26 Nov How Organized Beliefs Can Alienate Individuals
I posted the following update on facebook the other day and thought I would flush it out a bit.
your comfortable and neatly organized belief system alienates the person who has had to face reality head on
When my clients eyes glaze over and I begin to sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher, I know it’s time to return to the subjective. I try and stay in the subjective most of the time but there are moments when education is helpful, and there are times when even explaining some deeper concepts can help a person frame their experience. Irvin Yalom will use the many thoughts of dead philosophers to help others going through death anxiety — the chapter in his book Staring at the Sun is entitled “The Power of Ideas.” Now therapy shouldn’t always be about these ideas and intellectual constructs, but sometimes it is and some clients need it, while others are not interested. Sometimes we just have to have our experience in the presence of another without any explanation. We need a space to be, not be an explanation.
I’m sure that many people thought my comment was directed to religious belief systems, but I am referring to ANY belief system that seems to have life figured out, and that includes psychology. The more I do therapy, and the more I study psychology, the more I see how similar psychology has become to a religion. The process of therapy can be very moralistic and, ironically, by even those attempting to reduce a person to thoughts and behaviors. Moving away from religious answers to scientific ones has only created a different type of moralism that is currently being played out in the modern medical community.
The person who comes into my office and tells me they were abused as a child, is not going to want to explore how to just think more positively. Why? Why not? I mean we can just think differently right? It’s all about perspective isn’t it? Well, the problem with this is the fact that now this person has seen the horrors of human life. Many of us do and many of us do not get to an experience of human life that shakes our structural reality. We have all been through suffering, but sometimes it (suffering, trauma, etc) breaks through all other protective measures to ward off pain and eventual death. These latter thoughts come from Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death which is an amazing book and explains so well our attempts to ward off death.
The comfortable belief system exists as a way to deny that death will occur. We all do many things to structure our life in ways that create a facade: money, a house, investments, relationships, toys, addictions, north america. Becker goes so far as to say that ‘neurosis’ is the result of actually experiencing reality with no facade or protective measures in place. The worst case scenario is schizophrenia, where a person is unable to protect against all life material as it floods their conscious mind. But what we have deemed “normal” in our society is actually “a refusal of reality,” says Becker. All measures of neurotic anxiety, like phobias and compulsive behaviors, are attempts to quell the terror that one will die someday. They may have experienced something that brought them closer to pain and suffering, showing them the reality of the world. When this happens, all preconceived beliefs are challenged at an organismic level. So many of their own neatly organized beliefs about the world have just been smashed and if you offer more platitudes to their suffering, the living human-in-reality scoffs at the attempt.
Robert Stolorow, author and psychoanalyst, says this about trauma:
In my work over the last two decades attempting to grasp the nature of emotional trauma, I have shown that its essence lies in the shattering of what I call the absolutisms of everyday life–the system of illusory beliefs that allow us to function in the world, experienced as stable, predictable, and safe. Such shattering is a massive loss of innocence exposing the inescapable contingency of our existence on a universe that is unstable and unpredictable and in which no safety or continuity of being can be assured. Emotional trauma brings us face to face with our existential vulnerability and with death and loss as possibilities that define our existence and that loom as constant threats. (from ‘Empathic Civilization’ in an Age of Trauma published in Huffington Post)
So when a person has had to face reality head on as Becker would describe it (a bare bones experience of death terror), their “absolutisms of everyday life” no longer help them keep death repressed. Much of it can come flooding up/in, and this creates an instability and confusion that intellectually organized beliefs or thoughts can’t help – at least not for awhile, or until that person is able to integrate and arrive at their own belief structure. This person’s way of structuring reality is forever changed.
So even if one grew up in a certain religion, and at some point had to face reality head on, they will come out with a different set of beliefs, although they might still be within that religion. Same thing with psychology or any other belief system. But here’s the thing: the problem is when we take objective belief statements and blanket them on top of an individual human experience. We all do it, everyone one of us with friends, family and sometimes clients. When one has had to face reality, pain or trauma, we must understand their subjective experience as that is all that matters. We might be able to offer perspectives and thoughts at some point, but they will need to be accepted or rejected by the individual as helpful in creating a new livable reality. If we do not respect this type of subjective experience, we alienate those with different experiences, different thought structures, and different Selves. As much as we learn about life through study, it can never be substituted for reality.