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.
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."
"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