l’existence précède l’essence

Sometimes people have asked me what kind of psychologist I am.  I usually end up back with “existentialist” or “humanist,” although believe that there is such a thing as dynamics, both on the interpersonal and the intra-personal level.  I’d go so far as the Freud was right about one very important thing:  We aren’t always aware of what’s going on inside us.

By existentialist and humanist what I mean is the belief in Sartre’s simple statement that is the title of this article:  existence precedes essence.  That we are, that we are aware, conscious beings precedes what we are or why we are.  

Now the rest of existentialism, particularly existentialist psychology goes on in directions that I don’t care to follow.  From Sartre’s bleak visions, like No Exit (“Hell is other people.”), to some German weltanshlang (yeh, I know that’s not the actual word, but you’ve gotta admit it has a nice ring to it!) etc., it’s all too dense for my poor head, but I do believe that human consciousness is the starting point of everything.  Everything.  God, nuclear physics, love.  Everything.

I think most modern psychology has given up on understanding human beings from the inside out.  Today’s psychology objectifies everything.  It requires that everything be turned into measurable, quantifiable entities.  But the assumption that the objective reality is a perfect equivalent of the subjective experience is fatally flawed.

If you talk to nearly any intelligent, informed, alert adult for any length of time about psychology and psychological problems, they will nearly inevitably bring it around to the advances in neurological mapping.  They will speak with reasonable skepticism about prescription psychotropic drugs (that now treat everything from schizophrenia to early-stage head scratching), they will nevertheless see them as the state-of-the-art of psychology.

How often does anyone talk about the human factors any more?  By human factors I mean two things: influence and choice.  They may seem contradictory, but they’re not.  Influence is what brought you to this moment, choice is what you do now.   We define ourselves, by what we do.

It also matters that your father abused you as a child, if he did.  It also matters if you told on a friend to get the friend into trouble; or if you what you did made a positive difference in a person’s life.   What happened to you and what you chose to do bring you to where you are now, with new choices.

And how conscious we are of who we are and why we are the way we are is something that varies, that isn’t the same for everyone and can also change within a person.  This premise of psychoanalysis has always made sense to me:  The more conscious you are of what’s made you who you are, the more consciously you can chose to be who you want to be.

Rather than being a paradox, this as a meeting point of the existentialist-humanistic and psychodynamic.   By getting to know ourselves better, by letting ourselves be more conscious of both past and present, we can get more out of our lives.

This is the promise of psychotherapy, but psychotherapy has had a very bumpy road from Dr. Freud’s time to ours. There’s no real way to control the fact that anyone, essentially, can become a therapist.  There are hurdles, to be sure, but plenty of manipulative sons-of-bitches nevertheless become shrinks:  People who know  little about the complexities of human nature and people who know how to keep coming and paying for something that isn’t doing them any good; and it may be doing them a lot of harm.

I know that there are good shrinks out there:  people who really do listen to their patients and know something about how to be helpful to them.   My point is that there’s not been any solid way devised in my lifetime to determine which is which.  Which is going to a person who is ultimately quite helpful to have talked with over time, and which is the blood-sucking manipulator?   Certainly graduate program or state licensing agency aren’t able to make that determination.  It’s not even their job.  It’s no one’s job.  And no one’s worked out a clear way to tell the difference.

But this does not mean that psychological causation is hooey.  Far from it.  Someone who will honestly listen and knows how to turn what they hear into something useful for the patient or client to hear can be extremely helpful.  This shows how powerful relationships can be:  They can heal as well as tear apart.

Sometimes friendship also heals.  The ability to have someone, whether partner or friend in another part of the world, with whom one can let out aspects of oneself painfully held within, is invaluable.

Meanwhile, take your pills like a good child, especially if the pills make you feel better or people tell you you’re a lot easier to be around now that your on them.  Take them, but don’t put too much stock in them.  You still have to think about your life, you still have to figure out what will make you a happier person and those around you happier to know you.

And forget about the little electrical currents flowing through your neurons that you can sometimes see pretty pictures of on television or the internet.   Think about them this way:  Without all the intricate electro-chemical wiring and chips and all the rest inside the computer you’re reading this on, these words would not exist.  But does the all the electro-chemical wing and chips and all the rest know what the words on the page mean?  Of course not.  Let the neurobiologists worry about their pathways and genome sequences and biochemical reactions, psychologists and psychologically-minded people should focus on the meaning of the words, the thoughts and choices that make us human.