Dan L. Edmunds Ed.D., B.C.S.A.

Extreme States of Mind

The Importance of Validating Experience

Psychotherapy as the authentic meeting of persons

Posted Jul 30, 2012

When a distressed person enters the realm of modern psychiatric practice they are first confronted with what Laing terms as the ‘psychiatric ceremonial’. In this process, the experience of the person is not considered. Rather, the psychiatrist sits in a place of judgment, he being considered sane and stable, and determines by his subjective observation of behavior how the person is a deviant from what should be expected of him or her and then categorizes it and assigns it a label. There is no concern for the person’s experience, rather the person is seen as an ‘it’, as an object whose behavior is to be analyzed. Science is only able to examine what is, not what will be. It is based on duplication of results, but can we duplicate experience. When we merely look at behavior without understanding the context of it, we draw false conclusions. Understanding the context may lead us to see that the behavior is not truly meaningless after all. Frankl states, “An incurably psychotic individual may lose his usefulness but yet retain the dignity of a human being…a doctor, who would still interpret his role mainly as that of a technician would confess that he sees in his patient nothing more than a machine…but man is ultimately self-determining.”

Laing  states, “behavior therapy is the most extreme example of such schizoid theory and practice and proposes to think and act purely in terms of the other without reference to the self of the therapist or the patient, in terms of behavior without experience, in terms of objects rather than persons. It is inevitably therefore a technique of nonmeeting, of manipulation, and social control.’ Experience is the soul of psychotherapy and we should note that the term psychotherapy literally means the ‘healing of the soul’. The therapeutic process should be a meeting of two human beings, it should be the sharing and understanding of experience. Laing  states that “I see you and you see me. I experience you, and you experience me. I see your behavior and you see my behavior. But I do not and never will see your experience of me.” It is popular today to look at individuals’ behaviors merely as the result of chemical processes or the effects of so called chemical imbalances. But then we must ask the question as Laing did- do chemicals come together because they love each other? Do atoms explode because they hate one another?

So often we seek to ignore experience. Laing notes the invalidation of experience by such comments as ‘that never happened’, or the trivialization of experience, or to invalidate its content by such words as “it wasn’t really that way’ or ‘how can you think such a thing?” We must realize that we exist in an existential vacuum, and it is these things that leads to the development of aggression, addiction, depression. Our behaviors are how we communicate distress; they are for some the only form of communication they know. Their behaviors communicate to us a glimpse of their experience. “If our experience is destroyed, our behavior will be destructive. If our experience is destroyed, we will have lost our selves (pg.28).” The therapeutic process is a shamanic voyage, a journeying with another person. But can two human beings truly come together? Are there too many barriers? Can we put aside our affiliations, our ethnicities, our religions, and all the other things that set us apart? Can we come together completely bare and share in the human condition? Nietzsche stated, “Nihilism represents the ultimate logical conclusion of our great values and ideas- because we must experience nihilism before we can find out what value these ‘values’ really had.” So, we must come together in nothingness and from this to ex nihilo, from nothing, become. We must as Frankl (pg. 112) stated be able to transform tragedy into triumph.

But without often realizing it, therapists and others become agents of oppression. Is our work solely leading people to become proper conformists, to do what others are doing? Is our work solely to make people adapt to totalitarianism, to do what they are told to do? It has always been these two processes that have led to the most dangerous of outcomes. When freedom and autonomy are taken, and individuals can no longer be individuals, when critical thinking has ceased, we have entered a dreadful place. Maybe we are already there.

More Posts