Encountering America

Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self

Giving Our Mental Energy to the Good Stuff

Just as some therapists problematize patients, we problematize ourselves.

Therapists, being human and all, make the same kinds of mistakes as the rest of us. But while certain corrections may filter down to therapists through criticism and revisionary theory, for the rest of us these errors may only become more entrenched, and acceptable, with time.

I’m thinking of one mistake in particular: the tendency to magnify our problems and weaknesses and minimize our assets and strengths.

Psychological theorists, and humanistic psychologists in particular, have named the mistake as that of patholigization, looking at people with problems and understanding their experience through categories of illness. Postmodernists and poststructuralists have called it problematizing, seeing a person’s story in terms of what’s wrong rather than what’s right. In our daily lives, it might look more like pessimism or cynicism or even just negativity.

As William Madsen (2007) writes, “We are all steeped in a culture that promotes attention to complaints and problems. Competence is quiet. The trick is to listen carefully for it (p. 32).” In Madsen’s case, he’s speaking directly to therapists, urging them to look closely for what works well in families, instead of what doesn’t. Especially in chaotic situations, he explains, areas of strength can get buried. He applies this to ordinary life, as well, specifically referring to his own tendency to pay attention to the times when his children are fighting or struggling, while failing to notice the times when they’re doing exceptionally well.

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On a personal, individual level, this might look to you like it does to my husband. When something’s not going well, all of his mental gears engage, churning the problem over and over. He tends not to sleep well, to eat an enormous amount of carrots (his quirky surrogate for cigarettes and potato chips), and to find scarce respite from the sense of unease. On the other hand, when something’s going really well, or when he’s accomplished something spectacular, he takes note, and gets a little more sleep, but with none of the force of consciousness he devotes to his problems.

In relationships, this might translate to the way many of us focus on our partner’s shortcomings—those perpetual, unresolvable issues—and give only passing attention to their positive contributions. The dissonance of the negative tends to put us on high alert, while the harmony of the positive might feel foundational, somehow necessary to our survival.

So, how do we oppose this very human and, in our case, culturally entrenched habit?

One way is to recognize that we do have a choice in where we focus our attention. While it may be incredibly difficult to shift away from the negative, it may be less difficult to consciously choose to emphasize the positive.

An adjunct to this attention shift is the technique, applied most notably by Hans Vaihinger and Alfred Adler, of “acting as if.” This means, essentially, “acting as if” the good things were bigger deals and the bad things were smaller deals. Even if a minor promotion doesn’t get our psyche firing on all cylinders, we can still make a plan to mark it with a big celebratory dinner, or to spend a little extra time talking about the accomplishment. The idea behind this is that there’s a positive feedback loop that gets activated, such that acting as if the accomplishment really resonated could actually get us to spend more time feeling positively.

While we may not be able to control the initial emotions that negative and positive events activate, by directing our focus and acting as if our reactions are different, we may be able to influence their course.

References 

Adler, A. (1958). The practice and theory of individual psychology. Patterson, NJ: Littlefield, Adams.

Madsen, W. C. (2007). Collaborative therapy with multi-stressed families, 2nd Edition.New York: Guilford Press.

Vaihinger, H. (2009). The philosophy of ‘as if’: A system of the theoretical, practical and religious fictions of mankind. (Ogden, C. K., trans.) Eastford, CT: Martino Fine Books. (Original work published 1911)

Jessica Grogan, Ph.D. is the author of Encountering America: Humanistic Psychology, Sixties Culture, and the Shaping of the Modern Self (January 2013, Harper Perennial).

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