A psychology of action, awareness and self-actualization
My greatest sources of inspiration are not just brilliant psychologists but also visionary writers, philosophers and artists who sought to shed light on matters of the heart and to uplift humanity with a sense of beauty amid the difficulties of life.
From the beginning, I have been inspired by a humanistic, visionary and spiritually enriching approach to psychology that aims to facilitate not just healing or coping, but courageous living and full self-actualization.
Self-actualization can be defined as the process of becoming one's most authentic, empowered and fulfilled version of self. Carl Jung called it Individuation -- a state of internal wholeness and wisdom that integrates all the different sides of oneself and makes the unconscious, conscious.
Jung understood that our symptoms of depression and anxiety often serve as alarms that we are living inauthentic lives, are internally divided and cut off from our real self.
In Abraham Maslow's work on self-actualization, he noticed that certain people embody a unique state of authenticity, wisdom and well-being. He observed the following traits of self-actualized people:
They make space for the different sides of their personality, accept imperfections and feel at home in their skin;
They transcend crude egoism through a life of humility and service to higher ideals;
They approach the paradoxes of life with cosmic humor and wonder, instead of cynicism;
They have a love of solitude and reflection, but also enjoy quality relationships and positive action in the world;
They experience a sense of the sacred and eternal in daily life, feeling themselves connected to the divine spark within.
A humanistic, broad-minded and spiritually enriching psychology must look at how the most conscious, happy and wise people tend to think, feel and live. This shows us our true potential.
If a psychotherapist can model that higher potential to some degree, it becomes curative to our patients. They feel they are in the presence of someone who has real confidence in their ability to heal; and who has a higher vision of what their lives can be.
When I help someone think about their problems, or work on their marriage, I am not just looking at the short-term view. Rather, I am trying to understand their overall development as a person, and to facilitate true healing and transformation. I want to help them experience their most authentic self -- the vital aspects of themselves, their dreams, talents and untapped potentials, that they may have neglected.
"In many cases in therapy the patient who has come to us has a story that is not told, and which as a rule no one knows of. To my mind, therapy only really begins after the investigation of that wholly personal story."
~ Carl Jung
My focus is not only on past experiences or short-term solutions. It is on helping the person to live fully and in the present moment.
Psychotherapy often involves exploring our past experiences, family relationships and any significant traumas we've gone through. It involves helping someone to look within and understand their lives in a more compassionate context. That kind of deep listening allows for new insight, emotional catharsis and processing of the past.
What I hear from my patients is that some therapists get a bit stuck in the past, allowing patients to vent about their problems without moving ahead and finding solutions. Therapy can and should be so much more than that.
The truth is that psychodynamic therapy, and Jungian psychology in particular, is very much focused on the here-and-now reality of people's lives -- because that is where transformation really happens. It doesn't come from digging endlessly in childhood experiences for reasons why someone is having a hard time.
I would say that the first half of emotional healing comes from taking the time to listen -- allowing the person to express feelings and thoughts that have been stuck inside for a long time. This allows them to experience some cathartic release and to put some new understandings around it.
But a great deal of emotional healing comes from something else entirely. It comes from helping some understand themselves as a conscious, evolving person who can trust their psyche and pursue their talents and inspirations.
In other words, healing is largely a matter of outgrowing our old pains and the old self-image that formed around them -- seeing things in a broader context. Once we feel more stable inside and open to the present-moment flow of life, we can listen more closely to our inner guidance and start taking action.
Self-reflection alone isn't enough. Being listened to isn't enough. We need to learn to make our lives an experiment in taking action.
Why past therapy did not work
The difference between traditional, psychodynamic therapy and therapy-lite.
I often hear from my patients that their previous attempts at therapy did not help them much, and that our work together has been much different from the start, and far more helpful. I believe this is because I am a clinical psychologist who practices classical, psychodynamic therapy, instead of what I will call "therapy-lite."
When people seek therapy, they encounter professionals with vastly different levels of training, and different orientations. The fundamental distinction I want to highlight is between a therapy of depth, insight and relationship, versus therapies that aim more narrowly at short-term symptom-reduction, or which consist of empathic listening and little else.
When you ask people what they want from psychotherapy, they generally talk about important things that matter in life – better relationships with loved ones, more success at work, a greater sense of well-being. People want to be heard without judgment, to figure out how they got to where they are, to come to terms with what happened to them, and to have a way of getting what they truly want. They want to emerge from their personal clouds of distress, shame, fear, and sadness. And who wouldn’t want a companion on the journey, someone who is undeniably on our side, without judgment, working with us and for us?
These are the values that guide therapies of depth, insight and relationship. While other therapies focus mainly on “symptom relief” in isolation, research suggests that treating symptoms in the context of your life as a whole is more effective in changing life patterns and promoting growth. While other therapies or medications often “wear off” when you stop them, the self-insight you gain from these therapies stays with you and only increases over time. Yes - research shows people continue to improve even years after treatment ends. This is an investment in yourself that is well worth it, and continues to yield significant benefits over the long term. Most of all, these therapies can help you learn about yourself and what you need to know in order to find a life path that works for you and become the person you want to be.
What I call therapy-lite mainly offers compassionate listening, often joined with a few cursory personal-growth tips or remarks about why one may feel a certain way based on past experiences. That is unfortunately not enough to create healing and transformation. It's not enough to help someone understand what's really going on in their relationships or to guide them through a crisis.
Recently, a patient with significant childhood trauma told me (word for word), "It seemed as though my past therapists got their training in the houseware department of HomeGoods or Target, with those feel-good platitudes like "Live, Laugh, Love" that you hang up on the wall."
Psychodynamic therapy is the traditional, gold standard for what therapy should be. It is proven to facilitate lasting growth, emotional integration and self-empowerment that continues benefitting the person long after therapy has ended. A psychodynamic psychologist understands the developmental structure and relational nature of the self. They do not just affirm that you are self-critical because you were abused as a child. They guide you to listen more deeply to your psyche and to understand your sense of self from a broader and deeper perspective.
For example, a person with heavy childhood trauma has a very negative view of herself. She reports that she has been trying to fix herself with better daily routines, Stoic philosophy and working out harder. By achieving more. Such a person needs help developing a "depth" view of the self - one that acknowledges the limits of our conscious, rational and achievement-oriented persona. A psychodynamic therapist would help the person to understand that healing from trauma will not depend on such rational and linear efforts, but will rather emerge from "being with" the feelings, attending to dreams, and developing more nurturing, gentle habits in daily life. The therapist might explain that the psyche wants to heal and that the unconscious will guide the process in ways that are unexpected.
During the next session, the patient reports a dream of finding her way through a labyrinth. In the dream
It takes a "depth" view that accounts for our unconscious blindspots and the core skills of the relational self.
Research shows that people instinctively know that therapy should provide deep support, new insights, and practical guidance for transforming their lives. Unfortunately,
Psychotherapy is known as an art of listening, guiding and facilitating healing. To work with people in this way demands a certain philosophy of how the human mind works and how a personality is structured and grows during a lifetime.
To the extent possible, our theories should be informed by scientific study. However, there is a great deal of human experience that cannot easily be studied or quantified. Therefore, the art of psychotherapy has always been primarily informed by extensive, direct engagement and experience with patients. This living experience with people's lives has offered us a wealth of insight and sympathy into mental and emotional issues.
We can then easily weave this psychological experience with literary and philosophical reflections on the perennial themes of human life.
We all know that writers and philosophers can cook up strange notions and theories that have little pragmatic application to people's lives. In contrast, psychotherapy demands pragmatic, healing relevance.
Healing does not only mean the reduction of painful symptoms, but rather the birth of new awareness, insight and vision for how to live. In other words, healing comes about through new growth, not just symptom reduction.
For example, if you were feeling depressed, hopeless and without purpose in your life then healing would not just mean feeling less depressed. It would mean the presence of hope, purpose, and new enthusiasm for living.
To create healing, an effective psychotherapist has to look not only at the problem someone is having, however ordinary, but also at the overall state of their consciousness; their satisfaction in life; the state of their feelings and the nature of their daily habits, thoughts, complaints and longings.
By treating the whole person in this way, the initial symptom will be cured or resolved by an overall growth in the person that creates many other benefits. When they leave therapy they will feel, "You not only helped me solve that issue but you helped me learn so much more about myself in the process. I received even more benefit than I had hoped for."
Portrait of the INFP-A (Assertive) Personality
Quiet, reflective, and idealistic. Interested in serving humanity, understanding and helping people. Well-developed value system, which they strive to live in accordance with. Extremely loyal. Adaptable and laid-back unless a strongly-held value is threatened. Usually talented writers with a poetic and emotive style. Mentally quick, and able to see hidden potentials and possibilities, especially in people.
The INFP personality is a personality that is as rare as it is interesting. Making up just around 4% of the personality, INFP personalities are always searching for the best in the world while using their inner drive to inspire others.
Within INFP personalities, there are both Assertive (-A) and Turbulent (-T) subtypes.
1. Comfortable Being Themselves
The assertive nature of the assertive mediator is something that makes it seem very different from its turbulent mediator relative. Unlike the turbulent mediators who are likely to beat themselves up from mistakes and flaws, the assertive mediators are far more likely to accept and even embrace their flaws.
The assertive personality is one that is comfortable being themselves and is not as caught up in the opinions of others. When paired with a mediation type, this assertive personality means that this person will be able to take in the opinions of others while not being critical about their meanings.
2. Look on the Brighter Side
The mediation personality is one that is primarily framed with an idealistic vision and sense of the better things in life. Mediators are people that believe that things are inherently good so that they can see things in a better light. Paired with the assertive personality trait, that feeling can become even stronger.
Assertive personality types are ones that see things as good more often than they see things as being bad. This combines with the idealism of the mediation personality to create a mix of both positive forward-thinking and a feeling that everything will be okay.
3. Discount Their Mistakes
Whether you see it as a good or a bad thing, the assertive mediator is very quick to dismiss their flaws and mistakes after they are noticed. This comes from the idea that they do not want the negative thoughts to take up time or space in their heads. The assertive mediator would rather think about ways to get better than to dwell on negative emotions.
An assertive mediator is going to be far more likely to look for ways to better themselves and their flaws than to get caught up in them and just feel bad. It is personality traits like these that allow this type of person to take things less seriously so that they can get on with growth and improvement.
4. Consider More Positive Thoughts
While it is still normal and common for assertive mediators to apply labels to themselves, they do so with substantially less weight than the turbulent mediators would. For example, if an assertive mediator deemed themselves “boring” and a turbulent mediator did the same, the turbulent mediators would take it much more to heart than the assertive mediator.
It is said that the assertive mediator sees life through “rose-tinted lenses” because they are often looking to see the best side of things. This optimistic attitude helps them to think better of themselves as well as to see others as better people.
5. Express Self-Assurance
The turbulent mediator’s personality, as we have seen, can face some serious struggles when faced with stressful situations, but the assertive mediator seems to be the exact opposite. The sense of optimism and self-assurance that everything will be alright helps drive the assertive mediator to achieve their goals.
Despite the benefits of having a heightened sense of inner confidence, this can also come back to hurt assertive mediators if they are not careful. Not taking the time to address more serious issues as they arise can have those issues compound and get worse if not addressed.
6. Great at Encouraging a Group
Something that helps the assertive mediators to lead groups effectively is their sense of confidence in themselves and in others. They do what they want, the way they want to, and very little is going to get in their way to stop them from achieving their goals.
An assertive mediator can stand before a group and share their vision without caring about the negativity or alternate viewpoints that go against their vision. This ability to take charge and get a group to a final goal is something in which the assertive trait helps greatly.
"Michael is a person of great depth and feeling. He is totally genuine and without artifice. He brings his learning from his own personal journey into the therapy process."
~ Dr. Stewart Kiritz, Clinical Faculty at Stanford Medical School, 1983- now emeritus; Director of Training and Chief Psychologist at CHAC, 2006-2016; Clinical Assistant Professor at Department of Psychiatry, Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University