Rather this level of work must begin with exploration of what in fact an individual’s valued ends might be. Level II valuation work in counseling is what is typically designated as values clarification. Before clients can engage means to pursue the ends they value, they must first clarify the ends they hope to accomplish with their lives.

A Quick Review: Level I Work – Means and Ends

In the blog, Counseling as the Science of Human Action, I wrote about the use of means and ends in working with clients. Many times clients enter counseling with a fair to clear idea of the ends they hope to accomplish in life, but they are unclear as to the means to accomplish their desired ends. Counseling with such clients involves anything from behavioral plans to assessing what they have already tried, focusing on what things worked and what didn’t. Helping clients establish means to accomplish their valued goals also entails helping them look at how risk aversive they might be, and assessing what level of risks they would be willing to undergo. Clients can know what it actually takes to make changes in their lives, but they may balk at taking the risks to make the necessary changes that can propel them onto more fulfilling lives. Counseling can help them establish action plans that they can engage at a pace that is comfortable for them individually. Then the counseling work involves troubleshooting any obstacles that continue to prevent clients from making desired changes. The use of the language means and ends helps clients distinguish between their valued goals (ends) and the actions (means) they embrace to reach those goals. Once an individual begins working towards certain ends, he or she can begin to make any nuanced changes along the way in terms of both means and ends. When clients hit a wall in their pursuits, therapists may need to assess whether the issue is not only means that clients are utilizing to make changes in their lives, but also may entail making changes in the ends clients are pursuing. In other words, clients may be unclear and unsure as to the valued ends they truly want to pursue. At that point, counseling work has shifted from Level I to Level II work.

Valuation Counseling: Level II

There are no easy formulas or step-by-step cookbook approaches that seamlessly guide counselors in working with clients who need to engage in Level II work of values clarification. This kind of counseling work is truly a pure form of exploratory work. This work is foundational in the sense that what clients discover at this stage provides the ground on which Level I work will build. Level II work involves clients’ radical acceptance that they are at a starting point on a journey that at the moment has an uncertain finish. Clients who truly accept that they are unsure of their core values must place everything on hold for the purpose of critical inquiry. All clients believe something by which they are making their way through life. It may be that they simply have not clarified what that something is. That is a starting point for values clarification. Individuals do not like to admit that they are uncertain as to what their core values are. It’s a difficult thing to admit about oneself. Like any other work in counseling, clients need to feel safe and not judged when admitting such truths about themselves. Clients have to perceive the counseling setting as a safe place to open up to certain truths they perhaps would not admit to most people they know.

One of the first things to take place in Level II valuation work in counseling is that clients agree with and establish a commitment to take on such work. Clients must be honest with themselves that they need to engage the counseling process involved in clarification of values. In respect to time commitment, although no time limit can be set for Level II work, it will most likely take at least a few weeks and possibly longer. The counseling process will be replete with inroads into clarity, setbacks into lack of clarity, rethinking ground covered, and reassessing what clients believe they have accomplished. It is that feeling of taking three steps forward and one or two steps back. Value clarification can be a slow process, while simultaneously can involve punctuated accelerated gains that come with insights that clients gain along the way. Patience is indeed a virtue for this kind of work, for therapists as well as clients. More than once, therapists and clients will have to discuss whether or not all the effort is worth the outcome hoped for.

The Card Sort

William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick in their work, Motivational Interviewing: Helping People Change, provide a list of 100 values along with definitions of what each value entails. Although using card sorts can feel mechanical I think the approach Miller and Rollnick provide is highly useful, and it at least establishes a beginning point for clients to engage value clarification. More importantly, it provides a way that therapists and clients can begin a discussion and exploration about values, what they mean, and how they inform people as to how they should live. Clients read through the list of 100 values and sort them along a Likert-like scale of five ratings ranging from Very Important to Not Important [Very Important – Most Important – Important – Somewhat Important – Not Important]. Exploratory discussions in counseling begin with what clients rate as Very Important. Many times this exploratory process allows clients to compare, rethink, and reevaluate among those values they rated in the top three categories. Clients find it difficult to distinguish these levels of importance at times. They will tend to move back and forth, placing and replacing various values into their card sorts. This process is important work for clients, helping them become aware of how difficult and important it is for them to nuance their decisions.

If clients place a large number of the values listed into the first two categories, then the next step in this process is to ask clients to rate their top five or ten values, leaving the others aside for the moment. Once clients establish their top five or ten values, then their choices become the focus of exploration in counseling.

Alignment of Thought and Action

Card sorts and lists are fine tools that therapists and clients can utilize that help them delve into important discussions around clarifying values. However, they are just that, a tool. The nitty-gritty work in this exploratory process are the discussions in which therapists and clients engage. Therapeutic discussions help clients nuance, refine, and clarify the tough decision points they face as they seek to determine their core values.

Talking about values clarification during the session is one thing. Acting on decisions about values is another thing all together. Although people can choose from a list of values the ones they think represent their core beliefs, unless they act on those beliefs, they remain stagnate instead of moving forward. At this point, important discussions around taking risks emerge. Clients have to try things that perhaps they’ve never tried before. After all, they are searching out their core values. If for example they claim Art as one of their core values, described by Miller and Rollnick as to appreciate or express myself in art, then clients must seek out ways to live out this value. For many clients that would most likely mean studying, creating, and producing art in some form. If they claim to possess such a value but don’t act on it, then their purported beliefs do not align with their actions. This misalignment of beliefs and actions becomes the focus of discussion in counseling. The old adage where the rubber meets the road is supreme here. Clients not acting on purported values must confront that they in fact do not value what they claim to value. Even if the lack of action is due to fear of failure or aversion to risks, clients who do not act on stated values must face the reality that they do not in fact value what they claim. Such discussions can be the most challenging, fearful, and even painful ones that clients engage.

Another adage, talk is cheap reigns supreme here as well. If I say I believe something at my core, that I truly value it beyond all other beliefs I might hold, but my life shows no evidence that I in fact value what I claim, then something is off. I may have fears I need to overcome. I perhaps need to explore risks assessment, helping me understand what level of risk I’m willing to take on. I might fear what others would think of me if I lived truly in alignment with what I believe. Or, it may be that I don’t truly value what I claim. If the case is the latter, then it’s back to the drawing board of values clarification. These are the reasons that when dealing with values clarification actions must become the focus in counseling or it’s all mere talk. Actions help clients clarify and nuance what they claim to believe and value. There’s nothing more powerful than taking an action based on a purported belief and letting the consequences of that action provide a feedback loop regarding that belief. When the rubber meets the road, the road can be a hard and harsh teacher. It also helps clients clarify and nuance what they purport to believe. Without action, words about values are just that, mere words.

Conclusion

Clients engage Level II work of values clarification when they lack certainty about what they truly value at their core. The process of this work will involve movements back and forth between stated values and testing those values with action. Moreover actions help clients nuance their choices so as to better refine them so that they indeed become clearer guides to a better way of living, which is a goal we all seek on one level or another.

Speaking of nuance, future blog articles will delve more into the process of values clarification in terms of the major themes I’ve written about in other blog articles, which include meaning, thought/action, humility/finitude, and worldview.

John V. Jones, Jr, Ph.D, LPC-S/January 14th, 2020

GENERAL ESSAY

Meanderings 2019

Introduction

Time for the final blog for 2019 has arrived. It’s at this time of year that I proffer my meanderings for the year, reflect upon what the future of this blog might hold, and take time to prepare for the holidays. Like most twelve-month spans, this past year has brought about some experiences that has made life interesting, to say the least.

Reawakened Interests

Back in September, I posted a blog about returning to some themes I had written about in the past. Indeed they reawakened some interests that I have held for quite some time, and they represent areas of exploration that will form and shape this blog across the next year of 2020. The importance and impact of these themes also remind me of the humility I have to embrace, given that I’m anything but an expert in any of these areas of exploration. The interests that have been rekindled within me will include research into the areas of mind, meaning-making, thought/action, finitude/humility, worldview, and valuation. I’m not sure which one of these areas of exploration will become primary data for next year’s blog writing, but at least one or two of them will be at front and center stage. The idea that all of them will be tapped out over the next twelve months is unrealistic. Each theme could become an in-depth study for quite some time to come.

Counseling as Human Action

Another major focus that had its inchoate appearance in 2019 on this blog involved a notion that I borrowed from the economist Ludwig von Mises. And that is counseling as human action. I hold a strong belief that as human beings we are all in the quest of making our lives better in some way. That is, each of us seeks to carve out a life that we personally believe entails a life of fulfillment. As such, we hold values that make up and define the kind of life we want and hope for. Action entails our discovering the means by which we can obtain the kind of life for which we long. Our valuations are the ends at which we aim, and our actions entail the means by which we hope to obtain our valued ends. Counseling as human action is a theme I hope to explore more in depth over the next year. Obviously this theme dovetails nicely with the six areas of exploration that I delineated above.

A Specific Topic and Quest

Over a year ago, I published a blog article on the dynamic and power of group counseling. I am specifically interested in forming group experiences for individuals who experience social anxiety. This particular idea is one I will explore more in 2020, both by proffering ideas on this blog, and by developing these ideas in my private practice.

Life Experiences

Our meanderings over time are always abetted by the various experiences that life throws at us. For sure, this came true for me during 2019. I found myself by quite surprise in the position of becoming Power of Attorney for some relatives that had experienced and were going through some difficult times. Because they are elderly, physical health concerns have taken center stage in their day-to-day struggles. I never knew what stepping into the role of a Power of Attorney entailed, especially for elderly individuals whose lives were pretty much in shambles in terms of finances, daily care, and possessing the support they needed to simply carry on their personal functioning. At first, the task overwhelmed me, and it appeared much larger than me, and anything I could bring to it. I also became aware of the experience of two people’s lives and well being having been thrust into my hands. As a person of faith, I found that I was in a situation that challenged things I believed, about myself, about God, and about my faith in general. I have written several times on this blog about my personal beliefs and how they inform my work. At this point, I can say thankfully that I have reached a plateau of understanding, but there are sill many miles to cover with this specific situation. Basically, I’m watching two people near the end of their lives who did not have anyone to take care of them. The beliefs that have carried me through this situation thus far entail my coming to the knowledge and understanding of what God would have me do, and that I do it right. Thus these experiences forced me to embrace my faith and truly come to know God on a more personal level. No doubt, I will explore these ideas more over the next year on this blog. More importantly, however, the place that these experiences have brought me thus far will simply inform much of what I have to say, both as a counselor and an individual who is a Christian.

Holidays

Several times on this blog, I have written about the holidays, special days, and celebrations we engage, ranging from Valentines Day to Christmas Day. The holidays are special times for me, so I will continue to write about their meaningful significance in my life as we go forward into 2020. As I noted on last month’s blog, the holidays, while special times for most people, are difficult times for many people. As practitioners in the counseling field, we might experience clients during this time of year as they undergo both highs and lows.

Conclusion: Counseling and Beyond

Counseling is a field of which it is a both a privilege and honor to be a part. Those who are familiar with this blog, however, know that many topics about which I write only tangentially may intersect with the field of counseling. The subtitle of my Contemplations website is: Exploring the Life of the Mind, the Arts, Sciences, and Critical Inquiry. I hope over the next year to explore several areas that are important to people, not just from a counseling standpoint, but also from the point of being those who like all of us have to engage daily the human condition.

Here’s to 2020. Hope you come along for the ride.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/December 14th, 2019

GENERAL ESSAY

Preparing for the Holidays

Introduction

Every year when the holidays come around, it is a satisfying and peaceful existence for me. This fact is especially true since I have returned to my faith, seeking to live as God would want me to live. (Several years passed when that was not the case.) So what I have done over the last couple of years on this blog is explore some thoughts about the holidays, touching on my personal beliefs, history, and experiences. I want to speak to the coming of the holidays from two perspectives, one as an individual and one as a professional counselor.

Holidays and Family

My family was one that celebrated and excitingly embraced the holidays. I remember year after year of extended family celebrations, both during Thanksgiving and Christmas. Those were times that settled deep into me bringing home the importance of family, the connections that would remain with endearment throughout my life. The holidays were always special times, and above all they were times that signified the importance of family connection. The holidays did not make family connection special; the holidays were special because family connections were already special, regardless of the time of year. The holiday season simply emphasized what was already deeply special about family. Family was a place of belonging. It was a place to which and people to whom I could always return, knowing those connections would never cease to be there for me.

Holidays without Family

As a kid, I never realized that there were situations not quite as happy and secure as mine. In fact, there was no reason I or any other kid should have to face such painful facts, not until we become an adult. Those facts are that for many during the holiday season the loneliness becomes emphatically pronounced. The holidays shine a bright light on the importance of family. Many individuals simply lack that familial connection that can become an important focus during the holidays. When counselors and other mental health professionals are ready for time away from the office, this time of year brings people into the office bearing some weighty stuff because of either family conflicts or the lack of family connection all together. Not only might they lack family to spend time with during the season, but also many of their friends are away spending time with their families, emphasizing the lack of total connection they experience. The fact is, this is a tough time of year for many people. Those tough times begin right after Halloween and continue through Thanksgiving and Christmas on into the New Year.

Many of us know who these people are who move in our circles. As professionals, we know them as clients. There are two important things for us to consider who work with clients who face difficult times during the holidays. First, we have to understand that while we look forward to the holiday season, others do not because they lack those connections that enrich this time of year. Indeed, as counselors we may be their only connection to this season. It’s a difficult task at anytime to work with clients who experience deep loneliness. This time of year adds to that difficulty because we are so aware that our clients lack the family connections that make this time special.

This brings up the second thing of which we need to be aware as professionals. We cannot let our clients’ difficult times during this season put a damper on the holidays for us. As professional counselors, we are all aware of the need to clock out at the end of the day and leave our work at the office. This is a constant pressure in the field of counseling. There are reams of literature, research projects, and workshops that address the pressures that can lead to burnout for professional counselors. Those pressures can become magnified during this time of year. I believe strongly that is why family is so important, especially during the holiday season. We should embrace the fortunes and blessings we have if we still have our families available to us. Embrace those blessings with all our passion and enjoy them to their fullest extent. We never know when the last family get together will come.  

Conclusion

As an individual, I miss my family-of-origin everyday. The years have come and gone since my mom and dad’s passing. In God’s providence, I never married so as to build my own family experience. Although those times have passed now, the solidity of what a loving family provided me over the years is one of the bulwarks against any loneliness I may experience during this time. Another is my faith. I always look forward to the holiday season. I want to embrace this time with every bit of life I have.

As a professional, I know that for many the holidays are difficult times indeed. I hope too that they find their bulwarks as well. I pray that they find some solid ground on which to step. One piece of that ground can be the therapy office where we as professionals can provide some connection with what they’re going through.

After all, that’s one of the main reasons we’re in the office.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/November 14th, 2019

GENERAL ESSAY

Counseling and Valuation

Introduction

In last month’s blog, Launching Pad, I returned to five themes I had previously discussed on this blog over the years that included mind, meaning making, thought/action, finitude/humility, and worldview. To this list of five themes I added a sixth that I call valuation. I will focus on that sixth theme in this month’s blog. Valuation in counseling involves the work that clients do when they seek to clarify their core beliefs and values. Having clarified as best they can their core values, then the work of counseling for clients focuses on what their lives will look like day-to-day as they choose to live in alignment with their chosen values.

Two Levels of Questions About Valuation

In their work, Motivational Interviewing, William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick provide a list of one hundred values that they use with clients for value exploration. Psychotherapists use the list in a variety of ways, but for the most part, therapists and clients approach the list as a card sort whereby clients rate their top five or top ten values. These top ratings then become grist for the mill in therapy sessions regarding clients’ valuations and what their valuations mean about how they go about engaging day-to-day life. If I claim to embrace a set of core values around which I will live my life, then what will my life look like when I in fact seek to live out those core values on a daily basis?. As I look into my life, am I in fact seeking to live out the values I claim to embrace? If not, what is preventing me from living out my stated values? Do I need clarity on the means by which I will pursue certain ends pertaining to my values?

Other questions at a deeper level come to mind around values exploration work. If consistently I’m finding that I’m not acting upon the values I purport to hold, then do I in fact truly hold such values? Perhaps I need to explore what truly are my core values. Valuations should lead us to act and live in certain ways that align with our proposed core values and beliefs. Values are both beliefs we hold and ends toward which we move. Our ways of living out our core values are the means by which we move toward our desired ends. Consequently, it is important that we are clear as to what our values in fact are. If we’re not, then the work of counseling begins there, in values clarification. If we claim to have clarity as to our purported values, then the work of counseling becomes about how we live out those values. Beyond the counseling room, how we live in alignment with our core values becomes the way we live out our lives. Living in alignment with our values becomes our life work.

This month’s blog will explore value exploration work when we are clear or somewhat clear on our values, but we’re not sure as to why we are not living out those values. Or perhaps, we are not clear as to the means by which we are to live out our purported values. Usually the major obstacle that prevents our living in alignment with our values is our own self.

I will resume this discussion with the first blog of 2020 (01/14/20) and explore the deeper work of values exploration in counseling when we are not even sure as to what our values are.

Values Exploration in the Counseling Room

What Stands in the Way?

In my work as a therapist, I utilize the list that Miller and Rollnick proffer in their book, Motivational Interviewing. The subtitle of their work is Helping People Change. I have no doubt that one of the major ways that people can bring about change in their lives is to explore what they truly believe and value. Such changes occur on several levels. If I have a good hold on what my values are, then I may enter counseling to seek help as to how to follow and live those values out. As a client, I might be dissatisfied with the way my life is going for the simple reason that I have a good idea that I’m not living the way I would fully like to live. I’m not seeing in my life the fruit that should come from the ideas, beliefs, and values that I hold. Such a personal realization might lead me to seek help, input, and feedback from people I trust, which might entail entering a therapeutic relationship with someone. At this stage of how I see things, my work in counseling most likely will entail looking at more fruitful ways that I can bring about the desired ends I seek for my life. That is, I will want to search out how I can best bring about the fulfillment of my values in the way I hope to live day-to-day.

As such my counseling work will involve searching out what exactly it is that stands in the way of my living out what I claim to value. There are several discoveries that can come from such work. One of the obstacles that might be in my way is I myself. If we truly want to step into our core beliefs and values and live fully the way we desire to live, many times such decisions involve taking risks and making changes that take us out of the comfort zone of where we merely settle for what we can gain out of life with the least amount of effort. Such a dynamic is something we have to recognize as being a part of human nature. We have to become aware that many times we settle for things simply because it’s easier to do so, or because settling entails less risk. Becoming aware of our human nature can help us decide if we want to change things. Such awareness brings on choice and responsibility. We can stay where we are, or we can choose a different path. The problem is that if we stay where we are, we are already aware that while it feels safer and easier, such a choice doesn’t bring the fulfillment we desire in our lives. One of the major obstacles in living out our values is our self. I have seen this time and time again in the counseling room, as well as in my own life.

What Changes Are Necessary?

Once we become aware that we are the thing that’s in our own way, then it becomes more clear as to what changes we need to make. Perhaps it’s that job that has grown stagnate even though it pays the rent, puts food on the table, and contributes to a savings account. Although we value such responsible actions, perhaps the weightiness of the lack of fulfillment related to the job is starting to outweigh the benefits the job provides. Values exploration also entails how we value the way we have to go about making changes. Transitions in life (see here and here) are an important and weighty experience for all of us. We don’t merely willy-nilly decide to make a major change in our lives without thought and a plan. But we do need to know and decide that in fact we want to make a change. Good sense and common sense can help us decide some legitimate ways to make our desired transitions.

Perhaps it’s a stagnate relationship that is weighing us down and preventing us from following out the goals we have set for our lives. Staying in a relationship simply out of comfort is one of the more common experiences I have seen in people who enter the counseling room. Likewise, not knowing how to instill life into a relationship is another common experience I encounter in clients. Of course, making changes in relationships involves more than just one person, but such exploration can become the work of counseling. Relationship changes are difficult. Such explorations and discoveries are some of the most difficult we encounter and try to make happen. Like anything else, such changes take courage, the willingness not to settle.

Countless other things can stand in the way of living out our values in a fulfilling way that require changes. Finances, where we live, how we balance work and leisure, spiritual beliefs, the pursuit of meaning and purpose are just a few of the areas we can explore in the counseling room or with trusted mentors. We first, however, must become aware of what stands in the way, particularly if we are the ones standing in our own way. And then, we must become clear on the desired changes that must take place if we seek to live in alignment with our stated values. What are the ends, and what are the means to reach those ends?

Conclusion

Before closing, I want to state emphatically that there is much more to this discussion. Yes, I can be in my own way, particularly not wanting to take risks or put forth the required effort to make changes in my life that align with my values and goals. And yes, I need to become clear on what the specific changes entail that I need to make in order to align with my values and goals. I need to be clear on the ends and the means to reach those ends.

But there is another caveat to this work of values exploration that emerges in counseling. What if I simply don’t know what in fact are my core values? What if I lack clarity as to what are my core values, and I don’t know how to go about discovering what they are? Perhaps I’m the obstacle in my way, not because I don’t want to risk, but because I simply don’t know what I believe in my core. Perhaps, like many of us, I have inculcated values I claim to hold, but they are truly not my core values. Perhaps I haven’t taken the time to question values I say I hold, and decide if they are in fact my values. What prevents me from living a fulfilled life is not the unwillingness to take a risk on certain values, but comes with the fact that I simply don’t know what I value. Such questions and realizations are another aspect of values exploration. It is the type of work that I thoroughly enjoy undertaking with clients. This second, and what I call a deeper type of work in values exploration, is what I will write about with the first blog of the New Year 2020.

Suffice it to say for now, individuals can have a clear picture of the values they hold, and the kind of life they want for themselves, but they are not sure what prevents them from getting to their desired ends. They need to be clear on the obstacles in the way and the means they must take to reach their desired ends. Such work is worthwhile and important work. And it can be fulfilling work, both for clients and for counselors.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/October 14th, 2019

PROFESSIONAL COUNSELING

Launching Pad: Return to Some Previous Themes

Introduction

With last month’s blog, I explored my thoughts on what I call Philosophical Counseling. I want to continue that exploration this month and for a few blogs to follow in the future, returning to some themes that I have explored in the past on this blog. Beginning with last month’s blog, Philosophical Counseling, I am going to build on some thought about which I begin contemplating back in 2018 and before. The particular blog off which I will build is the one titled Game Plan, published on this blog on May 14th, 2018.

Launching Pad

In that blog article I delineated several area of interests or themes that I wanted to explore, pertaining both to my work as a counselor, and also to the way in which I want to formulate how I approach living life. I have come to hold that what we believe informs how we live, whether or not we are aware of our beliefs. Much of life’s struggle is developing the awareness of what we actually believe. In so doing, then we can begin to explore and question how we are going about life. The areas of interests I delineated in Game Plan are: mind, meaning-making, thought/action, finitude/humility, and worldview. In addition to that blog, I published several others that touched on these themes specifically. They can be found on these particular blogs: Meaning-Makers, Thinking, Living, and Reading “Worldviewishly, The Quest for Meaning: Part I, The Quest for Meaning: Part II, The Quest for Meaning: Part III, and Psychotherapy, Neuroscience, and Consilience. I would increase the five areas of interests to six, adding values exploration, or simply valuation. These six areas of interest form the foundation for launching my exploration into philosophical counseling that I described in an introductory fashion last month.

Mind

We live in an age of naturalism, materialism, and reductionism. Counter to these ideas come all sorts of New Age and postmodern formulations regarding the human makeup. As counselors, it seems to me that we have the responsibility to formulate our ideas about the human mind, at least to the degree that we can. Obviously, our worldviews will shape how we approach this question of research. Neuroscience is one of the cutting-edge fields today making inroads in defining and describing the human mind. Much of the thought from that direction is reductionist, equating the mind with the brain. Such discussions and debates around these formulations cannot help but highlight the clash of different worldviews. (For example, I’m a Christian and thereby not a reductionist.) Various worldviews will seek to uncover what I consider to be one of the mysteries of the human condition, the mind. How we think about the human mind cannot help but inform the way we work as counselors, as well as any other field of endeavor that deals with human experience. We appear to be trapped in this existence of having to turn the mind on itself so that we can comprehend it. We have to use our mind to study the mind.

Meaning-Making

I possess a strong conviction that human beings are meaning-makers, and for the most part they seek to make meaning of their lives and to carve out a meaningful existence. Another way to think about meaning-making entails the act of interpretation. We tend to interpret our experiences so as to make some sense of them. We want to understand the various experiences we encounter, both the good and the painful. We think in terms of good and bad or good and evil. We label experiences as pleasurable or painful. We talk about the meaning we garner from our work, or in many cases, the lack thereof. One of the things that many individuals fear the most is that they might come to regard their existence as a meaningless one. A wasted life is one of the most core fears we encounter. We try to ascertain the meaning of our various experiences such as the work we do, the careers on which we embark, the relationships we develop, and the explorations we search out around the world. We want to exit this life, holding that it was a meaningful one rather than one that totaled to a useless existence.

Thought/Action

I hold the strong conviction that one of the most meaningful ways to live involves our awareness of the manner in which what we think aligns with how we live. We want that alignment to forge a strong bond that tells us that we live in conjunction with our convictions. If that alignment fails us then we feel like a phony, or we might view ourselves as hypocritical. We do not want to be viewed as someone who tells people we believe one thing while living out the exact opposite. From a counseling perspective, clients may desire to explore this bond between thought and action. Before forging such a bond, they may want to explore what it is they actually believe. Upon understanding their belief systems, then they can better comprehend how to navigate the world as they see it.

Finitude/Humility

The notions that I have the one correct view of how the mind should be understood, or that I have no questions or concerns about how I make meaning of things, or that beyond a shadow of doubt my actions correspond to my beliefs, are simply supercilious notions. The mind is indeed a human mystery. Making meaning of life is a constant navigation, involving trial-and-error living. The same goes for thought and action. Our beliefs change over time. Experiences might even shatter some of the strong beliefs we held at one time in our lives. What we believe and how we live those beliefs out are never set once and for all without further deliberation, alteration, and possibly radical change. Finitude and humility simply mean that we approach life with the idea that what we don’t know is infinitely greater than what we do know. Moreover, even the things we have concluded, we may fail at. For various reasons I will on occasions not act in alignment with my beliefs. Such experiences are part of the human condition. Various spiritual traditions, for strong reasons, highlight the need for humility in our navigation of life.

Worldview

One of my favorite Christian authors is James Sire. His work, The Universe Next Door, is a compendium of worldview comparisons and contrasts. In this work, he defines worldview as follows:

A worldview is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true, or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live, move, and have our being [p. 17].


In dealing with questions and explorations about mind, meaning, thought and action, and in recognizing our finitude and humility, our worldviews cannot help but come into play. That does not mean that worldviews are lost in a sea of relativity whereby they cannot be critiqued. We are – or should be – aware that our personal worldviews are the frame of references by which we critique our own and different worldviews. Such awareness can help us garner as much objectivity as possible. But in comprehending how we understand mind, how we go about making meaning, how we assess alignment between our beliefs and actions, and how we embrace our finitude and humility, we must utilize the worldview that we hold at the moment to comprehend human nature and the human condition. We can’t do otherwise. If we live carelessly, what we can do, as Sire points out, is live out our worldviews inconsistently or in a state of unawareness. The human struggle entails the hard work of becoming aware of what it is we actually believe that, in turn, guides how we live. The more we are aware of our worldview, the better clarity we have in evaluating it and other worldviews. Clients may enter counseling to clarify their worldviews. They quite often enter counseling when their worldviews are challenged by life experiences.

Valuation

No doubt, clients enter counseling to explore and, what Nietzsche calls, to reevaluate their values. I recently authored a blog article titled, Counseling as the Science of Human Action, and one similar two years earlier titled, Human Action and Personal Journeys. In both those articles I discussed the importance of means and ends that human beings grasp to pursue their goals. An end is a valued goal. A goal that one wants to obtain speaks to a value that one holds. How one achieves those ends are the means one embraces to reach their desired goals. Clients can either lack clarity about their values, which will help them understand why the means they utilize might not be working in their lives, or they can embrace inculcated values in ways they have not truly thought out for themselves. They may not actually value what they claim to value. If one clarifies his values, he will have a clear picture of the means he needs to embrace to accomplish his valued ends. Hence, valuation, and particularly, value exploration is a sixth theme I’ve added to the five themes discussed above. I have worked with several clients who have done the work of value exploration. Our values inform and contribute to our meaning-making and our worldviews.

Conclusion

Following last month’s blog article about Philosophical Counseling, I have returned this month to these six themes discussed in this blog article. In pursuit of a practice that I would designate as philosophical counseling, building on these six themes is a necessity. Hence, each of themes will form an important discussion, in-and-of-themselves, moving forward as I put together the pieces of a philosophical counseling practice. My work will, and must, follow from a worldview that comprises my Christian beliefs. Although such a worldview is not a match for many of the clients that will walk into my office, I have a strong conviction that I can work with anyone, regardless of the worldview he or she holds. Clarifying values and worldview with the desired end of making meaning is a task that can and will, I believe, draw many to the counseling process.

I welcome and invite readers to join me and offer feedback and critique over the next few months and longer as I build on the six themes discussed here in putting together my thoughts and ideas on a philosophical counseling practice.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/ September 14th, 2019

GENERAL ESSAY

Philosophical Counseling

Introduction

This month’s blog article kicks off the beginning of my seventh year of blogging for Contemplations. Interestingly enough, I believe it has taken me seven years to fully formulate how I conceptualize my practice. Over the last several months I have written several blog articles that deal with the theme of means and ends. (They can be found here and here.) Additionally, I also have written some blogs on meaning making and the good life. My practice, Contemplations, began as one offering an existential approach to counseling. As such, rather than operating off the medical model, my practice sought to engage clients along the lines of philosophical thought. The aim of my practice is to utilize philosophical ideas brought to the nitty-gritty of living life day-to-day, rather than some academic conversations around philosophical topics. Philosophical counseling became for me an idea that I wanted to explore.

Philosophical Counseling

The Search for Meaning and Purpose

The philosophical counseling movement began and took root nearly three decades ago. Although I was drawn to such a form of counseling, I had some concerns about how a private practice around the notion of philosophical counseling might operate. As an approach to counseling, it sounds more like what many people designate as coaching. The idea of being a professional coach did not appeal to me. Philosophical counseling as an inchoate idea began for me several decades ago when I read Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. I knew I wanted to shape my practice around people’s search for meaning, but I didn’t know to call it philosophical counseling. As such, I envisioned my practice as involving a place where people can come to explore what their lives are all about. Rather than a technical practice, utilizing specific interventions for diagnostic matters, I established Contemplations as a place for people to take a step back, slow down their pace, and embrace some time to reflect on matters that were important to them. My practice, then, would entail the primary work of exploration. Since I opened Contemplations, I have spoken with numerous clients who wanted to explore the idea of a meaningful and purposeful life. Whether their exploration focused on career, finances, relationships, or family, they wanted a time and place to formulate their thoughts. Carving out a meaningful existence is important to people. A counseling practice can focus on such a search.

Encountering Life Difficulties and Obstacles

There is the reality that people enter counseling because they face difficulties in life that they are not sure how to navigate. Such difficulties come in all variations. Individuals may experience obstacles to the goals they set for themselves. Some difficulties entail simply the normal stuff that life throws at us. Other difficulties may entail huge barriers we bump against that we weren’t expecting. They become formal foes about which we don’t know what to do. Although philosophical counseling can most definitely help people problem-solve so as to navigate barriers that life places along our paths, another angle to this approach helps clients reflect on what such problems in life mean, how they deal with these problems, and what they learn about themselves as they seek to navigate the difficulties they encounter. Philosophical counseling then focuses on process as much or more than it does on content. In so doing, it doesn’t obviate problem solving, but it does help prioritize clients’ understanding of matters before too quickly delving into problem solving. This approach to counseling can help clients reflect on how they deal with setbacks, illnesses, losses, and failures that occur as they pursue their life goals.

Life Transitions

Life transitions (see here, here, and here) have been a focus of the work I engage in my practice. Transitions cover the gamut of human experience. Such changes in life as graduating from college and entering the job market, changing jobs, moving to a new city, marriage and starting a family, divorce and ending relationships, and retirement can produce upheaval and anxieties in people’s lives. Counseling can help individuals navigate these transitions as life brings them on. In such transitions, the search for meaning never fades away. The manner in which we take on these transitions will say a lot about the way we view life and the principles by which we live. Philosophical counseling can help individuals shape their thoughts around such concerns.

Life Goals: Means, Ends, and Valuation

Individuals set goals for themselves. They enter counseling for various reasons regarding the goals they hope to achieve. They may not be certain as to what their goals actually are. They may have originally thought that they had certain ends they set for themselves, but have come to question whether or not their desired ends are truly ones they desire. If they are clear as to the ends they set for themselves, then they may want to enter counseling to discuss the best pathways to their ends. Such pathways I call means. Means and ends entail a process that people can embrace to obtain ideas as to the best ways to accomplish their ends. Discussing means to ends also helps individuals clarify their ends. Anytime we discuss ends in counseling, we are also discussing evaluation. Values exploration has become an important part of the work I want to do in counseling. Although people may have an idea as to what their core values are, as they explore those they may come to realize that many of their values they have inculcated without personally reflecting upon the question as to whether such designated values are truly ones they embrace. Again, a philosophical approach to counseling can aid people in these explorations.

Spirituality

If counseling entails clients clarifying their values and searching out their goals, then it may very well entail some exploration into a client’s spirituality or spiritual beliefs. Contemplations is a practice where clients’ spiritual beliefs are welcome. Many individuals embrace some form of spirituality to navigate their lives. Their spirituality informs them as to their values and the principles by which they live. Likewise, individuals can enter therapy when they encounter difficulties with and doubts about their spiritual beliefs. The counseling room is a place where such explorations can take place. Moreover, spirituality can, and most likely will, inform all the areas of focus that have been delineated in this blog article. People draw on their core spiritual beliefs to work through life difficulties, transitions, and goals, and especially in their search for meaning and purpose. As such, exploration of one’s spirituality involves discussions that are personal, meaningful, and philosophical.

Conclusion

I’ve been asked by several people over the years about why I chose this path for my practice rather than working with populations where people experience severe depression, debilitating anxiety, or life-altering psychotic disorders. First, I am glad that there are people who want to work in mental health clinics and mental health hospital settings. The work done in those settings is highly needed and rewarding, I’ve done a little of that work along the way, but I decided it was not the type of work on which I wanted to fully focus. Second, sometimes the search for meaning and purpose can leave people feeling highly anxious and deeply depressed. I’ve worked with such clients on more than several occasions. It is not as though these concerns do not emerge in the kind of work I do. Third, and I think this addresses the premise behind some of the questions relating to setting, the work I do is just as important as the work done in mental health clinics and hospitals. The people searching out this work encounter struggles in life that counseling can help them navigate just like anyone else. I also believe that those who experience severe depression and debilitating anxiety also experience crises in meaning. Although the work involved may include more clinical interventions before such clients can face existential issues, their existential crises are real. Philosophical counseling is an approach that counselors can embrace to pursue and obtain a fulfilling practice. The human condition places all of us before the vagaries of life whereby we deal with time, meaning, and fulfillment. Human beings are meaning makers. Why wouldn’t therapists seek to work with clients who search for a life that is fulfilling?

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/August 14th, 2019

PROFESSIONAL COUNSELING

Counseling as a Science of Human Action

Introduction

Two years ago to this date, I authored a blog about human action and personal journeys (here). Since that time, my thoughts have taken on more shape as to how I think human action, an idea from the great economist Ludwig von Mises, readily applies to the field of counseling. Although a concept used by Mises in the field of economics, it equally applies to the field of counseling because Mises saw human action as an approach not only to economics but to life as a whole. Human action is not a conceptual tool merely for economists. It’s an idea that addresses how human beings approach life. In some ways Mises’ idea is similar to some of Alfred Adler’s work, and more contemporarily, to some of the ideas found in Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Likewise, although Mises spoke about the science of human action, he held strongly to the notion that economics was not and should not be conceptualized as a science in the framework of the natural or physical sciences. Both Mises and F.A. Hayek, another great Austrian economist, addressed the notion of scientism, whereby fields that deal with human action seek to emulate the natural sciences rather than carving out their own domain utilizing the proper tools for the study of that domain. As such Mises was leery of the emphasis on strict empiricism, materialism, determinism, and reductionism in conceptualizing human beings and human action. Evaluation, meaning, and purpose ensconced in time set the human being apart from other animals. I concur with Mises, and I believe just as he viewed economics, that the field of counseling is not a hard science, as designated by the fields of physics, chemistry, and biology. Although these fields make their important contributions to understanding human nature, the human being is more than the sum of his physical and biochemical parts, and his existence should not be reduced to any material part of his being. The use of his mind sets him apart from all other animals. In agreement with Adler, Mises posits the human being’s teleological actions. Why I would employ notions garnered from Mises rather than being a straightforward Adlerian is because I think Mises captured what he calls the science of human action in a way that, at least for me, is more applicable than several Adlerian concepts from which I wouldn’t draw. Likewise, I believe ACT has similar concepts that contribute to my conceptualization of human action. Unlike ACT, however, I’m not a behaviorist.  This blog article builds on the earlier blog I wrote and delineates how I would use Mises’ concepts as a science of human action to guide me in my work with clients.

Human Action

Mises posited a simple axiom: human act. In his approach to the science of human action, he sought to explain what human action is all about and how human beings use action to obtain what they seek and hope for in life. From an economic perspective, Mises postulated that human beings seek to exchange one set of circumstances for another set of circumstances that they view as more valuable, providing them the kind of life they desire. Hence, human beings evaluate. They exchange something for something else that they value more. Although Mises was an economist, he was also a social scientist, so he didn’t view human action in merely economic terms as we think of that field today. He sought in the science of human action how we could better come to understand the truths of human nature. The human being is an idea generator. His ideas guide him through life.

Ideas, Beliefs, Values, and Actions

Individuals act toward certain goals based on ideas and beliefs they hold and evaluations they make. Hence the goals they set are generated by beliefs and values they hold, beliefs and values that will lead them to the kind of lives they hope for themselves. In seeking to carve out their lives based on what they believe and how they evaluate things in the world, human beings act on what they hold to be true and valuable to themselves. In other words, they seek certain valued ends. Ends or goals that human beings seek require means to get to those ends. The actions that human beings take are the means to bring about the ends for which they hope, aim, and value. Beliefs and evaluations mean we use our mind to carve out our existences, setting us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.

Time

As human beings we are ensconced in time. We possess only a limited amount of it to accomplish what we hope to achieve. In making plans or setting goals, we must take into account that to reach the ends we hope for, a certain amount of time must be expended. We cannot escape that human truth. Questions revolving around time cause other values to come into play. How much time am I willing to expend to reach a certain goal? Is the amount of time required worth the trade off for seeking that end? Are there means I can use to reduce the amount of time it takes to reach a specific goal? If not, then am I willing to embrace the value of delayed gratification. Time is an important consideration on several levels. Time is a resource with which we are limited. Time is the pressure cooker that heats up our willingness to expend energy that we put into seeking certain ends. It is human nature to want the things we desire as quickly as we can get them with the least amount of effort expended. Becoming aware of this characteristic in our nature, we can choose to do something about it. The something we can choose is delayed gratification. We exchange the discomfort of longer amounts of time and greater amounts of effort required for goals that we believe will be worthwhile in the long run. Long- run living as opposed to short-run living is an exchange we make in life based on values we’re willing to embrace. Obviously, the older we get, the more the factor time plays in our decisions. Time is always the pressure point in the decisions we make for how we want to live our lives.

Choice

One of the major characteristics that set the human being apart from other animals is the use of our mind in making choices. The choices we make are signposts regarding the beliefs we hold and the evaluations we make about things in the world. We choose our ends, and then we choose the means to accomplish those ends in the most efficient manner we can. If we come to realize that our chosen ends are not necessarily the ones we truly desire, then we change our mind, and thereby, change our course in life. These changes cost effort and time. If we come to realize that the evaluations we make are not necessarily the values we thought we held, then a change in valuation leads to life changes as well. As we navigate the sinuous path called life, we are constantly faced with choices we have to make. Do I truly value A instead of B? If I thought I valued A but came to realize I value B, then what does that mean in terms of means and ends? What if I set my mind on an end, and then realize it’s not an end that I truly desire? Such changes in beliefs, values, and goals can lead to particular tweaks applied to our navigations, or they may lead to revolutions as to how we determine to pursue life. Along the way, there are always the choices we make and the questions revolving around the payoffs and trade offs that go with those choices.

Individual Meaning and Purpose

Another major characteristic that sets human beings off from other animals is our desire to pursue a meaningful and purposeful life. We set ends for ourselves because we value those ends. Where we want to get to, what we want to achieve, and all we hope to accomplish means something to us on a deep level. A common experience we encounter is that as we set ends and accomplish them, those ends themselves can become means that keep us moving on toward what we consider greater and deeper goals. All in all, ends and the means we use to accomplish them hopefully will lead us to a place in life that is meaningful for us. Values, meaning, and purpose go hand-in-hand and drive each individual toward a set of goals. As such, they are highly individualistic as opposed to collectivistic. Each individual must decide what he or she wants from life. Although we are interconnected, no other individual can ultimately decide the course of our lives for us. If we give that decision over to someone else, then we have given over our life to someone else. In doing so, we become less than human. Mises was highly individualistic in his formulations, and so am I.

Conclusion

What does a science of human action mean for my work as a counselor? I too have chosen ends. I do not work in a hospital setting or in what may be considered severe mental illness settings. Although that kind of work is valuable, I leave it to those who choose to do it. I work in a private practice geared toward individuals who are experiencing certain transitions in their lives. Such transitions lead them to question what’s next in their lives. They may need to explore what means they can use to accomplish the ends they hope to achieve. Then again, they may not be that clear as to the ends they want to pursue. Or they may need to start with clarifying exactly what their values are before they begin moving forward in their lives. In their work with me they can take the time to reflect – to contemplate – how their beliefs and values interact with the goals they want to set for themselves. They may need to stare the pressure cooker of time in the face and deal with how much or how little of that resource they possess. Perhaps time is teaching them the lesson to exchange short-run living for long-run living in the form of delayed gratification. They may be faced with the struggle of radically changing what they thought they believed and valued. Perhaps it’s time for them to search for and reflect on what is ultimately meaningful and purposeful for them. This is the kind of work I do.

Science is a systematized body of knowledge. What Mises designated as a science of human action does not draw on the methods and tools utilized in the natural sciences. Counseling is its own domain and field of endeavor. It is not physics, nor is it chemistry. To seek to emulate those fields would entail scientism rather than being scientific. The field of counseling possesses its own value in what it offers individuals. The counseling setting is a space where people can reflect on what they want to do and how they can move toward what they desire for their lives. Humans act. One action is to enter therapy to reflect, clarify, contemplate, and then evaluate so as to move toward certain goals. This is all part of human action. The conclusions that people reach in counseling are not left at the door as they exit the counseling process. Like anything else that human beings engage, clients will decide what value counseling played in their lives. They will act on it accordingly as they see fit.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/July 14th 2019

PROFESSIONAL COUNSELING

Lessons In Time

Introduction

When we think beyond an ordinary watch or clock, Time becomes one of those mysteries that has drawn the interests of physicists, metaphysicists, and philosophers of all persuasions. Existentially, time can be both an ally and an enemy, depending on how we relate to it. Time should always be our ally, but it doesn’t always work out that way for us. I think the only reason we would view it negatively springs from the fact that we might not have used it in the most efficient manner. Time carries those lessons of life, some we wish we would have learned earlier, and others we wish we wouldn’t have had to learn at all. It stares us in the face whether or not we like it. We stand in its midst and are caught in its flow even when we would prefer that not to be the case. We would like the ability to slow it down and even halt its onslaught on occasions. Other experiences find us wanting to speed it up exponentially. Whatever the case, our not letting time be what it is – Time – is the main factor we don’t learn from it what we can.

Time as a Teacher of Wisdom

No doubt, most of us heard our parents and grandparents proclaim how fast time would pass, and suddenly we would be looking upon our pasts as the largest part of our existence. Having reached the mark of a septuagenarian, I can attest that everything my dad said about how quickly the decades, especially those following my school days, would speed by is true. It appears over the years that time exponentially speeds up. I’m certain that the twenty-four hours in a day are the same now that they were when I was twelve, but the way they fly by feels very different than when I used to wait impatiently at my school desk for the afternoon bell to signal the end of the school day.

Biblical writings teach us wisdom concerning time. Such wisdom is one of those things of life I wish I had learned earlier rather than later. Psalm 103 proclaims that human life is like a flower of the field, flourishing for a while, and then gone with the wind in the bat of an eye. The wind passes over this flower, says the author King David, and its place is remembered no longer. In Psalm 90, Moses compares the passing of years to the eternal God. A thousand years to God is like but yesterday when it passed. A millennium to God is but a watch in the night. This Psalm likewise compares the years of life to the grass or a flower in the field: like the grass that is renewed in the morning/in the morning it is renewed/in the evening it fades and withers. The Psalm goes on to say that the years of our lives are soon gone, and we fly away. Given this shortness of life, the Psalmist asks God: teach us to number our days/that we may get a heart of wisdom. Hence, time and its relation to our lives is viewed as something from which we can garner valuable lessons that can lead us to accrue wisdom if we so choose to relate to it in a way that allows it to teach us. What are some of the lessons that time can teach us if we are open to letting it be our teacher?

Time is Relentless

I’m sure that most of us have seen family pictures comprising family members with their young kids at preschool age and have read captions like, don’t blink, where did the years go, or turn, turn, turn, now they’re grown. Quite frankly, the decades of life do seem to pass in light-speed, especially when you look back on them. I can remember high school graduation night like it was yesterday, as the adage goes. The notion that in 2020, someone born in 1990 will be thirty years old is almost beyond comprehension. More emphatically, I remember how lively and fun my parents were when they were in their thirties and forties. Both of them died in their seventies although those fun-filled times seem recent, but they passed like the bat of an eye. Don’t blink is indeed a good lesson to learn about time. Savor the moments, don’t waste them, and don’t wish them away just so you’ll get to Friday faster. Wishing away time is like wishing away pearls of wisdom that you’re letting slip through your fingers. There’s no way to hold onto anything forever; all will pass. But you can find ways to savor the good tastes of life. Time will not prevent you from going old. Just the opposite, it will take you where you may not be ready to go. Time doesn’t care whether or not you’re willing to be in its flow. We can fight it, or we can learn to be at peace with it. Some of the saddest people I know are those in their sixty’s or older, looking back and believing that they have wasted their lives. That hard and harsh reality brings up all sorts of lessons upon which we can reflect regarding our relationship to time.

The Now Is Always of the Essence

I’m sure most of us think about certain plans that we had on which we never acted. Such a fact doesn’t have to be catastrophic, unless inaction represents a pattern throughout our lives. Another major lesson to learn about our relationship to time is to avoid getting caught up in the past or lost in the future to the point that such entanglements rob us of our present. For sure, there’s nothing wrong in reflecting on the past for the sake of good memories or learning lessons. And there’s nothing wrong with planning for the future with some vision of what we hope it may look like and bring. But if learning from the past and planning for the future doesn’t impact what we do in the present, then we’re wasting the valuable commodity of time. There’s a skill in embracing the existential now. The skill entails our ability to think and act in the moment so as to carve out our lives with which we’ll move forward. Such in-the-moment living doesn’t mean we don’t make mistakes, miscues, and outright screw-ups. It simply means we take in and live with the hits and misses that make up our day-to-day living. The ability to navigate the now so as to build a life is one of the most important keys to obtaining wisdom. The lessons we learn by embracing the now are the ones that can protect us from wasting the commodity of time. There will always be those thoughts about events where we wish we would have done things differently. But those events don’t have to represent our lives at large. Even when we reach our septuagenarian years and older, the now is still with us. Thomas A’ Kemp, author of the classic work, Imitation of Christ, in one of his many aphorisms in that work stated that if there was something you wanted to do at a younger age and didn’t get it done, then do it now. If we have to come to grips at an older age that there were things we let pass by, it still is not too late to at least try them from a different perspective and age. We can’t be thirty and do them, but we can be seventy and do them in a manner that is fulfilling – or at least we can try. There is also the lesson that we can embrace whereby we settle in and understand that many of our choices have been made, and we must live with what those choices brought us. The fact that I chose a counseling career over an engineering field is done. The fact that I chose to stay in school for years to pursue a Ph.D. is done, and those years are gone, and they’ve brought what they brought. Although I can’t alter them, I can still make some alterations and decide on how to carve some new paths at this stage of life. They will not be and can’t be the paths that a thirty-year-old would have made with all the vigor and energy of a thirty-year-old. But they can nonetheless be new opportunities and exciting in their own right. Those are choices and possible paths that I face in my given now that make up my present.

Choices and Consequences

One of the things that we don’t like about time is that in its wake we have cast choices that have rendered consequences, both to our like and dislike. For the latter, we simply may have to embrace the fact that choices we didn’t like have been cast, and we can’t go back and undo them. Some choices hurt us and other people, and the simple fact may be that we are left to live with that reality. Some choices throw us so far off track, that we spend much of our commodity of time trying to get back on the right road. We have to live with the fact that some things we do take us places we would have preferred not to go. They make us face things about ourselves that we would prefer not to face. None of this means that people can’t change and overcome some bad choices. It does mean, however, that there are some things in our lives that we cast in the wake of time, and we simply have to let them lie there. Regret is a heavy-duty concept. But there are some actions we might have taken in life that we regret, even though we learned the lesson from them that we needed to learn. Ideas, beliefs, and choices based on those ideas and beliefs have consequences. Sometimes we choose to go against our beliefs and ideas, and those choices too have consequences. I’m sure that we have all known people, and that we have seen it in ourselves as well, where once choices are cast, we want to go back and undo those choices as though they never happened. We want everything to go back and be the way it was before we made the choice. Another valuable lesson about time is that it can’t be rewound. There are no do-overs. Overcome things, we can do by the power of the Spirit. Make things as though they never happened, that we can’t do. Consequences follow choices. Although they can be painful, consequences can also be valuable learning lessons. Whether or not they become valuable learning lessons is still another choice we have to make.

Delayed Gratification

Several times throughout this article, I have designated time as a commodity. Although our time is much more than a simple commodity, it at least is a commodity that we use wisely or unwisely. One of the major lessons to learn about time is delayed gratification. It is a lesson lost on many people today. Perhaps it always has been. Perhaps even it is one of the most difficult lessons to learn about time and human action. We all hope to carve out a certain kind of life for ourselves. Putting in the time to develop ourselves – knowledge, skills, experience, deeper understanding of things – is one of the most important investments we’ll make toward this commodity we all have called time. It is human nature to want what we want as quick as we can get it, expending the least amount of effort to get it. If we become aware of that fact, we can do something about it so that it doesn’t derail us all the time. The 10k rule applies here hard and fast. Putting time and concerted effort into self-development is one of the most important investments we can make. And such development is not simply about working skills. People skills, interpersonal relational skills, and the skills to learn from others are all part of the development. And then there’s the skill to learn from our failures. All such deepening requires time – reflection, study, effort, contemplation, and action. The results are what countless spiritual writers call wisdom. The great Austrian economist, Ludwig von Mises, in one of his works stated what I have come to believe is a simple truth: There are no shortcuts to wisdom.

Conclusion

Patience is a virtue .  .  . A stitch in time .  .  . Home runs are only for baseball .  .  . These are statements, adages, that I’m sure we’ve all heard or read. There are reasons that some ideas become adages. They are cast in the real stuff of life. Biblically, patience is not only a virtue, it is considered a fruit of the Spirit. A stitch in time is simply about facing the problems and struggles of the day so that one doesn’t have to face them over and over again down the road as though they are always something new. What we learn to solve today will mean we don’t have to spend valuable time on the same problem down the road. We learn lessons that contribute to skills that aid us on our journey in living. And yes, home runs are fun in a baseball game. Babe Ruth swung for the fence and held the home run record for decades. He also held the American League for strike outs five different times, totaling over 1300 strike outs. Too often, rather than taking the patient path of skill building, learning, and developing our selves, we want the payoff right now. Swing for the fence. There may be a time in life’s decisions to swing for the fence, but most often, it’s that slow slug paced effort toward building life skills that pays off in the long run. Yes, time is more than a commodity. But it is at least a commodity to which we relate all of our lives. What we do with it counts. How to rightly relate to and sow our seeds in time are some of the most valuable life lessons we’ll ever grow and build.

Time is always an ally if we choose to see it as such, and now is always with us so that we can begin to rightly relate to this ominous thing called Time.    

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/June 14th, 2019

GENERAL ESSAY

Meaning-Makers

Introduction

We are searching today for many things. Whether it is connection, security, material wealth, or health and happiness, there appears to be a whole list of things that people believe will bring them some form of significance, recognition, and comfort. There also appears to be a desire to obviate the struggles inherent in living. We want those things that will enhance our personal nirvanas without having to get our hands dirty, experience some bumps and bruises, and perhaps go through some difficult times. I think these desires say something about human beings in that we basically have a longing within us for some type of personal meaning. Indeed, we are meaning-making creatures. Although at times we may not want to admit it, we long for something deep within us that will tell us that life is meaningful. We want to believe that this existence counts for something, that we’re not just merely here for a brief moment, and then gone like some meaningless vapor.

The Search for Meaning

One of the works that had the most impact on me when I was a student, and then later as a professional counselor, is Viktor Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning. I believe as he proffered in that work that we human beings are meaning-making creatures, regardless of how actively aware our search for meaning may be. Given that belief, some years back I began my private counseling practice that I call Contemplations. I sought to provide time and space for people to enter counseling so that they could explore what is valuable in life for them. More importantly, upon discovering what is valuable to them, how could they go about living out the values they claim to embrace? Obviously, such searching is never done once and for all in this life, but is indeed a life-long process full of sinuous paths that twist and turn in various directions with hills and dales along the way. One’s search for meaning in life is a quest that speaks to our being human. Our search is for something that speaks to our core that tells who we are and what we’re all about. What are some characteristics of this search?

Day-to-Day Living

An important realization about our search for meaning is that it addresses all facets of life. There’s not one big M (Meaning) that ends the search for everyone. Meaning and purpose are what drive us to face and live through each day. For many people such a drive may be found in their work. Many artists and entrepreneurs would claim that their work and creativity give them purpose to continue on each day. Others may find such purpose in connection and family. Still others may find such value in serving other people in some way. Some search for the meaning in some form of spirituality. Then others may find a meaningful and fulfillment existence in striking a balance in all the above – work, family, service, and spirituality. Some individuals believe that spirituality is what allows them to strike such a balance. Whatever it is that gives people meaning and purpose, it is that thing that allows them to face existence day-in-and-day-out. It allows them to face the challenges that come their way that may lead them to question their values and what they believe to be meaningful.

The Struggle for Existence

A second characteristic of our search is that it will involve struggles, questions, and doubts. If something is worth pursuing to a meaningful level, it will not all the time come easy. Existence and the experiences it entails have a way of testing what we truly value and desire in life. Values are formed through the tests of fire. We may find through particular experiences that we actually value something different than we originally believed. Likewise, we are faced with the question through the fire of experience whether or not we’re willing to pay the costs to carve out the life we believe to be meaningful. These struggles are the very things that lead many people to give up their search and live what Thoreau called lives of quiet desperation. The thing I’m not saying is that we should purposely search for difficulties, struggles, and pain in our lives. That’s called masochism. Life has a way of bringing about enough struggles without our having to look for them or create them. People’s struggles also vary from individual to individual. We all have our own level of difficulties and what they produce in our lives. The key thing to understand is that if we want something that is meaningful on a deep level to us, it will require something more than smooth sailing.

The Search for Meaning is Individual

The notion of individualism today is chock full of baggage, misunderstanding, and political correctness. We are all connected to others, and we have been since we were brought into existence via a family, society, and culture. Regardless, our search for meaning is something we must carry out individually, even if it entails how we hope to relate to others. For example, if one finds meaning in family or serving others, that person doesn’t lose who he or she is in the process. Indeed, following out what one believes to be meaningful enhances rather than annihilates one’s personal identity. No other human being can give you your meaning or create your life for you. For sure, we seek out those whom we believe to be wise and from whom we can garner understanding and wisdom. Ultimately however, individually we must decide our life’s path and follow it.

A Note on Spirituality

As a Christian, I believe that I will find my ultimate meaning in my relationship with the Triune God. Not everyone will agree with me here, but it is my personal belief. Some may ask if I’m not just looking for another form of the big M. In saying that my personal meaning is found in my relationship with God, that entails the way I am to live from day-to-day. From the Christian perspective, we call such daily living our sanctification, by which we seek to become conformed to the image of Christ. Like any search and hope, this involves daily living with struggles that challenge our faith, make us question things, and even doubt things about our faith. Such a relationship with God also entails a calling. Work, family, and service of some kind are all inherent in a personal calling, one that each of us must search out for him- or herself. Just as no one can give me meaning, no other person can have faith for me. My faith falls within my calling and personal relationship with God.  

Conclusion

Not everyone will agree with me regarding my spiritual beliefs as a Christian. My private practice is open to all. Contemplations is a space where anyone who desires can take the time to explore what they truly value – what is purposeful and meaningful for them. I deeply believe that we are meaning-making creatures. The struggles that life throws at us will make us question a lot of things. Life’s experiences will lead us to question our very act of making meaning. The depth of living comes at the risk of pursuing what we claim to value so as to live the way we hope to live, finding our meaning in the day-to-day battles and blessings of life.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/May 14th, 2019

GENERAL ESSAY