There are certain "givens" or assumptions
which have been the ground for all of my writing and teaching. Since these
assumptions arise from a very different perspective than do those of most
psychologists, it seems to me that it could be useful if I tried to articulate
some of them for you. They grow out of my study in existential-phenomenological
psychology and my experience as a primal therapist.
Living beings, such as bacteria, plants,
animals and humans are distinguished from that which is non living by meaning,
and feeling (each of which participates in determining
the others). Only living beings can discern meaning and, therefore, only
they can desire, strive, and feel. (In fact, so long as they are alive
they are compelled to do so.) By contrast, "things," such
as rocks, bicycles or corpses cannot desire, strive, or feel; therefore
nothing can have meaning to them.
You might object to my suggesting that
bacteria or plants desire, strive and feel. I do not mean that they do
these in the same way that humans do. How they do so is dictated by their
Meaning, rather than "data," is the
essence of our consciousness. Things have "form" to us because they have
meaning. More precisely, their form is their meaning. These
meanings are born directly and solely from the being's specific "structure"
and "personal" history
A being's structure is constituted by
its biology and psychology, (again,
each affecting the other). I do not have the same desires as a whale because
my structure is different. For example, I don't desire and I'm not able
to find nourishment by sifting huge quantities of microscopic plankton
from the ocean, as do some whales. Nor would a whale want or be able to
boil an egg.
A plant can't desire to boil an egg,
either. But I suggest that a plant can desire to find water
or to face the sun although, as I've said, it can act on its desires only
within the limitations of its structure. Since its structure is so different
from ours, its striving is also quite different. It can't dig a well, but
it can sense moisture and stretch its roots towards it.
In general, any possibility falling
outside the bounds of a being's structure either has no meaning for that
being--will not exist--or has a radically different meaning than it has
when it falls within the limits of the being's structure. (e.g., the colour
green to a blind person or Beethoven's Fifth Symphony to a deaf person).
Within the limits of structure, personal
history will from the very first moment of life guide meaning, desire and
striving: A human raised in the Kalahari Desert without contact with "modern"
culture would probably find it difficult to comprehend skiing and therefore
wouldn't want and wouldn't strive to ski. On the other hand, it's quite
likely that a person raised in the Alps will learn to ski by seven or eight.
Similarly, it's likely that the meaning to a girl of her father's mistreatment
is that she's not worthy of being loved by a man, and that men can't be
trusted to care. As a result, she'll probably want to avoid being vulnerable
to a man by striving to keep men from getting genuinely close to her.
Structure can be affected by personal
history, as well: The hands of a labourer grow gnarled and the legs of
a cowboy grow bowed over time.
Some aspects of personal history that
particularly influence desire are succeeding and failing
being validated and being invalidated.
Not surprisingly, if I generally succeed at the things I try to do, I most
likely will want to continue doing them and to try learning new things.
On the other hand, if I often fail at what I try, I'll probably want to
to learn to do new things.
Similarly, if I'm criticised, discounted,
put down, punished for the things I try ("Why on earth did you ever do
that?"), it's unlikely that I'll continue wanting to do those things or
to try new things. More precisely, I'm likely to strive to not strive
anew, in an effort to keep from being vulnerable to others' disparaging
and threatening judgements. In my view, being invalidated is the primary
basis for psychopathology.
If I'm acknowledged and helped to accomplish
what I want when I'm a child, I'm likely to see new undertakings as exciting
possibilities and be eager to initiate them. But if I'm criticised when
I try new things, new possibilities are likely to be daunting and I'm likely
to drag my feet.
The existentialist philosopher Martin
Heidegger pointed out that when we are born, we each find ourselves in
a situation that is not of our choosing. (This is in contrast to the assertions
of "new age" folks that we choose our parents). Otherwise put, we have
no choice about the hand we're dealt and we're compelled to play it.
Not only do we have to start where we
find ourselves, but from the very first moment of our lives--like all living
beings--we are "directed." That is, our lives are
continuing efforts to fulfil our unfolding desires, (to cross the street,
avoid being punished, be held, fed, burped, warm, loved, safe, rich, popular,
chosen, on time, a college graduate, skinny, healthy, long-lived, and so
on). What we desire--the meanings to us of people, things and situations--depends
upon our specific structures and personal histories.
It matters to us whether or not we succeed
in our efforts to fulfil our desires. That is, we're affected by whether
we succeed or fail. It is this "being affected" that we call feeling
For instance, when we view something as a loss, we will feel sad, which
is the experience of recognizing loss. This evaluation of how things are
going is spontaneous, non volitional.
This seems at odds with the contemporary
popular and scientific views of feeling, which seem to see feeling distressed--or,
at least, lingering distressed feeling--as caused either by our disturbed
biology or our disturbed thinking. Among other problems, I suggest that
this leads to the erroneous conclusion that feeling distressed (e.g., angry,
sad, hurt or scared) is "negative," detrimental, a sign of defect. And
since it is understood to be caused by disordered biology or thinking,
it is something to be gotten rid of, rather than something to welcome.
For me, this obscures what feeling really is, as well as how to effectively
deal with feeling distressed and how to heal emotional wounds.
It seems to me that it is currently
popular to see ourselves as either thinking "machines" or biological "machines."
From the former "cognitive" perspective, emotional disturbances are largely
the consequence of errors in thinking, and these can be remedied by changing
what we think through force of will (for example, via "affirmations," "visualisations"
From the latter "biological" perspective,
lingering emotional distress is an "emotional disorder" engendered by genetic
predisposition and/or biological disorder. These disorders are then to
be remedied largely by administering medications.
I suggest that in the large majority
of cases, the only effective way to remedy distressing feeling is to acknowledge/experience/express
it--to "live it out," rather than "act it out." In my 22 years as a primal
therapist, I have over-and-over again been witness to people being surprised
that the emotional distress they believed they had put behind them was
still robustly present. They were delighted to discover that once genuinely
expressed, it was truly behind them. In my experience, whatever
isn't lived out gets disturbingly acted out (e.g., suppressing my anger
towards someone, on the one hand, and hitting the person with words, actions
or fists, on the other) and the only genuine way out of emotional distress
is through. I'm not discounting all medical therapies. For
instance, it would certainly be indicated for a toothache, diabetes or
epilepsy. Nor am I arguing that our genetic structure does not affect our
possibilities. I am suggesting that emotional
will not heal unless genuinely expressed, acknowledged and experienced.
Although it may not be immediately evident,
we really don't have a choice about what we think or feel.
If you doubt this, try to think about something, anything.
Don't stop. Keep thinking about it. I'm sure you'll find this impossible
to do, that your thoughts will quickly wander--perhaps to that important
errand you may not have had time to run, or that argument you had with
Or try to feel differently than you
do. I'm sure that you'll find you can't accomplish this either, that you'll
quickly drift back to however you were feeling, or perhaps you will now
be distressed that you were unable to choose how you feel. I suggest that
this is because what we think or feel at any moment emerges
from the matrix of meanings for us of the people, things and situations
that have constituted our lives up until that moment.
Further, when I am "fixated" in thought
or feeling on something, it does not mean that there is something
wrong with me, that my "machine" is "broken." For most of us, the degree
to which we focus on something is simply the degree to which it's important
to us. We keep focusing on it because it's something we're trying to solve.
Significantly, it seems always to be something distressing. I've never
heard anyone complaining about fixating on something pleasurable--and I
don't think anyone ever does. (You might object that someone manic fixates
on pleasurable things, but I suggest that rather than being a fixation
on pleasure, the manic phase is actually a frenzied struggle to evade despair.)
Even when I stay focused on something
because I am panicked and afraid to let go--and logic would hold that maintaining
this focus is not helpful--I suggest that it's still in my best interest
to give myself over to my affected body. (My only other alternative is
to fight myself, and this is a battle I can never win.) People often get
stuck in this situation because they fall into a "vacillating stance."
They are drawn to focus on the situation, but at the same time, they criticise
themselves for doing so; so they try to turn away from the disturbing situation,
only to be drawn again to focus on it and again to try to turn away from
it, in a seemingly endless cycle.
In my view, all consciousness,
thinking, feeling, seeing, hearing, remembering, etc., has the same basic
structure: figure, backgroundand horizon.
When I am looking at something, like the eraser on this pencil, it is the
figure. It is in focus, distinct, clear. What surrounds it in my visual
field--for example the rest of the pencil, the computer and monitor, the
desk, telephone, wall, bookcase, etc.--is in the background. Whatever's
in the background is out of focus, indistinct, fuzzy. In turn, the background
is bounded by the horizon. While I have some sense of what's in the background,
I can't at all discern what's on the horizon..
The background and horizon, as its context,
participate in "defining" the figure. For example, were you to put one
hand in cold water and the other in hot water and then plunge both into
warm water, even though both hands are now in the same warm water, you
would believe that the hand that had been in cold water is now in hot water,
and that the hand that was in hot water is now in cold water. The original
water (background) participates in defining the new water (figure). Similarly,
some discarded food in a dumpster may look very attractive when I am starving,
but repulsive when I am not.
Furthermore, other modalities, such
as hearing (e.g., the radio I am listening to as I focus on this pencil)
or feeling (perhaps my frustration that its point is broken), also serve
as background, (context) and participate in defining the figure. (I wonder
whether it was figure, background and horizon that Freud was trying to
describe when he spoke about the conscious, subconscious and unconscious.)
An important part of the background
is intention. Two people can enact the same behaviour with
very different intentions. For example: Neither of us kept promises to
call the women we met last night. I didn't call because I am
very attracted to her: Since I was put down a lot when I was a kid, I don't
believe I'm loveable and don't believe that she--or anyone--can love me.
I anticipate that even if I call her and we get involved, she'll eventually
drop me and I'll get hurt. Therefore, I didn't call her. On the other hand,
you didn't call her because you now realised that you're not
attracted to her; you're embarrassed to tell her and afraid it would hurt
her if you did.
Someone or something is attractive or
repulsive to me precisely to the extent and the way he/she/it fulfills
my intentions. For example, in one instance I am attracted to food because
I'm hungry. In another instance, I disdain food because I've been gaining
weight and am afraid of the ill-effects on my health. Or perhaps I'm attracted
to gutsy women because life frightens me and I look for them to protect
me, while you're attracted to fearful women because you hope to buoy up
your flagging esteem by rescuing them. Whatever significance obtains, it's
not arbitrary; it arises from the accrued meanings that are our personal
Further, something has a particular
meaning to me and at a particular time and
may have a different meaning to someone else or at a different time. And
something is likely to have a different meaning to someone with a different
life history; for instance, someone from a different culture. We seem not
to realise that we each "see" the world from our own unique perspective.
instead of describing how we're affected by someone's appearance ("I'm
really excited to look at her"), we almost inevitably describe the other
person--e.g., as "beautiful," "handsome" or "ugly"--as though these were
qualities that resided in that person, instead of effects on us. As a result,
we don't grasp that someone who is attractive to us can be unattractive
to someone else. I realise now that each of us has a different perspective
and that there is value in my learning how things look to other people
and what they have discovered about life from their own "travels."
Similarly, things don't exist "in themselves."
(What is the sound of a tree falling in the forest if there is no one there
to hear it?") People, things and situations do not have meaning in and
of themselves; they have their unique meaning to a particular person at
a particular time, and only in terms of that person's specific structure
and life history. A flower may be an inspiring reminder of the miracle
of life to one person and a painful reminder of a lost love to another.
Nothing has a universal value. Keats was correct when he penned "Beauty
is in the eye of the beholder."
My experience of being my father's child
was of being an annoyance. As a child and young adult, I was unable to
I didn't understand that while my father was disturbed by me, others might
not be, and might even enjoy me. I took his annoyance to
mean that I was annoying. Only after considerable life experience
and therapy-particularly primal therapy-was I able to situate his frustration
with me. I now realise that my father's being upset by who I was didn't
mean that everyone else would feel the same way, and that others could
enjoy my presence even though it might have been annoying to him.
The scientific world is an objective
and we are urged to be objective. But the objective world doesn't actually
exist. In order to be objective, I have to "bracket" my everyday life experience--I
have to ignore it--and take an "as if" stance. To take an objective stanceI
have to stand "outside" of my experiencing and "look" at some aspect of
my situation from a viewpoint that is not my own (that is not anyone's
In so doing, I draw away from my connection
with the world and the Other and occupy a hypothetical world. For example,
I've just changed the colour of the walls of my room from dark blue to
white. In my experience, the room is now larger. But I'm told that it isn't
really, that from the objective viewpoint the size of the room is unchanged.
("Look, it's still eleven feet wide.") But what's gone unnoticed is that
I'm now viewing a "map" of the room. (I scarcely notice that
I've just changed my stance) It is an abstract of my experience, and the
map is not the territory. (Yes, it will still require the same
amount of paint, but that's because when we're calculating the area we
will need to cover, it's still the objective wall we're considering painting,
not the wall I'm experiencing.)
While viewing the map has many valuable
uses, I suggest it has proven to be quite detrimental when it comes to
understanding and dealing with our personal lives, our planet, and one
another. Among other things, it can be a very seductive hiding place. Men
particularly have learned to run from their pain this way and it's this
"drawing away" that so many women complain about in their relationships
with men. (Actually, although their styles may differ, this "fleeing" is
common to both genders). Too frequently, rather than facing Others with
our concerns--rather than engaging in the dialogue as a means to resolve
conflict or to express care--we choose to draw away from the Other, to
abandon him or her--as we, too, have been abandoned--in a futile effort
to evade our pain.
From the contemporary scientific perspective,
runs along a line that stretches behind me and ahead of me. The portion
of time that is behind me is "the past" and is irretrievably lost. The
portion ahead of me is "the future" and it has not yet arrived. The infinitely
small part where I am now ensconced is the ever-squirming-away "present,"
impossible to dwell in because it's ever-departing.
For me, this does not bear scrutiny.
I do not have the sense of my past as simply past, of my future as never
arriving, or of my present as an ever-fickle moment. My experience is of
a past that stretches behind me, resides in my present, and even occupies
my future; of a future that both stretches ahead of me and dwells in my
present; and of a present that is, well, ever-present, that is definitely
not squirming away.
Since my past in fact dwells in my present,
it can change in my present. While the "objective" facts of my history--such
as our having gone to the movies on Friday evening--cannot be altered,
I can discover that I was mistaken about the facts, on the one hand, and
the meaning of those facts can change, on the other hand. For example:
When I was a child, my parents were strict and critical. I resented how
they treated me and grew to believe that I was unlovable. In the course
of doing parenting myself--in that "present"--I came to recognise and appreciate
how difficult an undertaking parenting is, and that they had cared more
than I had realised; and I began to see that I might be worthy of care.
Our histories are not merely "objective
facts." Rather than being fixed, they are constantly being altered as our
lives unfold in our now (through ever-accruing meanings, not through willpower).
For instance, I fired a contractor after he dragged his feet for many months
and failed to finish the job. I was very angry at him for letting me down,
until I learned--months later--that he had gone bankrupt. I no longer viewed
him as incompetent or uncaring; and instead of being angry at him, I felt
sad about how our relationship had been disturbed and I regretted that
he hadn't told me about his financial difficulties so that we could have
dealt more cooperatively with our situation.
Another example: In a TV show that I'm
watching, she coldly declares that she's leaving. He feels hurt. Later,
she confesses that she hates goodbyes and he realises that her cold good-bye
was a manifestation of her distress about good-byes, rather than her judgement
about him. For him, the meaning of her cold good-bye has been changed by
his new understanding of it.
Our futures also change in our present.
Such is the case in the recent spate of high school shootings. For some
students, their futures came to an abrupt halt in that present moment and
for others, e.g., the girl who was left paralysed, their futures were greatly
I suggest further that the time we experience
doesn't unfold in always equal duration. The 50 frightening seconds when
my aircraft engine temporarily conked out really did last nearly an eternity,
while the three weeks I've spent writing this essay have gone by in a flash.
Living beings ultimately want to live
and will typically struggle to maintain life when their being is threatened.
In fact, I will argue that even the act of suicide is a choice of people
who want to live and would choose life if they trusted that they could
find relief from their pain. They come to the possibility of suicide only
in the face of what is for them unbearable pain--physical or emotional--and
they can't figure out how to continue living with this pain.
People choose death in order to alleviate
their pain. Whether or not the pain of their situation is unbearable is
related to their particular structures and life histories. Hence, Christopher
Reeve can flourish even when paralysed from the neck down and in constant
need of a machine to help him breathe, while someone else might become
suicidal or homicidal in the face of a verbal sleight.
When someone names me, he or she is
saying that I am someone and, moreover, this
that one.. But naming is more than merely designating.
Names are not random assignments. They have particular meanings in each
culture and subculture, and to each parent. Our parents gave us names that
had meaning to them, so in some way our names embody their pasts and connote
their intentions for our futures. Then, as we grew, our names came to signify
for us the accretion of all the meanings that others ascribe or seem to
ascribe to us. I've known quite a few people who've tried to escape their
painful pasts by changing their names--ultimately without success, in my
view, because we cannot escape our histories.
Although we appear to be separate from
one another, we are not. We have become and are becoming who we are entirely
through our interactions--our connections, our involvements--with others.
And who we are for them and how they behave towards us is continually influenced
by who they are for us and how we behave towards them. I suggest that there
is nothing we understand, nothing we aim for, nothing we do that is not
affected by how others around us have been and are being. The recluse,
for example, has chosen to move away from all others because of his or
her distressing experiences with some others. Yet even the recluse needs
others, typically relying, for example, on someone else to buy groceries.
Many years ago, entirely by chance I
ran into an uncle who I hadn't seen or been in contact with for more than
twenty years--and this was 3,000 miles away from our previous meeting.
My brother had a similar experience on an airline flight. He ran into a
cousin who he also hadn't seen or spoken with for many years. In the western
world--particularly in the United States, where "rugged individualism"
is the mythos--we tend to look at ourselves as fundamentally separate from
one another. But these experiences simply underscore for me that we are
connected much more closely than we tend to realise. I contend that what
a farmer in the Ukraine or a gaucho in Argentina do affects me, and vice
It is a commonly accepted practice--and
it is even considered desirable--to withhold and otherwise conceal ourselves,
even in our close relationships (e.g., to tell "white lies" in order to
avoid hurting someone). It seems to me that many of us have erroneously
concluded that only the part of a relationship that we actually reveal
to one another is real, that "what she doesn't know won't hurt her." For
example, I've had wives tell me that they don't care whether their husbands
"go out" on them, so long as their husbands don't tell them.
We conceal ourselves out of our fear
of being abandoned or harmed. In so doing, we believe that we can maintain
or grow love in our relationships. However, just the opposite is the inevitable
outcome of this strategy. To engage in a "strategy" (as opposed to dialoguing)
is to manipulate the other person. It requires that I step "outside" of
our "I-thou" connection. Employing any strategy creates pain
for all involved and damages the relationship. The only means by which
we can "connect" with one another is through "dialoguing," real-talk--through
our being genuine, authentic. It seems to me that this is what Martin Buber
meant when he described the I-Thou relationship (I and Thou, Between
Man and Man).
We tend to believe that people have
to be cajoled to care. Consequently, we are taught "rules"
for caring (e.g., the golden rule) and are threatened with punishment (social
and legal) if we do not act out of care. I suggest that this actually impedes
the possibility of genuine care and that just the opposite is the likely
outcome. Contrary to the common view, we cannot choose to
care, so any effort to care by following the rules can only be an act,
which is not care and actually disturbs the relationship and those in it.
I suggest that the basis of care is
the recognition of my kinship with others--of my belonging and our connection--and
my consequent concern about both my and their welfare. I make care manifest
through dialogue--speaking my truth--which in turn requires my commitment
to acknowledging my pain. (Always with the caveat that--as with any skill--we
need first to learn how and when to do so.) Care is the glue that joins
us. Without care we would not have survived into adulthood and unless our
unexpressed past is in the way, care for ourselves and for one another
is our nature.
E. Linn, Ph.D. • Empowering People