Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) Part II: Psychological Flexibility

Introduction

In this month’s blog article, I continue my discussion of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) which began with last month’s discussion of ACT and the notion of psychological inflexibility.  Countering the notion of inflexibility, ACT therapists conceptualize their work with clients as building psychological flexibility. ACT theorists have developed what they call the Hexaflex to conceptualize both psychological inflexibility and psychological flexibility. Last month’s article delineated the six core pathological processes that lead toward inflexibility. In this month’s article, I will delineate what ACT practitioners call the Six Core Therapeutic Processes that help clients strengthen psychological flexibility. The six core therapeutic processes are: 1) Contacting the Present Moment; 2) Defusion; 3) Acceptance; 4) Self-as-Context; 5) Values; 6) Committed Action. Each of these therapeutic processes counter the six core pathological processes discussed in Part I of my discussion of ACT.

A Couple of Reiterations

I want to recall some things from Part I of this discussion. First, one should keep in mind that the six core processes of ACT are not separate processes. All six processes work in a holistic manner to help clients develop psychological flexibility. Another clarification I want to reiterate is that as a counseling practitioner, I do not believe that one theoretical approach answers all concerns that clients bring to therapy. Even if such an approach could be developed, it would not eliminate the usefulness of other approaches that have been developed from which practitioners could draw. A final point I want to reemphasize is that I do believe ACT to be a theoretical model and way of practicing that easily integrates with a variety of other approaches to counseling. As one who practices from an existential framework, I find ACT a highly flexible (no pun intended) model for those practitioners who consider themselves integrationists or eclectic. The model itself pulls on several eclectic and philosophical ways of thinking. No doubt ACT purists consider themselves behaviorists. I think of ACT from a different perspective. I find this model intriguing, powerfully holistic, and one that clients can easily grasp, though much of the work, as any work in therapy, can be difficult.

The Six Core Processes of ACT

Contacting the Present Moment (Be Here Now)

Have you ever taken a morning stroll, whether it be through a wooded path, along a lake shore, or around the block, and when you return home you realize that you do not remember a thing you encountered because you were caught up in your ruminating thoughts, worries, and concerns the whole time you were walking? You don’t remember what you encountered, what you saw, the breeze or lack of breeze you felt, the sounds you heard, or the smells in the morning air. Quite frankly, such experiences are common among human beings. When we are caught up in our thoughts, we tend to lose contact with our experiential encounters with the world around us. Not that thinking is a bad thing, or that reflection on problems we want to solve is something we should never do. But when our thoughts capture us to the point that we lose all sense of what is going on around us, we have lost the ability to be present in the moment. Such present awareness is a grounding experience. Being present in the moment not only pertains to the physical environment around us, but also it pertains to our psychological world. Most importantly, it speaks to both simultaneously. Being here now is a personal awareness experience that helps us stay in the moment as opposed to drifting onto automatic pilot where we simply go through the motions during the day without being aware of anything around us. Why is contacting the present moment, being here now, an important component of psychological flexibility?

Defusion (Watch Your Thinking)

ACT practitioners talk about cognitive defusion, which is the opposite of getting caught up in the cognitive rumination whereby we are guided by our thoughts in a way that keeps us from being presently aware. The practice of defusion calls for people to step back from their thoughts, let them come and go, and disentangle themselves from ruminative thinking. From the conceptualization of ACT, thoughts are nothing more than words that we say to ourselves or pictures that fill our head. Rather than being grasp as realities, they can be held lightly so as to be understood as useful or not. The major work is to help clients in ways that they do not get tangled up in their thoughts. When it comes to experiences such as depression and anxiety, rumination and the inability to break out of certain patterns of thinking maintains those experiences. The practice of mindfulness can be used here to help clients defuse from their thinking. Mindfulness helps clients be here and now. When clients develop the practice of defusion, they are more psychologically flexible because their thoughts as patterns no longer have a hold on them.

Acceptance (Open Up)

When we experience painful feelings and unwanted emotions, naturally we want them to stop. We develop methods of avoiding them. Though such avoidance can be helpful at times, most of the time it prevents us from dealing with uncomfortable and painful experiences that face us. In a mindfulness way, acceptance means that we let go of the struggle we face with painful feelings, sensations, urges, and emotions. Mindfulness activities can be utilized with helping clients develop acceptance. In a sense, acceptance helps people give breathing space to those experiences they would rather avoid so as to cease the fight and resistance, and face them so as to deal with them. No doubt, acceptance is a loaded term. Acceptance does not mean that we learn to like such negative experiences, or that we welcome them. It simply means we accept the fact that they are with us, we give them breathing space, and we place them in some psychological light so that we can face them and understand what they mean for us.

Self-as-Context (Pure Awareness)

When we think of being human, different people conceptualize human beings in a variety of ways. The common language regarding being human revolves around words like mind, body, spirt, and soul. Some people believe we are pure mind, while others hold a more materialistic view of human beings. The behavioral formulation from ACT comes through in dealing with the concept of self. As I spoke in Part I of this ongoing discussion of ACT, I’m not a fully Eastern in my thought as some ACT therapists are. I do believe there are some things we can learn from Eastern thought, but I do believe in a core self and identity. ACT theorists conceptualize the mind in terms of what they call the thinking self and the observing self. When we are caught up in our thinking, which entail generating thoughts, beliefs, memories, and judgments, according to ACT we are experiencing the thinking self. The thinking self makes plans, daydreams, and fantasizes about things. The observing self, on the other hand, is an in-the-moment experience. We are experiencing the observing self when we are aware that we are thinking, feeling, sensing, or whatever it is we are doing in the moment. Some people call this pure awareness. ACT practitioners call it self-as-context. We all go through life changing, growing, developing, letting go of and picking up new values and beliefs. Yet the you that notices these changes across time does not change. This you is what ACT therapists consider the observing self or self-as-context. Again it is an understanding of human experience that contributes to our ability to become aware.

Values (Know What Matters)

Much of my work with clients revolves around their becoming aware of what they value and then seeking to live in alignment with their values. Sometimes such work leads to clients’ exploring what they claim to value, only to find out that they, in fact, do not value what they claim. Such values exploration is important work because if I become aware that I really don’t value things as I say, or perhaps I’ve merely inculcated them from my surrounding family, society, or culture, then I must pursue and discover for myself what I truly value. Exploring and questioning values is important awareness work as well. Clients enter therapy at times saying they value things, but find they are acting in ways not in alignment with what they claim to value. Why is this the case? A value is that which deep in our heart says, this is what I want my life to be about. So questions such as, what do I stand for, or what do I want to do with this one life I have in this brief moment that I have it, get at what we value. We can watch the ships sail by and never choose to set sail with any of them. We can listen to the second hand of the clock tick by while never getting off our ass to do anything. This is a possible sad scenario for many people, whether we want to admit it or not. Values apart from action are meaningless. In fact, what we value imbues our actions with desired qualities that align with the value. Values define how we want to behave on a day-to-day basis. I remember standing outside of an academic building one winter in a cold, sprinkling rain, questioning whether or not I wanted to continue with my Ph.D. work in counseling. The work was going to be long, I was looking at being tight with money, and I was at an age that either I was going to do it or not. My values pushed me on at that moment. But the experience speaks to how difficult at times it is to live in alignment with core values. I truly believe it is easy to give up on living according to our values. I think people enter counseling at times because they are trying to clarify their values, are experiencing the difficulty in aligning with their values, and are trying to find the courage to live according to their values. Exploring and recognizing values can be some of the most difficult work people can do. Then doing what it takes to live those values out is another difficulty that life offers us.

Commitment (Do What It Takes)

Commitment is action. Effective actions are those that are guided by our values. Obviously, not living out what we value gives rise to a plethora of uncomfortable and unwanted thoughts and emotions. This is no less true when we seek to live in alignment with our values. Doing so gives rise to an array of both pleasant and unpleasant thoughts and emotions. It takes courage to live out what one values. Effective and committed action is the opposite of experiential avoidance, which can come about due to a lack of courage to do what it takes to live out our values, even when it’s difficult. The last year of my doctoral work was some of the most stretching times I experienced up to that point in my life. I was strapped for money, living in a dump of a house and apartment, and wondering whether or not when all was said and done, would it take me anywhere. Effective action then is value-congruent action. Many behavioral techniques can come into play here, including goal setting, planning, skills training, and other behavioral activation techniques. But these techniques are mere formalities if the work around a client’s actions are not value-congruent actions.

Conclusion

The six core processes of psychological flexibility counter those six points of the ACT Model of Psychopathology discussed in Part I in last month’s blog. Contacting the present moment counters problems that ensue through the dominance of the conceptualized past and future. Defusion counters what happens when people become cognitive fused with their thoughts and rumination. Acceptance helps us open up so as not to deny painful thoughts and emotions, thereby experientially avoiding ways of recognizing and dealing with them. The notion of the self as context helps us detach from the wooden and rigid conceptualized self. Knowing what matters, that is becoming aware of our values, provides clarity and contact that are lacking with we are unclear and unaware of our present values. Effective action, which is action in alignment with our values, enables us to escape unworkable action. These core processes are merely a conceptual framework for ACT. There is much more to this approach as therapists and clients delve into any one of these processes. The work is also holistic. By exploring any point of the six-point Hexaflex or diamond, all six points will be effected in some manner.

It is important to recognize that ACT is simply not a set of techniques tied to the Hexaflex. The aim of ACT entails a philosophical take on life. ACT therapists state that their aim is to help clients create a rich, full, and meaningful life while accepting the pain that inevitably goes with it. This philosophical perspective is why I believe that ACT meshes well with my spiritual and existential framework for my work. Likewise, the emphasis on mindfulness is an important piece that integrates well with how I work. As an ancient concept, mindfulness is found in a wide and historical range of spiritual traditions, including Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Western psychology via research and practice had begun to recognize its usefulness in the practice of counseling. Mindfulness can be used to increase awareness, openness, and psychological flexibility. Above all, however, ACT is about valued-living. In that sense, it overlaps and can be easily integrated with many counseling approaches.

I’m not a one-theory man. I’ll use whatever I can get my hands on in order to help my clients reach their desired goals. In saying that, I’m not a pure pragmatist either. We all have values on which we base our living, whether we are aware of it or not. I too have mine. And like many people, I’m striving day-to-day to become, not only more aware of what they are on deeper levels, but also I’m looking to become more aware of how to act on them in a consistent manner. A rich, full, meaningful life is most definitely worth living. Is it not?

References: Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

 

John V. Jones, Jr, Ph.D., LPC-S/May 14, 2017

PROFESSIONAL COUNSELING

 

Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) Part I: Psychological Inflexibility

Introduction

Given the way psychotherapy has evolved over the past century, I am not one who places all my eggs in one basket regarding one theory about how to work as a therapist. I think the integration and eclectic movements that took hold in the 1980s & 1990s allowed therapists to move away from the idea that there is one right way of doing therapy, and that everyone must align with that proven way of working. Likewise the integrationist movement allowed therapists to free themselves from the notion that individually each therapist must choose one way of working among the many theories and approaches that have been developed over a century that began with Freud. As a therapist whose framework is existentialism, I integrate many approaches for my work with clients.

I offer the little preface above because over the next couple of months, I am going to discuss an approach that I find useful, and one that I will integrate within my framework for working with clients. It is Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, or simply ACT. The approach integrates well with several other conceptualizations, such as cognitive therapy, Motivational Interviewing, and existential work. I find its conceptualization squares and meshes well with existential thought along several avenues, including its take on experiential avoidance, values clarification, self-knowledge, and the conceptualized self. Though those avenues are more easily addressed as integrating well with existential thought, all the points of ACT on its Hexaflex I find mesh well with existential thought.

It is the ACT conceptualization as presented in its Hexaflex that forms the structure of my discussion. For this month’s article, I will focus on the Hexaflex as ACT therapists use it to discuss what they call the Six Core Pathological Processes. Though I do not necessarily like the nomenclature pathological, I find I do like much of the conceptualization that ACT presents through this model. ACT therapists designate these processes as Psychological Inflexibility. In next month’s article, I will discuss the ACT conceptualization that counters the pathological processes delineated by ACT therapists with their six core processes of Psychological Flexibility. From the ACT perspective, Psychological Flexibility is a holistic understanding of human functioning that involves living in the present moment, opening up to life’s possibilities and vicissitudes, and doing what matters. ACT theorists and therapists delineate Psychological Flexibility along six core processes they conceptualize in their Hexaflex. These six core processes are: 1) Contact with the Present Moment (Be Here Now); 2) Acceptance (Open Up); 3) Defusion (Watch Your Thinking); 4) Values (Know What Matters); 5) Committed Action (Do What It Takes); and 6) Self-As-Context (Pure Awareness). These six processes are explored in therapy to counter any points that emerge when clients become trapped in psychological inflexibility via the Six Core Pathological Processes. In this blog article I will delineate these pathological processes as conceptualized by ACT therapists. I will discuss the remedy or counter to these pathological processes in next month’s blog article.

ACT: The Six Core Pathological Processes

Just as the Hexaflex is used to delineate the core processes for Psychological Flexibility, likewise it is used to conceptualize the core processes of Psychological Inflexibility. The ACT Model conceptualizes Psychological Inflexibility in terms of the following six core processes: 1) Dominance of the Conceptualized Past and Future; Limited Self-Knowledge: 2) Experiential Avoidance; 3) Cognitive Fusion; 4) Lack of Values Clarity/Contact; 5) Unworkable Action; and 6) Attachment to the Conceptualized Self. From the perspective of ACT therapists, the two processes of cognitive fusion and experiential avoidance give rise to and maintain all the pathological processes. I may be playing with words here, but I really like the notion of inflexibility as opposed to pathology. From my perspective too much of therapy pathologizes experiences that people go through that can be understood in proper contexts. In other words, I don’t view experiences as depression and anxiety as medicalized illnesses that need to be cured. Indeed I understand that these experiences can impact human beings at a physiological level that may need to be addressed via medications. But depression and anxiety are experiences that come with life. I believe other phenomena such as schizophrenia, bipolarity, and forms of dissociation and emotional dysregulation will be eventually explained along neurological avenues. However, personal concerns that come with those experiences can be addressed by therapy utilizing ACT and other approaches. For example, how might an individual relate to the notion that for most of his life he will have to be medicated for some form of schizophrenia? How might she view herself for being labeled with such a diagnosis? These and others like them are personal concerns that can be worked through in therapy.

Cognitive Fusion

Cognitive fusion is the experience whereby a person becomes entangled in his thoughts to the point that they dominate his awareness and have a huge impact on his behavior. What is not being said here is that it is wrong to think. The focus of the work is more on the thoughts to which one is fused, and how that fusion impacts day-to-day action. For example, a depressed person might ruminate significantly on the thought I can’t change anything in my life. Or they might feel, It’s too much effort to try to change anything; nothing works. These thoughts are often connected to past memories that might have been extremely painful. Experiences such as failed relationships, business failures, or other disappointing ventures become the focus of fused beliefs. Clinical depression involves fusion to the point that individuals can experience excessive worry, continual rumination, and endlessly trying to understand why am I like this. Much of what ACT calls cognitive fusion meshes well with the cognitive therapy conceptualization of negative thinking about the self, others, and future. But as will be explained in this and next month’s blog articles, ACT takes a different approach from cognitive therapy in working with cognitive fusion.

Experiential Avoidance

It is natural for anyone to want to avoid unpleasant experiences, and that is true of private experiences as well as contextual ones. We find ourselves trying to find ways to quit thinking about things, to cease holding onto recurring painful memories, and seeking to avoid uncomfortable feelings. Fusion and avoidance are like two sides of a coin. They are hard to fissure, so they form the coin that drives the entire machine. The name of the therapy, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, provides a clue to the therapeutic work that is used to counter experiential avoidance – acceptance, which utilizes a mindful approach to therapeutic work.

Dominance of the Conceptualized Past and Future/Limited Self Knowledge

Fusion and avoidance typically lead individuals to become stuck in certain contexts; consequently, they lose contact with the present, or living in the here-and-now. We probably all know people, and even can recall our own personal experiences, where we so tightly hang onto a past experience, or put off living due to an extreme focus on and concern about the future. Being stuck in either the past or the future robs us of here-and-now experiences. Though not unanimous by any stretch of the imagination, many depressed individuals tend to hang onto past failures while anxious clients fear the future on some level. Both the past and the future, while not unimportant, can rob us of living in the here-and-now.

Lack of Values Clarity/Contact

This process as described by ACT therapists meshes well with existential thought. Individuals can become immersed in situations, lost in certain contexts, and sense that their lives lack direction because they are not clear on what they truly value. Individuals can experience a disconnect between the way they are living on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the fulfillment in life they hope to find because they might be acting on values about which they are not clear or do not truly believe. Individuals can inculcate values from their social contexts without truly assessing whether or not they value what they claim to value. Values clarification can help these clients determine what they hold as important so as to act on what they truly believe.

Unworkable Action

If people lose contact with the here-and-now and are unclear as to what they truly believe, they find themselves in patterns of behavior that simply are not getting them what they want. In other words, what they are doing is not working. What they are doing is not working because what they are doing is not aligned with anything they really believe or value. Hence, rather than mindful actions based on personal values, people can become caught up in mindless activities, reactionary behaviors, and turn into automatons, all of which can lead to purposeless action, directionless living, and constant experiential avoidance because of the lack of fulfillment and pleasure in life. Aligning action with values can help individuals begin to move purposefully through life.

Attachment to the Conceptualized Self

We all can present, tell, or write some form of narrative that speaks to who and what we believed ourselves to be. These narratives form the way we describe ourselves. We can fuse with our self-narratives to the point that we are our self descriptions. I understand the problem of identifying with negative self-narratives, such as I’m a failure. But I depart in some sense from ACT on this point in that I do believe in a core self. While mindfulness can help us better understand ourselves as self-in-context, I’m not in alignment with the total Eastern view of the human being as not have a self, or viewing one’s understanding of the self as an illusion. I also agree that overly identifying with even positive self-narratives can be problematic if we continually deflect input from personal experiences and try to solidify a particular notion about ourselves as a total narrative about who we are. I find myself somewhat more Western here with the notion that an individual is a self-in-process, continually undergoing change, and hopefully growth, throughout his or her life. To be in process requires openness to life. I don’t believe it requires not having a core self as much Eastern thought tends to hold. Nonetheless, having stated my differences here, I think the work that ACT pursues with clients to help them defuse from problematic self-narratives is a valuable part of the work in this approach.

Conclusion

Obviously, these six core processes do not stand alone. They overlap and interact with one another, and one process can trigger another. If I believe that I’m a failure, then I will experientially avoid trying new and risky ventures. These six core processes of psychological inflexibility are countered by the flip side of the six core processes of psychological flexibility. These processes I’ll tackle in next month’s blog article. The notion of flexibility is one with which I resonate. After all, what is flexibility other than adaptation. We all move through our lives, evaluate our experiences, determine whether to hold or discard certain values, and seek to live in alignment with what we know and believe. We are in process and constantly engaging change and growth.  We are in constant movement toward carving out an adaptive and flexible understanding of our identity or self.

References: Harris, R. (2009). ACT made simple. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

 

John V. Jones, Jr, Ph.D., LPC-S/April 14th, 2017

PROFESSIONAL COUNSELING

The Quest for Meaning: Part II

[This discussion is the second of a three-part exploration of the human capacity for meaning-making. This article also continues a series I began in October, 2015. The series of articles as projected into the future will cover various themes that I explore with clients within the counseling framework I practice.]

It is not what we require of life that matters, but what life requires of us. – – Viktor Frankl

Introduction

If you had to reflect for a while, and then try to put into words what it is that enables you to think of life as meaningful, what words would you find that would satisfactorily express your response? Last month I stated that I believe we are meaning-making creatures. Our minds are created in such a way that we seek to make meaning of our various experiences. Moreover, we prioritize and hold dear what we garner from life that is most meaningful for us. In this month’s blog, I want to add that I believe that much of our meaning on a deep level comes through the struggles we face, the difficulties we work thorough, and suffering that we might encounter. That is not to say that meaning cannot come through other measures; it can and does. In fact, I think meaning can come through the simple pleasures we experience day-to-day. Most importantly, that is not to say that we should hope for difficulties and struggles in our lives. That would be masochistic. For each of us, however, struggles of various kinds tend to be part of our lives. When they occur, the question becomes: What do we do with them?

The Hard Work of Meaning-Making

Using our mind, if we’re to do it properly, is hard work. I’ve seen it time and time again as a professor and a professional counselor, how difficult it is for people to explicate their core values and beliefs about life. In Christian settings as well, it is difficult for many to state how being a Christian informs all aspects of their lives. We tend to separate our spiritual beliefs from the rest of living, our education from any life goals we pursue, and our core values tend to be segmented into such categories as work, family, entertainment, and church.

We encounter the world in a multitude of ways and through a variety of experiences. By our very nature, we use our mind to evaluate our experiences, interpret them, and attribute meaning to them. Our understanding of life’s experiences happens on many levels. When asked about meaningful experiences, most people reflect on those that hold what they would consider deep meaning for them, those that lead to experiences of passion, fulfillment, and joy. Likewise individuals who work through experiences of struggles and pain point to such experiences as carrying profound lessons and meaning for them. Indeed, some would say that those events in life that entail facing and working through struggles and suffering of some kind can provide the most profound understanding of what life requires of us. Such experiences are ones that raise questions and doubts, and they strongly engage our beliefs and values by which we claim to live.

As I will address in next month’s blog, I don’t consider meaning-making to be simply about finding the one Big M, in terms of some abstraction. Because I strongly believe that life involves constant learning, I likewise believe that our meaning-making is a continuous life-long journey. And although some experiences are more profound for us than others, our making sense of life involves how we take in all the day-to-day experiences of living. Usually, making meaning of various experiences of our lives comes through some type of reflection. Reflecting back on experiences, both painful and joyful, can bring a sense of deeper understanding, as well as the reality that we may have to remain open for quite some time before understanding of some events in our lives comes. There may be experiences in our lives of which we will never make total sense.

Meaning-making comes through those times we put aside for prayer, contemplation, and reflection. It’s not, nor should not be, something we can do every minute of everyday. Such ruminating would lead to our being stuck in a mental quicksand. Some people, however, do not take the time to reflect on life in such a way. Meaning-making is hard. It can lead us to think about things we would rather not. Sizing up those areas in our lives that we feel good about, and those where we think we’re lacking can bring discomfort, a feeling of uneasiness. It’s difficult work at times to become clear, authentic, and truthful about our basic premises, core values, and whether or not we’re living in alignment with all we claim to believe.

Challenges in the Search for Meaning

As I’ve stated before in other articles from this blog, one person in the 20th Century who has contributed to my thoughts on meaning-making is Viktor Frankl. Frankl developed his thought on the importance of meaning-making via his experiences of interment in Nazi concentration camps. His ground-breaking work that explored his personal experiences, Man’s Search for Meaning, emphasizes that in their life journey, people can find meaning in even the most seemingly meaningless and absurd situations. Clients enter counseling many times facing what they feel as a meaningless and absurd existence. As a professional counselor who is a Christian, I do not hold that existence is meaningless and absurd. Yet I recognize that one’s experience of life as such is real to them. There are no platitudes or simplistic answers or formulas to easily and quickly resolve such struggles for clients. The complexities we face in life will assault our beliefs and core values. Life has a way of challenging us, raising doubts, leading us to re-evaluate things, and making us question what we claim to believe and know, if indeed we’re open for such challenges. I believe all people can deepen their understanding of their lives. I also think that such deepening most likely entails the necessity for courage and strength, that I personally believe is garnered through grace. But that’s a far cry from simplistic answers that negate the profound complexities we face in life.

Conclusion

What am I not saying? As touched on in the introduction, we need not go looking for problems, difficulties, and suffering so as to deepen our understanding of life. On various levels for all of us, those encounters tend to come on their own. No masochism here, please. Likewise, I’m not saying that profound meaning cannot occur in the most simplistic of experiences. Those pleasurable things that may occur for us in our day-to-day existence can bring some form of personal meaning. I remember the first time I drove alone from Texas to Durango, Colorado. Coming upon and driving through the Rockies was indeed a memorable and profound experience. Personally, I’m very aware that my life has, for the most part, been free of suffering. I’m blessed indeed. I would prefer to keep it that way, but I do not have that much control of life. And it’s a rather hubris-filled notion to believe that I should. Every time I read Frankl’s, Man’s Search for Meaning, I always cannot help but question: Could I make it through such horrific events? Countless people throughout history, and individuals I know presently, have born witness as to how suffering deepens their understanding of life, and what is truly valuable and meaningful. All I can do is state the principle that I’ve heard time and again. I want to say I believe it, but for me, personally, I’m not sure what I would be made of in such contexts. And quite frankly, I don’t want to find out. Perhaps, and I think rightly, that is what grace is all about.

How we make meaning of our lives gets at our worldview, our take on existence, and our way of using our mind to make sense of and comprehend those experiences life brings our way. I will explore this avenue of thought more in-depth on next month’s blog.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/March 14, 2016

GENERAL ESSAY/PROFESSIONAL COUNSELING

The Quest for Meaning: Part I

[This discussion is the first of a three-part exploration of the human capacity for meaning-making. This article also continues a series I began in October, 2015. The series of articles as projected into the future will cover various themes that I explore with clients within the counseling framework I practice.]

Introduction

I propose a conjecture: As human beings, we are meaning-making creatures. No doubt the effort exerted toward making meaning of one’s life varies among individuals. Some people give it much thought; some would rather not think about it at all. And then there are those who are haunted by the search for meaning throughout their existence. Whether one’s quest for personal meaning ranks high or low in one’s day-to-day existence, no doubt most people can point to something or someone in which they place much value: family and loved ones, work and career, ethical and moral living, spiritual beliefs and God, etc. Such experiences and values can and do provide some kind of meaning in and purpose for people’s  lives. Within the existential framework I practice, exploration of personal meaning is an important theme that clients of all ages tend to engage. For some clients the search for meaning is a life-long process that for whatever reason they have sought to follow and hope to conquer. For many clients, the search for meaning is triggered by specific experiences they encounter in confronting life’s vicissitudes. Personally, I hold that meaning making is what makes us distinctively human.

A Variety of Themes

The approach I take to counseling is a philosophical one. Working within a general existential framework affords counselors a variety of themes on which to focus. Counselors who work within this perspective, not only vary in what each considers important themes, but also cannot obviously focus their practice in-depth on all the possible themes that existentialists and other philosophers explore. What tends to occur in practice is that different counselors choose areas of emphasis that interest them; consequently they focus their energy, reading and study efforts, and ways of working on those themes that tug at their own heart and soul for whatever reason. Rollo May stressed the role of anxiety in much of his work, and the courage to confront those struggles that produce anxiety – to face rather than avoid experiences that create anxiety. Irvin Yalom, particularly in his later works, focused on our finitude and coming to grips with the fact that we die. James Bugental centers his work on personal identity (who am I?) and living authentically. Emmy van Deurzen and followers of the British School frame their work from the perspective of the domains of existence: physical, social, personal, and spiritual, the latter dealing with meaning-making.

Our Search for Meaning

It was Viktor Frankl’s personal experiences that led him to emphasize in his work the need for making meaning in one’s life. Many therapists describe their work as challenging clients to make explicit the meaning they accord their lives. Likewise clients can embrace counseling to explore possible alternative meanings that can cast light on the various struggles they encounter. Many of us claim that we desire to live our lives in a way that holds meaning. Do we have what some existential thinkers call a why worth living? Might there be alternative sources of meaning in or for our lives? Counseling work that revolves around meaning might challenge clients to consider what feels right and what feels wrong in their world. Such feelings tend to revolve around what people value. Clients who engage such counseling work might explore what they value, and how they live out their values in their day-to-day lives. Such work folds into what some consider another existential them and exploration, clarifying values. I strongly believe that any counseling work that focuses on personal meaning-making cannot avoid discussions of what people value. Our personal values and deeply-held beliefs are bedrock foundations on which we construct our personal meanings for our lives. Frankl’s work, Man’s Search for Meaning, struck a deep cord with me that led me to work within an existential framework and to explore the various themes of existence, particularly meaning-making. Frankl’s work particularly focuses on suffering and meaning-making, and provides a conceptualization that much of the meaning we make in life comes through the struggles we face. Although most of us, thankfully, will not face the suffering Frankl encountered in Nazi concentration camps, his work and thought provides insights in how personal struggles can lead to deep personal meaning. Because I also come from a Christian perspective, his ideas about suffering and meaning resonate with me on a deep level.

Conclusion

This three-part series on human being’s capacity to make meaning in their lives through their personal experiences will unfold over the next few months, highlighting the work of Viktor Frankl, as well as others. More importantly, I hope the series will pique interests in those who might choose to engage counseling for the important work of exploring their personal meaning. As human beings, I believe we seek to make meaning regarding our existence. We operate off assumptions about what is meaningful to us, what is purposeful for us, and what is valuable and important to us. Those who enter counseling can explore their deeply held beliefs, core values, and the living out of what all these mean for them. I hope this three-part series on the Quest for Meaning leads people to explore what for them might be most important in their lives.

So stay tuned for the next couple of months .  .  .

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/February 14, 2016

PROFESSIONAL COUNSELING

Part II: Complexity, Paradox, & Tension

[Part II: Complexity, Paradox, & Tension continues with series of articles that I hope to do provide over the next few months, discussing the various themes that emerge in a therapeutic setting that entails working within an existential framework.]

Introduction

Complexity, Paradox, & Tension continues a discussion I began last month, (10/14/15), that explored and commented on the many dilemmas we face in our day-to-day living. In that first article, I delineated a few of the dilemmas we might encounter. Many times, it is these very dilemmas that bring clients into therapy, or more accurately, the dilemmas may be behind the problems that clients bring to a therapeutic setting. The second part of this discussion looks at what it may entail to work with clients (and ourselves) who struggle with various tensions that make up existence. Obviously, there are many more complexities and paradoxes we encounter than the few listed and discussed in Part I of this series. As explored last month, life appears to involve a navigation between the various poles of the paradoxes and tensions that make up life’s strugglesWe want to resolve them because they produce various levels of anxiety within us. We want to come to grips with them so we can feel to be on solid ground; yet, if we settle on one pole of these tensions at the negation of the other pole, we can find ourselves feeling imbalanced, out of kilter, and not as on solid ground as we had hoped for.

Working with Clients

The upshot of all this discussion about complexities, paradoxes, and tensions is that psychotherapy, many times, involves working with clients simply to help them live with the tensions of existence, rather than seeking to resolve them too quickly. I believe that if we, as therapists, do not look into how we, ourselves, face such tensions, and how we might have gained some insight in doing so, we have little to offer our clients. Just like us, our clients want the tensions resolved so as to alleviate question marks and anxiety that surround or emanate from them. We all want quick fixes to the dilemmas that make up life. It is not easy to reach that place where we simply recognize and embrace the reality that quick fixes and simple answers are not forthcoming for many of our struggles, especially with those things in life that are most important to us. Having to live with tensions, rather than getting rid of them, is not necessarily a welcomed perspective on living. Yet doing so – embracing the necessity of doing so – can lead to a deeper understanding of how to navigate life, as well as a fuller understanding of ourselves. We will come to learn about ourselves through our struggles with the dilemmas of existence. Learning to ride out and go through longer resolutions to problems can teach us a lot about ourselves.

Consequently, there are no simple formulas or patented techniques to work with clients who are facing the tensions inherent in existence. In the environments of professional counseling we hear phrases all the time, such as: being with clients as they wrestle with their problems, sitting with clients through their struggles, providing a place for clients to face their dilemmas. Such phrases can sound, and actually be voiced in ways that are trite; but they need to be more than mere bromides. No doubt, we all want someone to provide us with an answer when we’re facing major difficulties in life. The answer may very well be – we simply have to ride them out. I’m not saying at all that we can’t help clients solve some particular problems they face, or suggest ways to deal with specific situations in which they may find themselves. Paradoxes, however, that involve such experiences as wanting certainty in the face of the unknown, coming to grips with a solid sense of who we are while also recognizing that we are constantly changing, or trying to garner meaning out of experiences that seem or feel meaningless – these struggles lend themselves to no formulaic approach, but instead call on us to recognize that they are a part of our existence with which we have to deal. And they tend to be the struggles through which we can learn a great deal about ourselves and others.

Action versus Contemplation

Life is always about growth, never being totally settled. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t find a place and a time where we can rest from the daily pressures that life brings our way. But restoration gears us up for the continuing struggles that life throws at us. The notion of life involving continuous struggles generates yet another tension: action (taking on the struggle so as to resolve it) versus contemplation (stepping back, slowing down, letting things be, taking time for reflection). Personally, this is a hard tension for me to navigate. How do we take on the struggles of life – fight – while at the same time recognizing that there are times to take things in stride, letting them be as they are for the moment. Camping on one pole of this polarity can lead to a harried, constantly keyed-up take on living, while camping on the other pole can become an excuse for acquiescence. Most of us would probably agree that we desire neither a harried way of living or a giving-in or giving-up to the struggle to create the kind of life we want for ourselves. Navigating the tension to face the struggle while living with the results of our efforts is a navigation with which we must deal and work out so as to find our peace, even in the midst of the storm. It appears that somewhere in the tension between these poles is where personal understanding and growth take place.

Conclusion

I do not deny that therapy entails helping clients problem-solve specific concerns, work through phobias, deal with problematic relationships, and struggle with certain symptoms they experience. I believe, however, that even these experiences speak to something that entails a bigger picture in living. And I believe with firm conviction that the richer work of therapy can involve working with people to help them find a way to face the paradoxes inherent in life so as to find deeper meaning for themselves. I believe that if we simply rely on throwing techniques and pills at people, we do them a disservice. The tendency to oversimplify life is a strong one because pat-answers are attractive and seductive. They are the seductions and power that produce all kinds of gurus. It’s much less sexy to say that life is composed of dilemmas we face, and there are necessarily no simple answers in facing them. Life is a struggle at times. Embrace those times when it is not, enjoy them, for we rarely know what the morning brings.

Although it’s not easy at times, I likewise deeply believe that living a meaningful, fulfilling, and enriching life is possible.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/November 14, 2015

PROFESSIONAL COUNSELING

Part I: Complexity, Paradox, & Tension

[Part one of a two-part discussion on Complexity, Paradox, & Tension. This article also begins a series of articles I will write over the next several months on various themes that can be explored through counseling from an existential framework.]

Introduction

When people ask me what is involved in working as a counselor who works within the framework of an existential approach, it’s never an easy task to reduce what I do to a simplistic answer. Sometimes I wish I could, but then I think, why should I? From my perspective engaging clients in a counseling setting is about life and all it brings our way, so there are no easy explanations of what such work entails. Additionally, many counselors who work within an existential framework focus their work in different areas or themes. Some might describe existential therapy as helping clients clarify values and live life authentically. Others might say their work entails helping clients garner courage to face adversity and personal struggle. Still others might describe what they do as helping clients take responsibility for and accepting the consequences that result from their choices.

What I have said here so far are only a few of the ways in which an existential approach to therapy can be described. There are many others, and interested readers unfamiliar with an existential approach might want to read some introductory works, such as Existential Therapy: 100 Key Points & Techniques, by Susan Iacovou and Karen Weixel-Dixon, or The Existential Counseling Primer: A Concise, Accessible, Comprehensive Introduction by Mick Cooper. Although there are a variety of ways of delineating how existential therapists might work, and an array of themes on which they might focus, there is one theme which I want to emphasize in this and next month’s blog. In their work the authors, Iacovou & Weixel-Dixon, describe one emphasis in existential therapy as working with clients to help them experience what it is to be human in all its complexity. Complexity is indeed an interesting concept, and one I want to explore a little further.

The Interrelation of Complexity, Paradox, & Tension

The use of language is an interesting phenomenon in-and-of-itself. We throw around words all the time with the assumption that people understand what we mean, or at least understand that some conversations can’t go beyond a statement we throw out. Things are not so simple; they are more complex, meaning don’t ask me to explain something in simple terms. So one thing I want to say upfront is that when this little paragraph is finished, I will not have come anywhere near unpacking the notion of complexity, but I hope to knock a few chips out of the rock. And I hope to do that, not only by exploring the notion of complexity, but also through exploring two concepts that tend to contribute to, or go hand-in-hand with complexity, paradox and tension.

When we talk about humanity and all its complexity, how might such a concept be delineated, explicated, or described? When working with clients to help them embrace the complexity of living what might such work look like in a counseling setting? The first thing that comes to mind for me when I hear the word, or reflect on the concept of complexity, is that life offers no simple answers to its multitude and variety of dilemmas. Life is composed of numerous problems on various levels that we must solve, or attempt to solve, everyday. Some problems, in fact, may be simple, but others are more enduring. The idea of the complexity of living says to me that there are no simple answers to the profound problems and questions in life that we face. It follows that there are no quick answers to these problems, questions, or dilemmas either. Total resolution of all dilemmas in life just may not be part of fruitful living. What bewilders us about the complexities we face in life is that many times those complexities comprise paradoxes we are trying to resolve toward one pole or the other. Do I make a choice that entails caution and security? Or do I step out risk the unknown? There is no necessarily “good” or “bad” pole to this choice except that which we have to clarify in our personal context of choosing. At times, we may have to navigate the poles involved in our dilemmas in a way that, instead of resolving them, holds them in tension. There are times to be cautious and times to take risks. Living in a way that involves different levels of fulfillment may mean that we have to learn to live with the tensions and paradoxes of existence. We may have to live with the reality that some dilemmas in life have to simply exist for a while as we struggle with them over time. Learning to set with – be with – a lack of total resolution for some dilemmas in our lives is part and parcel of living. The profound problems or dilemmas we face in life call for no simplistic understanding; they call, instead, for struggle across time, more time than we may want to give them for sure. They also call for no avoidance or circumvention. Seeking to avoid, or simply not face up to, the complexities, paradoxes, and tensions in life, typically yields consequences that we were hoping to avoid via our avoidance. Invariably, such a strategy fails.

Paradoxes in Living

What are some of these complexities, dilemmas, or paradoxes that we face in our day-to-day living? I’ll delineate some common ones, but they are numerous, probably to the point of being countless. Certainty versus Facing the Unknown. We all want answers to the perplexities that challenge us. Many times we want all our ducks lined up before we step out into living as though such a line of ducks will quack so as let us know what to do at every step. This paradox can be explained with other polarities: guarantees versus taking risks; assurance versus courage to risk. No doubt, blind and foolish leaps are precarious, but risks averse assurance is a promise no one person can offer another.

Meaning versus Experiences that Seem Meaningless and Absurd. We are meaning-making creatures. We encounter experiences of living, seek to interpret them, and imbue them with some sort of meaning for ourselves. Although I do not embrace the thought of some existentialists that life is absurd and meaningless, I likewise do not believe that making meaning for our lives is an easy, simple task. We sometimes go through experiences that may take a lifetime to comprehend. Within our finite existence, we may not make total sense of everything that happens to us. Perhaps some can avoid seeking to make meaning in their lives. I’m not sure I totally believe that. But for many, the nagging question of why regarding certain circumstances never lets them out of its grip. To seek to make meaning of such circumstances is part of being human; however, to demand from life all the answers is something we do not have the power to do. The struggle to find that rest in the tension between making meaning and lacking clarity regarding what we experience at times is one such struggle we all face.

Solid Sense of Self versus Growth & Change through Experiences. I believe that on some level, we are all seeking to know who we are, to establish some sense of personal identity, and to stand on a rock-solid understanding of ourselves. Yet at the same time, life calls on us to grow, which means to change. We encounter various experiences in our existence that lead us to question and alter what we might have possibly believed and valued. This navigation of having a sense of self and experiencing growth and change is one we can welcome or fear. As we expand our horizons and grow, we may have to make painful choices regarding what we had once held dear.

Freedom and Responsibility versus Limitations to Freedom. I believe it was Rollo May, who stated that this dilemma or paradox should be placed on a coin, with freedom on one side and responsibility on the other. No doubt at times we want our ability to choose, but we do not relish the consequences that come with some of the choices we make, preferring to avoid them all together. The courage to fully and truly embrace freedom and responsibility is more complex and difficult than we might really think. One of the major difficulties in life, I believe, is facing the consequences we have rendered via our choices, not only for ourselves, but also for others. Embracing our freedom and responsibility entails our interaction and maintaining tension with another pole of our existence: built-in limitations to our freedom. While, as human beings, we make choices and are responsible for our choices, we are not free to do anything we please, nor are we free from the given boundaries in which we find ourselves living. I did not choose the time in which I was born. I chose neither my family nor the culture in which I lived. I had no say in the biological and genetic framework in which my existence is cast. As a man who is bald, I don’t even have a choice as to whether or not I have a naturally full head of hair. Upon developing my conscious existence, I find that I am cast in a context over which I had little to nothing to do. Existentialists call these the givens of life. Existentialists also speak of the thrown-ness of life. We find ourselves thrown into an existence, not of our choosing or making. Yet, the one important choice we do have is our response to our conditions. We can become embittered through our responses and reactions to our conditions, or we can encounter them with courage to take from them what we can so as to fruitfully live our existence the best we can. As an example, I might relish the notion of being a mathematical genius, and while I’ve done well in math throughout my life, I’m a far cry from having the skills in math that I would almost covet to possess. I can hate my existence for that reason, or embrace those skills I do have and face the reality of what I don’t possess. Viktor Frankl spoke poignantly of this tension when he was thrust into Nazi concentration camps. He made the powerful point in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning, that when we have everything taken from us, one thing remains that cannot be stolen from us: our response to the conditions in which we find ourselves. One of the human struggles in existence involves this constant tension between the power and freedom we would like to have over life versus the recognition of the built-in limitations we face in our existence. Although such limitations may mean we cannot have or do anything we want, they do not mean we cannot choose to face up to them with courage and integrity.

Finite Existence versus Desire to Live. From the perspective of my spiritual values, I will have a different take on this as opposed to some others within the existential camp; nonetheless, I get the struggle. No one wants to die. I also understand that spiritual values themselves can be used to escape the raw realities of living this life as it is now. Consequently, I fully embrace the idea within existentialism that we, as human beings, have to come to grips with the fact that one day we will face death. In doing so, we can energize and enhance this time we have for living. We can put off living trying to avoid the reality of death, and we can put off living by casting everything on an “afterlife”. Both strategies are an avoidance of living the life we have, or, as I believe, have been given.

Obviously, there are numerous other paradoxes we face in addition to these five, that I’ve merely presented as examples of tensions we may face in life. How might we think about navigating these paradoxes?

Maintaining the Tension

There is everything human in experiencing the exigency of hoping to resolve the deeper struggles inherent in carving out a meaningful life. For sure, life appears to be a navigation between these various poles or tensions – these paradoxes – that make up life’s complex struggles. We want to resolve these tensions because they produce various levels of anxiety within us. We hope to come to grips with these paradoxes so we can feel as if we have reached some solid ground in our understanding of things. Yet if we camp on one pole of a paradox at the negation of the other, we soon feel imbalanced, out of kilter, and not on as solid of ground as we hoped for. Yes, there is a sense in which I am an individual, but I am also in relationship with others, with society, and a culture. Yes, I have a sense of identity, who I am, but I am also in the continuous process of change and growth. Yes, I have freedom of choice and bear the responsibility that comes with those choices, yet I also face the limits of my choosing, the givens into which I have been thrown. And yes, I desire to live, but must come to grips with being finite. Maintaining these tensions, rather than trying to resolve them, I believe, plays the largest role, not in just coming to grips with them, but also in being at rest with them.

Conclusion to Part I: Simplicity versus Simplistic

We would prefer simplistic answers to the various struggles we face because we want to resolve them quickly. They are emotionally draining at times, and produce wear and tear upon us that we prefer to avoid. But the complexities of living will not necessarily yield to simplistic answers. Yet there is another way we might think of simplicity that can help us live with the tensions of existence. Richard Foster delineates the spiritual discipline of simplicity in his work, Freedom and Simplicity: Finding Harmony in a Complex World. One of the things he states rather pointedly is that the spiritual discipline of simplicity does not entail being simplistic about life. For sure, this spiritual discipline is not offered as a pat-answer to the complexities of life, for there are no pat-answers.

Next month, Part II of Complexity, Paradox, & Tension will look into what all this might mean for working with clients as a counselor who works within an existential framework.

John V. Jones, Jr, Ph.D., LPC-S/October 14, 2015

PROFESSIONAL COUNSELING

Transitions: The World of Work

Book Review 

[Newport, C. (2012). So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Business Plus Press.]

[Key Words: Passion Hypothesis; craftsman mindset; career capital; control; mission; Cal Newport]

[This article marks the second in a series on Transitions I will be developing for this blog. The first essay in this series addressed Age and Retirement. The transition to be explored here involves entering the world of work or transitioning into a new career. The article takes the form of a book review of Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You. I believe what he says in this thought-provoking book is wise counsel for anyone entering the market or transitioning to a new career path.]

Introduction

In our culture work or career forms a major important aspect of our identity. Likewise, there is no shortage of advice from various career consultants, counselors, and coaches on how to choose a career, how to match one’s personality to a particular job, and how to find fulfillment and happiness in one’s chosen field of endeavor. Many times these discussions focus on personality types, work environments, market niches, and a myriad of other details that can produce information overload for those seeking meaningful work. But rarely do we come across information that emphasizes the importance of job seekers taking stock of the skills they bring to their career quest. One particular work I read recently is an exception: Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

Newport’s Thesis: “Skills Trump Passion”

Newport’s work deconstructs a highly accepted and admired myth in our culture that has developed over the past several decades. As though it is wisdom flowing from an oracle, a common truism regarding pursuing a career has remained unchallenged and unquestioned for some time now.  We are told time and again that the only way we will find fulfilling and meaningful work is to follow our passion. Newport designates this idea as the passion hypothesis, which states that people possess a hidden, preexisting passion that they must discover and match to the work world so as to find work they will love. Once we discover our passion, fulfilling work ensues, and we become successful because we have hit upon the work we were meant to do. Newport turns this notion on its head. In order to corral the kind of job we desire, skill development must come first. Fulfilling work, rather than emerging from a given passion, comes from possessing skills and being good at what we do. Newport challenges people, rather than to seek a preexisting passion, to develop skills so as to become good at something. Such skills open the the door to job opportunities not heretofore considered. Good work skills are a springboard into avenues we wouldn’t recognize otherwise without having developed our skills.

We might be tempted to ask: If Newport is right, how do we decide which skills to develop? Many times people fall into modes of work by simply pursuing jobs they need to pay bills, and then discover they are good at performing in certain areas. Other times, we might indeed have an interest, but mere interest in a particular type of work does not mean that we possess the skills to succeed in what we’re interested. If we are interested in a particular field of endeavor, rather than focusing on whether or not it’s a match to some inner passion we possess, we should instead focus on what skills it takes to pursue our field of interest. Then we should develop the skills necessary to excel in that field. Too many people give up on their so-called “passion” because they lacked the skills to carry it out, believing that passion rather than effort would bring about their desired success.

Exploding the “Passion Hypothesis”: Newport’s Four Rules

Rule # 1: Don’t Follow Your Passion

Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, indeed turns common advice regarding the job hunt on its head by challenging what he calls the passion hypothesis. He organizes his thought around his four rules for finding work one loves. Rule # 1 states simply, don’t follow your passion. Within the framework of this rule, he discusses several people who appeared to be products of the passion hypothesis, yet on further investigation, he demonstrates that they obtained their success through a series of tasks by which they developed rare and valuable skills. Likewise, he presented cases where people followed their passion, but lacked the important skills to reach their goals of doing what they love. We might counter – what about those who have followed their passion and succeeded? Newport does not deny that there are cases where a preexisting passion my have served a person well, but he claims that such cases are rare. What is not rare is the necessity of skill development so that people become exceptional at what they do, which, in turn, opens a channel into satisfying and fulfilling endeavors.

Rule # 2: Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You

If we don’t possess a given passion to which we must match certain work, then what do we do to find work fulfillment? Newport answers with Rule # 2, the core of his book: Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You. And how do we accomplish that? It is here where Newport’s discussion resonates strongly with what I believe. We accomplish Rule # 2 the only way it can be accomplished – by developing skills that are valuable to the world of work. Skill development, however, does not come about by wishing for it or discovering hidden jewels within. It comes about through effort. Newport discusses the importance of what he calls the craftsman mindset. People must develop the habits of building their craft. Constructing one’s craft means exploring all the necessary skills required to become, not only good at what one does, but also as accomplished as one possibly can. Skill development not only takes effort, but it also requires time, perhaps mentoring, and hit-and-miss failures that are valuable learning lessons. It is here that we may balk at finding the work we love. We can talk about our passion to accomplish something grand, but when we have to face the time, effort, and hard work that skill development requires, then we find out if we’re willing to do what it takes to accomplish our tasks. Skill-building involves effort and time that is not necessarily fun, and quite frankly can be boring at times. But the payoff comes with the opportunities skills provide. The more skills we develop, the more opportunities we have available. Such skills Newport designates as career capital, which are descriptions of rare and valuable skills one possesses for the working world. This important capital transforms into currency for creating the kind of work we will find fulfilling. Newport is emphatic that the craftsman mindset and career capital are created, not simply discovered as already existing. We must build our skills and create our career capital.

Rules 3 & 4 Build On Rule # 2

Newport’s Rule # 3 & Rule #4 address other characteristics important for  pursuing the kind of work people love. However, they cannot be accomplished without valuable skills and the career capital generated by those skills. In other words, Rule # 2 is foundational to Rules 3 & 4. Rule # 3 speaks to the importance of control for finding work we love. Newport straightforwardly defines control as having a say in what you do and how you do it. He views control as one of the key characteristics of fulfilling work. But it comes about on the basis of our career capital. In other words, we obtain control – purchase it if you will – via the career capital one has built. If we try to obtain control in our work world without a well-developed skill set, we’ll most likely miss the mark. Newport warns his readers about two types of control traps. One trap involves our trying to obtain control without the necessary career capital to pull it off. Risk taking and going for something worthwhile are indeed courageous acts of the will, but wisdom must also accompany courage. Even with a well-developed skill set, control is a risky endeavor with unseen obstacles. A second control trap is laid when we possess solid career capital. It is at this point that companies or corporations may influence us to stay on with them rather than go out on our own so as to gain more control over our work lives. Newport applies a simple rule here: Turn down the promotion. And move on.

A fourth rule that contributes to our creating the work we love is what Newport calls a mission. A mission provides a unifying goal for one’s career. Newport recognizes here that it’s important that people find their work meaningful on some level. However, again, a mission does not preexist; it can only come about via career capital that we have built up so that a mission becomes definable via our knowledge and skill set.

Transitioning into the World of Work

From the counseling perspective, the work world falls primarily into the personal dimension. But as with most endeavors, it can touch, influence, and be influenced by all four dimensions [physical, social, personal, spiritual]. As one who enjoys counseling people who are trying to find their way in the world of work, reading Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You, led me to recognize mistakes I have made regarding my own work pursuits, as well as the way I have worked with clients in the past. I too have fallen victim to the passion hypothesis during my life. Yet simultaneously, I recognize how strongly I resonate with Newport’s emphasis on the craftsman mindset. I think it is here where we can answer the question regarding how much effort we’re willing to put into our pursuit of fulfilling work. The rubber meets the road in terms of the amount of time and effort required for skill development. I recognize in myself, as well as my clients, that I would prefer to be at Point A – the top of my game. But the real question is: Am I willing to do what is required to reach Point A? We must become craftsmen.  Before making a major move regarding work and career, we must assess the career capital we presently possess; we must take stock of the skills we lack as well, and begin building them.

There is one important fact we must recognize about Newport’s work. He does not claim that passion about our work is unimportant. He claims that for most of us, rather than preexisting, we develop our passion through becoming skilled at what we do. Secondly, and equally important, Newport is not defining success merely by wealth. Although there may be other questions I have regarding Newport’s thesis, I firmly believe that there is no escaping the need to build one’s craft. The necessity of the craftsman mindset touches on all fields of endeavor – writers, musicians, actors, entrepreneurs, or cognitive scientists. It is equally important that we honestly take stock of the skills we both possess and lack. And in doing so, it’s imperative that we find those people we trust to provide honest, harsh – yet constructive – feedback regarding our work.

Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You is an important work that has reshaped the way I think about the world of work for myself and for my clients. If you haven’t read it yet, pick it up. You will be challenged on several levels.

John V. Jones, Jr. Ph.D., LPC-S/February 14, 2014

PROFESSIONAL COUNSELING: Transitions

THE ARTS: Literature/Book Review

An Existential Approach to Counseling: What Is It About?

[Key Words: philosophical approach, taking stock of life, anxiety, exploration of values, death/finitude, isolation & relationships, meaning & purpose, the four dimensions]

Introduction

The following essay delineates ten points that people can consider when embracing an existential approach to counseling. People hear the word existentialism, and often wonder what it is all about. It sounds so academic, perhaps high-brow, or bespeaks of esoteric discussions in philosophical circles, cafes, or coffee shops. The following discussion simply outlines in broad strokes some of the exploratory paths an existential approach to counseling can take.

I. A Philosophical Approach

Existential psychotherapy, rather than being an approach based on a medical model that addresses clients in terms of diagnoses and cure, is a philosophical approach that asks and challenges clients to explore what they want their lives to be about, how they would like to live, and how they would like to make changes in the way they are living now. As a philosophical approach, clients are not asked to be academic philosophers, but are encouraged to ask questions about what they like and do not like about their lives so as to make the kinds of changes they want to make.

II. Contemplative

A. Taking Stock of Life

If clients are asked to explore ways they would want to make changes, then they should be comfortable with the fact that existential psychotherapy is a contemplative endeavor. Psychotherapy can become that time and space that individuals set aside to step back from daily routines and reflect on what their lives are about. From an existential perspective, clients can take stock of their lives and decide what they like and what changes they want to make. An existential approach engages clients as though they are responsible for how they shape their lives.

B. Exploration of Values

One important avenue that individuals can explore as their taking stock of their lives involves the values that they claim to hold and by which they declare to live. Psychotherapy can help individuals clarify whether or not the values they claim to hold are in fact their values. Many times people may come to realize that the values they espouse are really not ones by which they would choose to live. They may discover that some values they have always claimed to believe are ones, instead, they have inculcated from their family, social milieu, or culture in which they live. Psychotherapy becomes a process by which people can decide what they truly value.

III. Existential Anxiety

If people seek to take stock of their lives, explore their values, and simply take the time to contemplate life, then such decisions can bring on anxiety. Existential anxiety revolves around the fact that people are responsible for making choices for their lives. If a person does not like the course by which his or her life has taken, is he or she willing to make necessary changes to alter that course? Such a decision involves taking risks, making choices, and being responsible for those choices. If people conclude that the values by which they are trying to live are, in fact, not ones they have truly chosen, then they are faced with a decision. They must choose either to go on living in an inauthentic way, or to live authentically by stepping into the values they would choose for themselves. Again, such a decision involves the anxiety that comes with being responsible for one’s choices and one’s course of life. Some people enter psychotherapy not fully understanding the day-to-day anxiety they experience and from where it emanates. Existentialists tend to believe that one of the toughest decisions that people make is to become their authentic selves.

IV. Death/Finitude

The ultimate limiting situation that people face is their finitude, the fact that one day they will die, along with the fact that they do not know when that time will come. Rather than being a morbid preoccupation, the topic of one’s death or finitude highlights the limited time one has on this side of life. Hence, it behooves people to live fully, to know what they want from life, what they in fact value,, and live toward the end they set for themselves. Time is of the essence. And sometimes people enter psychotherapy, perhaps believing that they are wasting their time away and want to seek a more fulfilling life. Perhaps they believe that they have lived their lives according to the dictates of others rather than exercising the freedom they have to shape their own lives. Or perhaps they believe they have lived their lives overcautiously, not taking risks and going after the kind of life they would prefer to live.

V. Existential Isolation & Relationships

All people face the important choice of how they would like to related to others. Relating, particularly on an intimate level, involves risk and vulnerability. People tend to search for ways to navigate pulling back from relationships to stay safe on the one hand, while, on the other hand, risking the vulnerability to know and be known. Such tension appears to be part of living. Existential isolation, however, involves more than mere interpersonal isolation. There is a sense that we are all alone on some level, in that no one can decide our lives for us, what values we should hold, or what choices we should make for our lives. So even the choice to relate or how to relate is one that people have to make for themselves. To abdicate this responsibility and hand decisions for our lives over to others is, in fact, a choice that has consequences like any other choice. Abdication of personal responsibility for living usually results in consequences that are dire for the abdicator. Many people enter psychotherapy dealing with interpersonal loneliness, only to also find that they have a difficult time learning to be alone with themselves. An existential approach can help individuals explore how they might navigate the tensions between the desire to relate and the need to recognize our existential isolation.

VI. Meaning and Purpose

To deal with questions of meaning and purpose in one’s life can bring about a multitude of reactions. For some individuals, the question is exhilarating, and one about which they are passionate; they desire with all their fiber to answer the questions of personal meaning and purpose. For others, the questions of meaning and purpose in their lives are frightening ones; many times they would rather avoid the question altogether. But the haunting question of what our lives are all about swirls in the back of our minds, and at times emerges with full force to produce emotions and to lead us to evaluate honestly our ways of living. Do I have some kind of understanding as to why I am here, and what I am to do with the life given me? At times, people enter psychotherapy to explore that very question. Although the question creates anxiety in our lives, from an existential perspective, it is an all-important question with which to struggle, and a question about which we should come to conclusions.

VII. Freedom and Responsibility

If it were up to most of us, at least part if not most of the time, I think we would pass the responsibility for our decisions, indeed our entire lives, off to someone else. At least that’s the way it seems at times. It’s easier that way. However, from an existential perspective, choices have consequences. The tendency of our culture today is to blame others for our predicaments. We blame society, our parents, politicians, and who knows what or whom else. Taking responsibility for one’s choices is an important theme in existentialism. Freedom and responsibility does not mean that things don’t happen to us over which we have little to no control. In fact, one key point of existentialism is the need to recognize that there is much more that is out of our control in our lives than is in our control. It’s rather hubris-filled to believe otherwise. However, as Viktor Frankl held, the one thing in our control is our attitude toward life and what it brings our way. Many times people enter therapy with an excessively blaming attitude; or they feel frozen and fearful of making choices and living out where those choices may take them. There is no guarantee that we will not make some bad or wrong choices for our lives; however, we can learn from our failures as well as our successes, but only if we embrace the responsibility for those choices within our power to make. How we respond to the storms of life is as important as how we respond to times of smooth sailing.

VIII. Self/Identity

Who am I? Many people find the task to describe who they are a difficult one. We tend in our culture to use our career as one marker for our identity – I’m a professor, I’m a banker, I’m an architect, etc. The loss of self is prevalent today in our culture; some question whether there is such a thing as a self. From an existential perspective, this indeed is a loss. I’m alway intrigued by the claim that our culture is too individualistic. I believe we live in an age of collectivism and conformity as much as any time in our culture’s history. Many people enter therapy because they simply do not know who they are. They have lost that line between what values they hold and what others have told them to value. Existential therapy can help people explore who they are, and how they want to live. From the perspective of existentialism, the confusion over whether or not a self exists lies in the search for a solid, unified self. Existentialists hold that the self is always in process. Our understanding of ourselves is always evolving and growing. The existential emphasis is not on static being, but on the self-evolutionary process of becoming.

IX. Time

People come into therapy living in various dimensions of time, either captured by their past or enslaved to some idealistic view of the future, both of which prevents them from living in the here-and-now. No doubt, time is an important factor in our development and the planning of our lives. But some people believe that they cannot live the kind of lives they want because of their past. Other people put off living their lives for some future Nirvana they believe will unfold toward some perfect, utopian life. Navigating time is an important skill for living, both in learning from our past experiences and skillfully planning for our future endeavors. However, both the past and the future can lay claim to our living in the present in a way that robs us of living altogether. Existential psychotherapy helps clients understand that they live in time, but that time is always unfolding, making life a continuous process. Living in the past, or becoming lost in the future is no way to live.

X. The Four Dimensions

I will discuss the four dimensions of existential exploration in another article. Let it suffice here for me to say that in my work, I draw on the conceptualization offered by Emmy van Deurzen and her work within the British School of Existential psychotherapy. From this perspective, existential work involves engaging the dimensions of the physical, social, personal, and spiritual. I seek to work holistically, integrating these various dimensions of living. Whether one is struggling with somatic concerns, relationships, personal questions of identity, or spiritual/religious concerns, nothing is off limits for existential work. Are you dealing with bodily  and chronic pain, eating concerns? Are you struggling with relationships? Are you trying to decide what you want your life to be all about and what you truly value? Are you dealing with concerns that you consider spiritual in nature? Are you struggling with your relationship with God, or beliefs about God? All these concerns fall within the purview of an existential approach.

Conclusion

These ten points merely scratch the surface on all that existential literature touches. Likewise, these ten points or themes are interconnected. Exploring self/identity will invariably lead people to take stock of their lives, interpersonal relationships, and personal values. Explorations of meaning and purpose connect all the themes that existentialists might explore in various ways. The choices we make, how we navigate time, develop intimacy, and the manner in which we face anxieties brought on by living will lead to various contemplations about our personal lives, others, and God – about all the things we say we believe and value. Existentialism is about existence. That is, existentialism is about living.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/October 13, 2013

PROFESSIONAL COUNSELING

Transitions: Age and Retirement

[Key Words: age, retirement, transitions, four dimensions, time, finitude]

[This is the first of a series of articles I intend to write regarding various transitions we face in our lives. Besides Age & Retirement, other transitions include such experiences as marriage/divorce, changing/losing jobs, entering/exiting the job market for the first time, and then facing our own finitude, be it through the death of a loved one, or staring in the face of our remaining years. I will discuss how an existential approach to life can address transitions in living.]

Introduction: Transitions in the Flow of Life

At 65 years old, I’m beginning to understand the full force of what it means when people say, “Life is about transitions.” Fortunately, or unfortunately (perhaps both), I’m also beginning to understand what people mean when they talk about how they now realize what lessons for living they have missed along the way. And finally, rather than getting stuck on the fact that I have missed lessons along life’s path, I’m beginning to understand the potency of the statement, “Time starts now.” I wish it hadn’t taken me so many years to realize some  of the things I will discuss in this article, but I have a feeling that such time-learned lessons are part of living. So it has taken me years to realize some things. To accept such facts rather than deny them is another important lesson for living.

We all face transitions in life and continual opportunities to learn lessons about living, particularly lessons about pursuing and carving out the kind of life we desire for ourselves. As a counselor, I have come to believe that the thrust of counseling is about helping people come to grips with who they are, determining how they want to live, and finding ways to navigate the many transitions they face in life, learning lessons and making meaning of all these experiences along the way. In short, I view counseling as a journey with clients as they figure out for themselves how to achieve a fulfilling life.

Transitions in our lives come about for a variety of reasons. We may choose them, or they may be thrust upon us through events out of our control. Even when we choose them, we may be thrown headlong into experiences we didn’t anticipate. How we make sense of these transitions and imbue them with meaning contribute to how well we will navigate them and work through them. These experiences represent the many struggles of living. Sometimes they are minor struggles; other times they are major ones. Without intending to delineate an objective list of transitions, I want to discuss how an existential approach to counseling can enable clients to work through some of the recurring transitions that people tend to encounter and bring into the counseling room. . This first article of an intended series that I have entitled, Transitions, focuses on age and retirement.

Exploring the Meaning of Age and Retirement

We value work in our culture. At a core level, many people view career as a major part of their identity. “I’m an accountant . . . a teacher . . . a doctor . . . etc,” are statements we hear constantly, and ones we have most likely said about ourselves to others. Productivity is a core value associated with work and career. [Although most of us would not distinguish work from career, for some people work is a way to get by and pay bills while they pursue other things in life more important to them. Their career may entail fulfilling activities for which they do not get paid.) No one likes to believe or feel on some level that he or she is unproductive. Moreover, many of us pursue a career in order to contribute , make a difference, or establish some kind of legacy. For others, work is a means to the end of pursuing more fulfilling experiences. Whatever the role work and career fulfill for us, when we face that time when we will no longer be working and producing as we have been, we cannot help but encounter a major transition in our lives. Some people navigate this transition rather seamlessly, having planned well along the way. Other people find that retirement and growing older is an event that they never saw as being just around the corner. They turn one of those many perceived endless corners of life, and there it is: I’m 65 years old.

What the hell happens to time? Time is a major theme in existential thought. What have I done with my time? How much time do I have left? Why is it that I never seem to have enough time? These are common questions or thoughts that people have about the ominous presence of time. We are not only ensconced in space, but we are embedded in time as well.  Consequently, individuals enter counseling to deal with the struggle of what this transition will mean for them. They may state their struggle in terms of, “If I’m not a productive person, then what good am I?” Or they may ponder the notion, “Since I’ve been working all these years, I have no idea what I’m going to do with my time now.”

Age, Retirement, and the Four Dimensions of Existential Psychotherapy

The experience of growing older and retiring from work can be conceptualized along all four dimensions of existential therapy, as delineated by Emmy van Deurzen. In the physical realm, age takes a toll on us in that we cannot do the things we used to do. At 65, I can vouch for that. Those pick-up touch football games ceased many years ago. Although I can still work a twelve-to-fourteen hour day, it takes much more out of me than it used to. I have always had a love for driving. I would drive to other cities in other states just to visit them, taking in a twelve to thirteen hour driving day. I no longer can do that, nor can I any longer go on four hours of sleep and get up and face the day full of energy. Moreover, as our fall and winter years approach, we will most likely face some health concerns. So the physical realm definitely raises its unwanted head as we age. Existential therapy helps people come to grips with this physical reality.

In the social arena, age and retirement impact us no less than in the physical dimension. Relationships change; some relationships, such as co-worker relations, might end altogether. Spending more time at home throws spouses or significant others into a different daily routine. Being together more hours of the day presents a transition that people must learn to navigate. If one member of a couple continues to work, that individual may have to deal with the emotional fallout experienced by the retired loved one. Tighter budgets mean that people may not be able to do all the activities they had previously enjoyed. Finances (another issue altogether, no matter what people’s age happens to be) are a constant point of concern and can threaten a family’s wellbeing during later years. Families change, friendships change, activities change, – life altogether changes as people age and retire from their pursued work or careers.

The arena of the personal dimension is the one that most likely takes the hardest hit during this transition. As I stated previously, people in our culture attach meaning, purpose, value, and personal fulfillment to their work or career. All of us have heard that damning phrase, out to pasture. No one likes or agrees that such an epitaph should, like an albatross, be hung around anyone’s neck who has reached retirement. The phrase is an insult. Nonetheless, on a personal level, many of us struggle with what our retirement years mean. And given the cultural value of work, we can’t help but question our personal value if we are no longer producing. Value, identity, and personal meaning can take a severe blow during this transition if we accept as paramount the cultural value placed on youth and productivity.

The spiritual dimension speaks more directly to meaning making, and trying to make sense of our lives as we approach retirement is a meaning-making activity. Indeed, much of therapy may revolve around the struggle of how clients will interpret this time of their lives. Many people, as in all areas of their lives, will bring their religious and/or spiritual values to bear on this experience to help them navigate it. Through counseling, clients can also draw on their spiritual beliefs to help them find strength during this time of their lives. They may, in fact, explore the question: How can I make this transition a time of opportunity rather than one of restricted living? Although age and retirement may mean an end to certain experiences, there is no reason that this transition should mean simply an end. People can view this time of life as a path to explore rather than an existence that has corralled them.

Moreover, this timeframe for our existence can be a fruitful time for people to take stock and reflect on their lives, the many lessons they have learned along the way, and how even the ones they missed have served them somehow. Such reflection may involve some pain and disappointment, but, as well, it can also bring about joy and fulfillment. Taking stock of our lives is a major theme in existential therapy. At times I personally experience the thought that I would like to go back to my younger years, knowing what I know now. Not only does such a fantasy rob life of its learning, but it also cheats life, as well, of living. Such a dream speaks to the age old desire to capture lost time, learning lessons at a time we would have preferred to learn them, or, even worse, wanting a life where there is no struggle, which is the very experience that generates our learning and personal growth. Such a desire misses the point that time starts now. The Christian mystic, Thomas A’ Kempis, in his renowned work, The Imitation of Christ, wisely stated, “When you think of those things you would have done earlier in life but didn’t do them, do them now.” Such an understanding of living does not mean that we do not have a past that impacts us. But it does mean that we can waste the remaining time we do have by thinking that somehow we can alter our past, or even worse, pining over how we wish our past would have been different.

Age, Retirement and the Specter of Death

And finally, coming to grips with this time of life brings us to the theme that is ever hauntingly present in our existence. Aging and diminishing capacities mean that we are approaching that mysterious experience that poses many questions but few answers. We are all going to die. And although this theme cuts across the various dimensions of existence, we tend to grapple with it along personal and spiritual means. At 65 years of age, and given the thrown-ness of my humanity, family history, and genetics, I realize that more than three-quarters of my life is done. This is not a transition that I relish to contemplate. Yet, though we would rather avoid the subject altogether, life calls on us to reflect on such realities. Paraphrasing the Logotherapist, Viktor Frankl, what matters is not what we demand of life, but what life demands of us. How do we want to approach these final years? Do we quail under the weight of our destinies? Or do we continue to live fully to the finish? These challenges, questions, and struggles are ones we face ourselves, and as therapists, we can sit with our clients as they face them as well.

Conclusion

There are many other ways to view and navigate the transition of age and retirement. First, who says one MUST retire? Some people may choose to work until they finish. Nor does retirement have to mean that productivity ceases. There are a multitude of ways to be productive in addition to one’s career. Moreover, there are a multitude of ways to understand productivity. As difficult as it may seem, a conversation about this transition is not merely for people approaching retirement age. Talking about this transition to younger people can help them begin to think about how they want to enter their autumn years. Although nothing can be perfectly predicted and planned for, there is a place for thinking about one’s latter years earlier in life. That is one of those lessons of life I wish I had learned at an earlier age. Yet at the same time, to excessively ruminate about such things can freeze people up rather than propelling them to live. How we come to grips with our final destiny can either weigh us down or enliven us. More importantly, the thought of coming to grips with our humanity and its finitude should free us to live NOW. To pine away and constantly commiserate on the fact that we’re going to die equates to a waste of time and living.

Age and retirement represent one of the many types of transitions that individuals face in life. People can engage a contemplative and reflective approach to counseling, such as an existential approach, to help them navigate this transition in more fulfilling ways. There are no guarantees that all people will face this transition in a healthy and fulfilling manner. But the opportunity for them to do so is there if they choose to explore and leave open the many options by which people can embrace life. Whether or not they retire from their career, people can choose to push on, the best way they can, to a fulfilling finish.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC-S/September 14, 2013  

PROFESSIONAL COUNSELING: Transitions       

What Is Existential Psychotherapy?

[Key Words: existentialism, contemplation, action, values, value system, angst, decision point, commitment, courage]

What does an existential approach to counseling entail? Existentialism is one of those half-dollar words that produces images of the halls of academia, philosophers sitting in their study, or men and women having coffee in Parisian cafes. What I offer here is one – my – perspective on trying to answer the question of what existential counseling involves. My answer to the question, What is existential psychotherapy?, is one of many. There is no one way to work existentially in counseling.

The approach I take, as a therapist, is fairly simple, straightforward, and concrete. From my perspective, existentialism is about existence. Existence is about our lives, about living our lives, making decisions about our lives, exploring meaning for our lives, striving to establish our values, and making a commitment to live by the values that we claim to hold.

Explorations along these lines can, and will, involve the many angles and perspectives with which we approach living. It may sound simple to answer the question: What are my values? However, as we delve into our understanding of what we claim to value, we may find that the answers do not flow from us so easily. We value many things. We may never have reflected on what our core values may be – those that we would prioritize over all other values, those that are foundational to any other values we hold. We may not have contemplated all that much on exactly what, in fact, our values are. We may have an intuitive sense of them. We may have some understanding of how some of the ways we act on life do reflect what we value. But we may have never dealt with the question of what ultimate values we claim to hold, and how they reflect the way we live. Such reflections involve our taking stock of our value system.

Consequently, one side of an existential approach to counseling is the contemplative side. Counseling entails a place to set aside some time to explore, contemplate (reflect upon), and clarify what it is that we actually believe and value. Other reflections and explorations may arise from this process, dealing with such questions as: 1) Does the way I live my life reflect what I claim to value? 2) If not, what is it that prevents me from living in full alignment with what I say I value? 3) Have I truly followed out and pursued the kind of life I want to live? 4) Do I, in fact, truthfully value what I say I value, or have I unthinkingly inculcated values from others without owning them for myself? These and many other questions may arise in the contemplative work of an existential approach to counseling. Hence, the title of this website: Contemplations: Center for Existential Psychotherapy.

Having addressed the contemplative work of existential counseling, we should not assume that such an approach merely involves sitting around and reflecting or contemplating. We must also come to grips with the other side of an existential approach that involves the equally important experience of acting. Life appears to be a dialectic between contemplation and action. It’s not that we line all our ducks up in a row, and then perfectly know what to do. The work of contemplation and action is an ongoing process. One purpose of an existential approach is to help clients ACT on what they have reflected upon and clarified. Hence, there is a decision point many times in existential work. Some existentialists call this decision point, commitment. Explorations of our values will most likely lead to our making changes in our lives. If i say I value a certain way of living, then I will commit to that way of living. If I do not make such a commitment, then I need to ask whether or not I truly value what I say I value. Consequently, existential work is a continual movement between contemplation and action. But contemplation without action can be a waste of time. People can become mired in thinking without ever acting on their thoughts and beliefs. Rather than contemplation, people fall into the habit of rumination. Existential work involves the challenge to act on what we say we believe. People enter therapy to change something in their lives. Changes do not happen most of the time without commitment to change. The only time that such inaction may make sense is when people conclude that they really do not want to change. They may have thought they wanted to change. But when they understood more fully what change entails, they decided, instead, that change is really not for them. This decision point, as any other, is a legitimate place for commitment – saying no to specific changes.

An existential approach does not proffer change as something necessarily easy and comfortable. Change can be scary and anxiety-ridden. Such anxiety is what existentialists call angst. Breaking inveterate habits is difficult work. The role of the therapist is to be a guide for the individual who wants to explore his or her life and make changes that may involve tough navigations and journeys. There are no guarantees as to what lies ahead on the road of change. One change may lead to many others. We may regret some changes, only to find other changes that are more fruitful for us. Because there are no guarantees that change will work out the way we exactly want it to, existentialists speak of the courage to change. Change involves risk and failure, as well as success. Yet many find that the risk of living in alignment with their values is worth the effort. Living in such alignment is the task of living out who we are.

In summary, existential work involves explorations of beliefs and values and commitment to acting on those clarified beliefs and values. Existential work may indeed involve a choice point, a decision point, at which time a person makes an effort to commit to a chosen set of values, to make a change in one’s life, to begin living by what one claims to value, or to make changes in one’s value system. And finally, there are no guarantees that change will work out as people might have pictured it to fall in place. The unknown road of change contains many curves and obstacles. But one thing we can know is that not acting will most likely not produce change. Existential work is the challenge to explore one’s life, establish one’s values, and live those values out the best way one can, with the understanding that we cannot know what both the beginning and the end of the road looks like all at once.  Change, major change, requires courage.

John V. Jones, Jr., Ph.D., LPC -S/August 1, 2013

PROFESSIONAL COUNSELING