Anxiety, Faith, & State

Introduction

Two Forms of Anxiety

Several decades ago (1950/1977), the existential psychologist and writer, Rollo May, authored The Meaning of Anxiety. In that book, he distinguished between two types of anxiety. He designated one type as pathological anxiety; he described a second type as existential anxiety. May believed that how we respond to the latter has much to do with whether or not we will experience the former. In his conceptualization, if we repress existential anxiety, we might very well develop pathological anxiety, along with other impairments that come with a denial of existential realities. Anxiety in all is forms leads to some restriction in the way one approaches life. The existential givens of life are limitations. We cannot be who and what we are not. When we deny or try to escape who we are, then anxiety can become more pronounced, and strictures of living can become more powerful impediments to our way of life.

Our True Nature and All Things Political

I rarely allow my libertarian spirit loose on this blog and write about things political. As a libertarian, I despise most things political. Rollo May’s conceptualization, however, of existential and pathological anxiety provides a good framework for how we can understand what has transpired over the last couple of months with COVID-19 government mandates, the rapacious hammering of an economy and people’s rights to earn a living for themselves and their families, and the wholesale giving over of Natural Rights to the State. I will speak to this cowardly act on the part of citizens, not only as a libertarian, but also as a Christian who understands life’s limitations from a Biblical perspective as to our finite and fallen nature. In our response to COVID-19 we chose to place strictures on our living due to our neurotic anxieties in the face of life’s limitations.

Our Enemy the State

It may well be that COVID-19 is even more dangerous and deadly than once imagined and predicted; however, presently that doesn’t appear to be the case. Even if COVID-19 turns out to be something akin to the Black Plague, that reality would furnish no excuse for the giving over of Natural Rights to the State. Indeed, any emergency situation where people are called to work together to deal with exigent situations is the very time to become more vigilant in safeguarding Natural Rights. Emergencies are food for the State to seize Natural Rights for the stated reason that it knows what is better for everyone concerned. The siren call one hears from the State singing it benevolent protection is one that should chill, not warm, the soul of people who truly value liberty.

Existential Anxiety: Risks Inherent in Living

Existentialists of various conceptualizations have described the tensions, struggles, and risks that comprise our journeys called life. Kirkegaard spoke of the dizziness of freedom, that weight we feel when we realize that we are responsible for our choices. Nietzsche spoke of the pressure that man faces in reevaluating his own values so as to avoid sacrificing himself to a herd mentality. Satre addressed man’s being condemned to freedom. Camus challenges man to live as a rebel, even in the face of what he felt to be an absurd existence.

Existential psychologists and psychotherapists expounded upon existential philosophical conceptualizations, such as those stated above, to describe certain forms of anxiety that are inherent in facing the many crossroads of decisions that make up our day-to-day existence. Irvin Yalom described four givens or themes of existence that we face in our human struggle: death, freedom and responsibility, meaning, and existential isolation. Others built on these to explicate their own view of existential approaches to therapy. Viktor Frankl explored the human need to search for meaning. Rollo May explored the notion of anxiety in depth to help us understand the dilemmas that are inherent in our struggle to carve out lives for ourselves. Although all these various conceptualizations contain food for thought, I believe they additionally must be understood through the truths of Biblical revelation,

Existential Anxiety and Pathological Anxiety

Rollo May described the normal challenges of life that we face as mechanisms that generate normal or existential anxiety. Inherent in living are threats to our various forms of existence. Can I provide for myself and my family? In such provision, can I also place myself and family in a safe environment where they not only have food on the table and a roof over their head, but they also have their health concerns provided? Can I keep safe so as to maintain safety for my family? And then, what about the day-to-day decisions I make? Will they be choices that continue the care I’m responsible for in terms of my own existence, as well as those I love? What if I make a bad decision? A wrong decision? What if I lose my job and income? What if I become ill and cannot take care of myself or family?

Inherent in all these questions are the normal anxieties of daily living. If we deny the struggle we are thinking more like an adolescent or child than an adult. The struggles and dangers are real. Facing the challenges that life throws at us is what Rollo May and others call the courage to exist. Rather than denying existential threats, we face up to them and fight to carve out and protect our livelihoods. When we deny these existential threats, then we can be swept away into neurotic anxiety. This happens to people because the challenges of living do not simply go away because we don’t want them to be present. If we don’t face up to them, then they manifest themselves in other ways in our being. We are responsible for the choices we make. We cannot escape that reality. Likewise, individually we must search out what is truly meaningful in our lives. In that sense, we make or at least come to discover how we can make meaning in and for our lives. We are all finite and must face the fact that one day we will die and cease to be. Individually, no one else can live our lives for us or make decisions for us. To cast this responsibility onto others is to act irresponsibly and cowardly.

Casting our Fate to the State

I have to admit that one of the most disappointing failures I’ve witnessed is our wholesale giving over of Natural Rights to the State due to the fear generated by COVID-19. First, let me say so that no caricatures or false narratives are applied to this blog, the threat of COVID-19 is real. I don’t believe it reaches the magnitude proclaimed by those in power, but it is real. Even if it does reach the predicted magnitude, the failure on our part as a free people is unsettling. We have cast upon the State the responsibility to take care of us, giving over to their dictates as to how we should live, what she should deem as essential, and the ways we should conduct our daily affairs, from the way we relate to our family and friends to the way we go about providing for our basic needs.

Note the devolution of Natural Rights that occurred over a period of just a few weeks. First, we engaged having to take precautions as we navigated our daily lives. Then precautions turned into dictates as to what kind of work is considered essential and what kinds of livelihood are non-essential. These designations determined by the State basically labeled people’s ways of living as important and not important. The devolution did not stop there. In some states, mandates equated to house arrests. Citizens were asked to spy on other citizens and report them if they violated certain mandates. The shock came at how easily citizens aligned with this role. Certain products in stores became designated as essential or non-essential. Activities, like mowing one’s yard, were criminalized or so near-criminalized that individuals feared being reported, shamed, or both if they engaged such activities. Certain governors of particular states took it upon themselves to determine whether people could even go for a drive. Police officers appeared at a mother’s house because she allowed her daughter to play outside. One governor went so far as trying to shut down an Interstate and an entire community because people disagreed and did not align with her mandates as to when and how they could resume their daily business.

One silver lining is that politicians who implemented these Draconian measures are beginning to experience some push back. Although that is a good sign, a deeper question exists as to how we so easily let things get to the point they did in the first place. Historically we have witnessed one of the major mechanisms the State uses to restrict people’s liberty, to proffer something that threatens their existence on some level. We have seen this over the years from the Cold War to the War on Terror, and now to the War on COVID-19. I do not wish to continue offering this qualifier, but again, I do not deny the threat of the COVID-19 virus. What I deny is that we as a people should have in a wholesale manner handed over to the State without thought and without hesitance our Natural Rights. If there is a more blatant example of pathological anxiety than our response to COVID-19 with our acquiescence to the State, I can’t for the life of me think of what it would be.

My Response as a Christian

Actions by the State in response to COVID-19 that bothered me the most entailed the blatant violation of freedom of worship and religion manifested in the closing down of churches and preventing people from coming together to worship. When a pastor is arrested for conducting church services, when people are fined and subjected to legal sanctions because they attend a worship whereby they stayed in their automobiles, and when the UN, WHO, and CDC desire to dictate to churches what they can and cannot do, then we have to ask what is going on here besides some concern for a virus.

I know many Christians will point to Romans 13 here as a proper Christian response. I agree but not to the point of acquiescence that some interpret that passage to mean. But that’s another discussion and blog article all together. As believers, we know via God’s word that life has been, is, and will continue to be full of existential threats. Although easier said than done, we are not be anxious. These exigent times of COVID-19 are prime times for the church to step forward and demonstrate what it can do and what it offers during such emergencies. The last thing we should do is hand all of our power to act over to the State.

Via God’s providence, we supposedly have created a government, not of men but of laws. My ultimate authority is God. Our ultimate legal authority here is the Constitution. We sold out the Constitution. We indicated by our actions that Natural Rights are not important when we embrace the Statist belief that those in political power know better how we should conduct our affairs than we do. I claim no omniscience at knowing how to navigate all the vicissitudes and vagaries associated with COVID-19. Such navigating would entail positive and negative experiences, getting some things right and other things wrong. Moreover, however, I recognize no omniscience on the part of the State to dictate to people how they should conduct their affairs, to know what ways of living are essential and non-essential, and to grant that it has the right to shutdown and annihilate an economy in the name of protecting people. Wilhelm Reich’s Mass Psychology of Fascism and Eric Fromm’s Escape from Freedom come to mind here. In mass hysteria, we ran into the arms of the State offering it everything we supposedly value to our core. In our neurotic anxieties, we traded liberty for security, and have gained neither. We restricted our way of living for a utopian promise.

Conclusion

I used the concept of Natural Rights throughout this blog. Suffice it to say without having to go into too much detail, as a Christian, I believe Natural Rights are endowed by a Creator. These times are scary, more than just for the reason of a virus. But in scary times, we as Christians have to look to our response to God and Christ our High Priest to understand, as Francis Schaeffer put it, how should we then live. Again, easier said than done, but our living should not be in fear. Our response to the State indicates that the mind of fear has ruled the way we see life. The way we see life has led us to acquiesce to the State. We have fled from the challenges inherent in life to live behind a mask that hides who we have become in our core. When this crisis passes, and it will pass, the question will be what masks remain on our souls that we sold to the State. We exchanged living fully for a utopian promise that no human being can, or has the right, to make and dictate.

To believe such promises from politicians is idolatry at its worse.

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

GENERAL ESSAY

Yes and No

Introduction

Life is a constant series of decisions. In our journeys we encounter crossroads at every turn, having to choose which way to go. Many of these crossroads leave little impact on our lives. Others are major crossroads that are life altering. With each decision, we have to say yes to something, which in turn means we say no to something else. Major crossroads are angst provoking for many people, especially when the choice of one road means they may never know what the other road might have held.

Major Crossroads: The Risks of Life

Life entails a series of risks that we must face. Every crossroad we come to entails risks that we must weigh because the way we go might set a path for our lives for some time to come. Time is the resource that we know is limited. We realize that we can never come back to the original starting point to make a different decision. No doubt, we can change our minds and make different decisions, but the time we’ve taken in the process is set in stone. We cannot reclaim it. A common experience I encounter is that I, people I know, and clients with whom I work desire someone to tell us everything is going to work out okay. We look for that person who can give us the picture that tells us the end from the beginning. Getting advice and feedback from people we trust is one thing. Wanting a guarantee is another thing all together. We desire guarantees because we don’t want to face the risks. The reality is that risks are inherent in life, especially if we want to pursue a life that is meaningful on some level.

So two things combine to make crossroads weighty things indeed. We say yes to something, meaning we have to say no to something else. Add to that we want to know that we’re making the right decision. I don’t believe that life is so arbitrary that we’re simply flipping a coin as we make our way through our existence. There are legitimate and good ways by which to make decisions. We can research, learn, and embrace those tried and true ways of making choices. What those may entail are another blog article. Nonetheless, even good decision-making practices cannot provide us with guarantees. There is truth in the notion that we simply have to use all that is available to us to make the best decisions we can, and then go with it. We have to let our decisions rest and see where they take us. We can neither get caught up in overthink or searching for ironclad guarantees. Overthinking and the search for absolute certainty will keep us stuck at the crossroads where we will never decide.

The Sinuous Paths of Life

Saying yes to things we hope to pursue can indeed be exciting. Saying no to pathways in which we’re also interested can produce both angst and sadness. There are many decisions we face that are not made up of cut-and-dry either-or decisions. There are nuances of interests and desires we have. The thought of saying no to some of those desires is truly painful. We simply don’t want to let them go even if we know we want to pursue a certain pathway. One thing I discovered in talking with so many clients and other people I know over the years is that when we choose a path, it is not necessarily one to which we are glued for our entire lives. In terms of career, many people have found ways to have more than one and even several careers that they have followed. Usually these decisions come about for them when one pathway runs its course, and they know it is time for a change. Likewise, once people choose to follow a path, they find ways then to work back into their journeys other things that interest them. Although it may take time, they find a way to bring back into their lives some of those things they said no to earlier. The common denominator here, however, is that these individuals first said yes to something and no to other things. The paths they ended up following would not have transpired for them had they not taken that first step toward one path at their crossroads. While we can’t be sure that we can work things back into our lives we once said no to, one thing is for sure. If we don’t say yes to something at the beginning, we will stay stuck at the crossroad. Staying stuck is simply saying no to everything. Again, we don’t know the end from the beginning. It may well be that when we say no to some things, they will never return to our life’s journey. There is nothing worse, however, than never getting started. All one has to do is listen to some stories that people tell about having wasted that resource of time to the point that they believe they have wasted their lives. If there is a guarantee I can give, then it would be that it is much better to choose a path, even if we have to reverse it later than to never have chosen at all. One can think in terms of romance. If I love a woman and wonder if I should tell her, one thing is for sure. If I never take the risk to tell her, I’ll never know what would have transpired. If I do tell her, and she says she doesn’t feel the same way, then painful as that may be, at least I gave it shot. I believe it is that way with every crossroad we face.

God’s Providence

I write this blog from a Christian worldview. As Christians, we believe in God’s providential care over our lives. That means we don’t need to know the end from the beginning. What God’s providence doesn’t mean is that we should make decisions in haphazard ways. In fact, as Christians we should be the ones who put the meaning into due diligence. We do the best we can, and we leave it in God’s hands. Does that mean we never make mistakes? I wish! Like anyone’s life, we can choose to learn from the choices we made that didn’t turn out or we can grow bitter and disappointed. From a Christian perspective, we can look to the lessons that God has for us. One of the things we all must learn is that the rare resource of time is limited. We don’t have the time to make life decisions in a haphazard manner. We equally don’t have the time to grow bitter and disappointed when decisions we make don’t turn out the way we desired. Life is indeed a learning process. It has hard knocks, pitfalls, and traps into which we fall. It also has its rewards that come with wisdom that we gain if we look for it in the experiences life offers us.

Conclusion

Life is a series of yes’s and no‘s. We are finite creatures who cannot know the beginning from the end. We have the rare resource of time to navigate the winding rivers and roads of our lives. The sad fact is that we can waste our lives if we are not careful. We encounter crossroads of one kind or another everyday. The major ones can be angst producing. The worst thing we can do at major crossroads is stay stuck as in quicksand because we want some form of guarantee that everything will work out the way we hope. No human being can offer us that. The one thing I do believe is that through faith and due diligence things will work out. Perhaps not in the way we hoped or desired, but they will work out, providing us with lessons that we can hopefully and joyfully call wisdom.

There’s nothing richer than that kind of wisdom.  

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

GENERAL ESSAY

Thought and Action

Introduction

I would guess that most of us have experienced that sense of fulfillment that comes when our actions in life and on the world truly align with our declared beliefs and values. Such fulfillment is especially true when the actions we had to take were difficult ones, where we knew we had to do what was right.

In this month’s blog, I want to explore the necessity of how our actions should align with what we believe, particularly those beliefs that we hold at our core, ones we believe that define pretty much who we are. Our core beliefs should dictate and frame our actions. Although we’ll never be perfect in such an alignment on this side of life (speaking as a Christian here), to the extent that our actions align with our core beliefs, we will much more likely find fulfillment in the way we live. Such a way of living can be called many things. Honesty, ethical, dependable, and most of all a life filled with integrity come to mind as apt descriptors.

To seek to act – to live out fully as much as possible – in alignment with our beliefs is a difficult undertaking. To the extent that we do so, we can possibly experience, in addition to a sense of fulfillment, lives of empowerment, efficacy, and the sense that we have pursued well-lived and meaningful lives.

Core Values

I have written about counseling and valuation more than once on this blog. Suffice it say, what we call our core beliefs, those that define and describe who we are or who we would like to be, can also be called our core values. Core beliefs make up how we would choose to live and act regardless of what life throws at us. That is a tall order. What can sting us to the core, or sink like a sharp blade deep into our soul, are our realizations that in the midst of tough times that life sends our way, we abandoned what we held to be foundational beliefs about how we understand ourselves, the ways in which we hope to act toward others, and how we desire to live in the world. In a word, we have abandoned our worldview.

Now one could offer the legitimate critique that if time after time we abandoned what we claim to hold as true deep in our soul during life’s challenges that test our claims, then we really don’t value what we claim to value. No doubt, we may find at times that we have inculcated values that we claim to hold without really critiquing for ourselves whether or not we truly value what we claim. That’s another concern all together.

I want to take a different angle at possibly understanding what occurs when we fail in the face of life’s difficulties. Yes, we have claimed to have believed something that we deserted when tough times came at us. Welcome to life and its mix of successes and failures. Rather than totally giving up on what we claim to value when such failures occur, perhaps the truth is that what we value entails difficult ways of standing toward life. I know that is true for my own take on things. Why hold a value that doesn’t help me through difficult times? I don’t want to live by the value that hard times require our always backing out and not facing what life throws at us. That is, in fact, a value. It’s simply one with which I don’t want to align. That means when I say I want to live with courage, honesty, and integrity, I most likely will fail at living those values out many times in my life because they are difficult values by which to live. Would we have it any other way?

So the question becomes what do you hold as your core values and beliefs? What do you believe to be true? On what foundations does your view of truth stand? How do you see yourself living in alignment with what you claim to hold at your core? If your beliefs are difficult to hold during the cold, hard, and dry circumstances of life, you should not automatically assume that you don’t really believe what you claim to believe. Instead, such experiences may mean that what you believe and value are difficult paths to tread. Don’t automatically shun your beliefs because they are hard ones by which to live when life’s demands come at you.

A quote by Viktor Frankl has stuck with me over the years. In his work, Man’s Search for Meaning, he stated: It’s not what we demand of life that counts, but what life demands of us. That’s a difficult belief by which to live. But do you believe that it is true?

Faith and Life

I would be lying through my teeth if I said I believe that the power to live in alignment with what I value rests totally in me. I have written more than once on this blog that I am born-again Christian. No doubt that epithet raises many questions for people who might read this blog along with a ton of caricatures that readily pop into their mind.

The Christian life is a tough one by which to live if one truly chooses to live as God would have one live. But there is also a promise that God has made to those of us who have trusted him through Christ for our salvation. That promise is that he will grant us the power to live the way he wants us to live. The last thing that means, however, is that life will be made of easy pathways through which we can skip and play without any trip ups. For the fallen in life, moral failures are facts of life. They occur everyday for me. If I had to believe that every time I failed, then I really didn’t believe what I claim to believe, then I would have given up on my faith a long time ago.

Scriptures, the witness of the apostles and the saints throughout history, and many believers whom I personally know today tell another story. To live as a Christian is a tough battle. I’ve failed at it many times. I’ve even given up on it at times, always to be called back as God promised. Rather than shucking my beliefs, my failures indicate how much more I need the grace of God to live as I should live. Courage, honesty, and integrity are wonderful core values, along with a host of others. Think of what scripture calls the fruits of the Spirit: peace, love, joy, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. If every time I fell short at living out any one of those, I gave up on them, then those nine words would carry no meaning at all and no target toward which to set one’s sights. The truth is that I can’t live by them by my own power. The promise is that by God’s grace via sanctification, I will grow into them. But I do not have to choose that path. There are more times in my life than I wish were true that I didn’t choose that path. Nonetheless, God’s grace abounds anyway.

Conclusion: Foundations

For the reader who is a Christian, the message is that God’s grace can and will help you live out what you claim to believe and know to be true. In the midst of failures, don’t toss your beliefs to the side of the road because they are difficult ones by which to live. Those difficult times are the ones that God uses to hone who and what we are at our core.

For the one who is not a Christian, then you must choose to live as you will. Still, solid values that people want to live out are difficult. It is easy to believe that because they are difficult, they cannot or should not be held. Everyone has to decide what they hold at their foundation. Then they have to decide if that foundation has any other deeper foundations to it. In this postmodern age where rhetoric rules over the idea of rationality, reason and truth, foundational truths are hard to hold forth. They are mocked, laughed at, and disparaged as backward ways of thinking and living.

Each individual must decide if there are reasons to hold foundational truths. And then he or she must decide if the battles to live in alignment with those truths are worth the struggle.

What people decide will frame, shape, and canalize the way they move through life.

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

THEMATIC: THOUGHT/ACTION

Group Therapy for Social Anxiety

Introduction

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

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

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

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

Social Anxiety

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

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

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

Fear of Negative Evaluation

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

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

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

Group Therapy for Social Anxiety

Group Design for Working with Clients Who Experience Social Anxiety

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

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

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

Role of the Group Therapist(s)

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

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

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

Social Gatherings of Various Groups

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

PROFESSIONAL COUNSELING

Counseling & Valuation II

Introduction

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

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

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

A Quick Review: Level I Work – Means and Ends

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

Valuation Counseling: Level II

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

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

The Card Sort

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

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

Alignment of Thought and Action

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

GENERAL ESSAY

Meanderings 2019

Introduction

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

Reawakened Interests

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

Counseling as Human Action

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

A Specific Topic and Quest

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

Life Experiences

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

Holidays

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

Conclusion: Counseling and Beyond

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

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

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

GENERAL ESSAY

Preparing for the Holidays

Introduction

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

Holidays and Family

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

Holidays without Family

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

GENERAL ESSAY

Counseling and Valuation

Introduction

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

Two Levels of Questions About Valuation

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

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

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

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

Values Exploration in the Counseling Room

What Stands in the Way?

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

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

What Changes Are Necessary?

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

PROFESSIONAL COUNSELING

Launching Pad: Return to Some Previous Themes

Introduction

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

Launching Pad

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

Mind

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

Meaning-Making

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

Thought/Action

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

Finitude/Humility

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

Worldview

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

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


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

Valuation

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

GENERAL ESSAY

Philosophical Counseling

Introduction

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

Philosophical Counseling

The Search for Meaning and Purpose

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

Encountering Life Difficulties and Obstacles

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

Life Transitions

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

Life Goals: Means, Ends, and Valuation

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

Spirituality

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

Conclusion

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

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

PROFESSIONAL COUNSELING