Klara hates the feeling that she is making “demands” on others, and this causes problems in her personal and professional life. She becomes over-polite when requesting something of another at work, but this is a reaction to her anxiety. The other person perceives that tension and reacts to it as criticism or aggression, becoming tense themselves. "This makes everything worse." Klara tells me she wants to make others feel comfortable and respected, but that her efforts often have the opposite effect. Such instances play on her mind and as she talks about them she is in tears.
So the problem arises, at least partly, because when asking something of another you feel you are making demands on them?” I ask.
“Yes. I feel like I'm imposing on people. As though the only choice is either to push against others, or to submit or retreat.”
At this point more psychological approaches might explore 'the mechanics' of the problem, perhaps by looking childhood experiences, or by offering training in assertiveness skills. As a philosophical therapist I was curious about the picture of human interaction which guided Klara. For as Iris Murdoch said, we are creatures who make pictures of ourselves, and then come to resemble those pictures. What pictures did Klara hold, which guided and shaped her way of being? That is to say, what was her implicit philosophy? I considered this for a moment and then reflected to her, “Recently I was reading a discussion of Greek mythology, and it struck me that their picture of how life arose and societies formed, was based on struggle and strife. Other mythologies may view life as arising primarily out of harmony, but for the Greeks existence, whether we like it or not, is partly a competitive struggle, a clash of blind forces. I wonder whether implicitly you see life according to that Greek perspective?”
“Well I don’t think it should be that way.”
“But perhaps, at a gut level, you see it this way? Even if you think differently when you reflect on things?”
People often espouse a certain philosophy or ethic intellectually, but contradict it in their actions and emotions. It is one thing to state an opinion, another to believe it in one’s heart.
Klara answered, “Well yes, it does feel like that. At a reflective level it is important to me that everybody feel included and acknowledged, but I don’t know how to do that when I need something from them. It feels like in reality we have to choose between forcing things, or submitting and retreating into a corner.”
“And that is why you feel, at such times, that your way of being and your desires are an imposition on others?”
“It sounds silly, doesn’t it.”
“On the contrary this is normal: we are confused and divided beings.”
“So I am condemned to be like this always?”
“No, I think we can change ourselves."
"By clarifying and embodying better, clearer perspectives.”
“But how? I've tried to get over this before. Perhaps I'm just a neurotic. How can I possibly change things?”
“Well, in practical terms, it can start with our conversation. People are doomed to repeat what they cannot represent to themselves, and hopefully through reflection you can come to recognise these things better, so that you can change them. And it is important to understand that our conversation is not only about getting to the truth of matters, in the sense that you walk away with a packaged insight - equally, it is a practice."
"By making a habit of examining things, I can shape myself?"
"Yes. We practice that activity more intensely here, so that you can do it better out there.”
Klara thought for a moment. “Okay.”
“Tell me more about this feeling that you are imposing.”
“Well, people are coming from different places. Often I don’t know how to read others so that I can do right by them.”
“Do right by them?”
“Often I don’t know what will hurt another, or make them feel uncomfortable – how they will experience my actions. It’s like, what right do I have to impose something on another, especially if that means wronging them, hurting them?”
“I am unclear on how you are wronging other people?”
“Hmmm. I’m not sure what to say.”
“Tell me what is it to wrong somebody?”
“Well…it’s to hurt them.”
“You would define ‘wronging a person’ as ‘hurting them’?”
“And by ‘hurt another’ you would include certain other feelings that you have referred to, such as ‘making them uncomfortable’?”
“Okay. But what if another is hurt in response to your action, and yet you did nothing wrong?”
“It seems there’s a problem with your definition.”
“I can see what you're saying.”
“And yet this problematic definition has real consequences for how you perceive and experience things. Especially considering that as you move about in the world you will come across people who want to take offence, desire to feel indignant, prefer to see themselves as having been wronged.”
“Yes it does."
“So I think it is a mistake - a serous one - to conflate doing right by another, with making them feel happy or good.”
“Maybe? But to do well by others, to make other people happy, surely that’s the heart of morality?”
“You make a good point, and yet... Let's take as an example my work as a therapist. It is generally seen as the task of helping people become happier, and some therapists certainly have a need to be the bringer of well-being. But imagine a situation where I can do something that will make a client feel happier, but I know that it is not good for them. For example, imagine they are giving themselves over to self-absorbed resentment, and they want me to collude with that. They want me to say, ‘Well this is just how you feel, so that's all there is to it.’ If I do what they want, and if I do it skilfully enough, then they might consider me a wonderful counsellor, they might tell their friends to come see me, and so on."
"But what if, instead, I take a risk and say what I think they need to hear, rather than what they want to hear? Something which I predict will help them in the long-term. Something which I think they need to hear right now. I say, “I know you don’t want to hear this, but I think you are being unfair and are simply indulging your worse side.” Then I do something which might make them uncomfortable or worse. They might not come back, they might criticise me to others, they might genuinely feel that I am bad. But surely I have done better – I have done right by them - when I act in this second way.”
“See, that just makes me really anxious?”
“Yes, it makes me anxious too!” We laugh. “But doing good to another can involve making them uncomfortable, angry, distressed, and we have to tolerate the anxiety of such consequences….”
“I hear what you’re saying. And actually I feel a bit silly - I've been walking around with a simplistic picture. I'm not always so simple-minded, you know."
"That's how it goes. We are full of unexamined beliefs and pictures which are false or problematic in ways that cause problems in our lives."
"Hmmm. And yet, I'm still unsure that I agree with where you are taking this. Many of my problems are not about doing what’s right, they're about doing what I personally need to do, or want to do. If getting my work done had such a clear moral justification, then I would feel more self-assured, and would act confidently, instead of feeling like I’m imposing and instead of getting anxious.”
“I wonder about that?”
“What do you mean?”
“You claim that your issue is not about doing right, not a moral issue, but rather it is about living out your way of being in the world: being a person who pursues goals, gets things done, asks things of others, for the sake of her personal interests? Something which is, roughly speaking, morally neutral?”
“And yet it seems to me that your struggle in these situations is essentially moral.”
“I don’t think your struggle is fundamentally a pragmatic one, such as how to get stuff done. I don’t think it is fundamentally psychological either, such as how to get past anxiety. Certainly the question of how to interact skilfully with others and deal with your anxiety has pragmatic and psychological dimensions, but what drives the anxiety is moral or ethical. Your fundamental struggle, your fundamental question, is "How do I treat others well, while pursuing my wants and needs?" That's the concern which drives the anxiety, which makes you tense and less skillful in your interactions."
“I see what you are saying.”
We silently contemplated this for a few minutes. Then Klara continued. “Your reference to Greek myth struck a chord with me."
"That the question we are grappling with here, is about the nature of human interaction?”
“Yes. A question about who we are."
"Yes. And of who we ought to be. Both as individuals and societies.”
“Simone Weil spoke about this by using the terms of gravity and grace, by which she grappled with the question: is force the only motivational power in the world, or is there goodness too? And if so, how do we distinguish them and embody the latter?"
"Yes. Must I use force to get what I want? Ethically I don't want it to be that way, but it feels like I'm doomed to impose my will, regardless of my desire to act more ethically. I think part of my problem is that I’m not clear on these deeper questions we are exploring. My emotions follow my opinions, and yet my opinion is confused.”
“Yes. I think Iris Murdoch is right on this, your perspective is guiding and shaping you, and your perspective, which up until now has remained unexamined, is showing itself to be somewhat incoherent and questionable. Your challenge is to bring your emotions into harmony with an examined perspective – one that is, as much as possible, good and true.”
“Where do I start?”
“You have already started. This is what we have been doing today.”
“Okay. Like you said before – it’s a practice.”
“Where to now?”
Well, to take the analysis further by bringing in another idea, it seems to me that you are suffering from an important confusion that is very common.”
“You are trying to control things which are out of your control.”
“It is in your control to do right by another, but how they react is out of your control.”
“You’re suggesting that those consequences are out of my control?”
“Yes. Living ethically clearly matter to you, but you suffer from a confusion about the location of the ethical or moral dimension. You instinctively locate it in consequences, and yet in reality it resides in your intention.”
“You mean I should disregard consequences.”
“No. And I should have qualified that statement. Your intention needs to be prudent. I am using the word in that ancient sense, where it is one of the key virtues in life, and refers to caring about consequences. Prudence is the virtue of calculating well, of being practical, while knowing that consequences are ultimately out of your control. A good intention is one that cares enough to be prudent.”
“So my intention is what matters.”
“I think that’s where our humanity lies, in our intention, which is to say in our will, in our attention, in our care and love, in our efforts. The rest is out of our hands.”
“That sounds easier said than done.”
“Absolutely, but much of the misery that I see as a counsellor arises from the desire to control things which are out of our control, and the consequent tendency to lose ourselves in fantasy rather than coming to terms with reality in its uncontrollable and frightening contingency. In your case, you want to believe that you have control over other people’s feelings, over how they react to you. But you have no power there. You can control noly your actions.”
“You are saying that my belief that I can control how others feel is based on fantasy?”
“Yes. It is a fantasy belief, which is based on desire rather than reason….”
“Well that’s scary! Why would I hold such deluded beliefs?”
“This is a good question which I want to ask later: about why it is so important to you that others feel good as a result of your actions - you seem to have a kind compulsion to keep people happy.”
“Oh god, let’s not go there!”
“Ha! I think we should!”
“Because it’s good for me, even if it will make me uncomfortable?”
We both laughed.
“I suspect that you are trying to make yourself feel safe in a dangerous world, by means of this conflation of things in your control with things out of it.”
“So I’m crazy?”
“No more than the rest of us. This is what we do.”
But I did not want to explore these psychological questions just yet, rather I wanted to remain with a philosophical examination of Klara’s picture. So I continued, “But before we examine such things, I would like to return to the question about whether, by being who you are, and pursuing your goals, you are able to live harmoniously with others, or whether you are condemned to live in competition with them, perhaps hurting them.”
“Yes, that’s the question I need to answer. I can agree that the effects of my actions are out of my control: some people are over-sensitive, others are bullies who pretend to be hurt as a way of getting power. But at the same time it matters to me to live well with all others if I can, especially with those who are reasonable - not everybody is a manipulator, and most people are not, most of the time. This means that it is reasonable to pay attention to how others feel in response to my actions.”
“But at the same time this frustrates me. I feel like I’m making myself a servant of others. How do I pursue my needs and wants? Or is that even compatible with taking care of others?”
“The question is whether to put yourself or another first?”
“I wonder if conceptualising it that way – in terms of egoism versus altruism – is part of the problem?”
“What do you mean?”
“Either you pursue your own ends and so impose on others, or you subjugate yourself to the emotions of others. You are stuck in this either/or dilemma?”
“Yes, it’s something like that.”
“And this way of conceptualising matters has real consequences in your life. And yet it is only one way of picturing things, which runs contrary to other perspectives which may be better.”
“Your problem can be summarised by the question, Who should I serve first, myself or others?"
"An alternative perspective can be expressed by the question, How is it good to be? What would a good person do in this situation?”
“How is that any different? You might conclude that being good simply means serving the other to your detriment.”
“There are subtle yet profound differences. Here is an experiment you could try which embodies this different perspective: Rather than seeing things as a matter of you versus others, stand back from your self. Simply view people interacting – you happen to be one of them – and ask what it is good for this person (who happens to be you) to do. Ask generalised questions, about moral character and behaviour, and how they apply to this person (you), in this situation.”
“It sounds odd. What difference will that make?”
“Well for one thing it will enable you to better overcome the psychological pressures which confuse you, the neurotic pressures which I promised we would explore later. I mean the guilt, the need to make others happy, all these things have power over you when you are sunk in your individual perspective. It is when we are sunk in our individuality (as single people, or tribal groups) that we are afraid and weave complex defence mechanisms."
"But the difference goes further. In the past you have been anxious due to the feeling that you may be acting forcefully and selfishly. I suggest that you step back from yourself and ask, What is good and just for one to do in such circumstances. Your answer should include what it is good for one to do as a being responsible for their own life, responsible for pursuing their own ends, creating their own flourishing. You have a responsibility for your own life just as you do, in different ways, for the lives of others.”
“Hmmm. I do like this way of looking at things.”
“Looking is the operative word here. From where do we look? I think we need to spend time looking at things from more universal perspectives, more cosmically, from outside of our little life and little view. The Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece and Rome practiced a meditation called the view from above which helps embody this perspective. To the degree that we fail to gain such perspective - above and beyond ourselves, outside ourselves - we become more blinkered, defensive, selfish, as well as depressed and anxious.”
“So you are suggesting that I can act more confidently by stepping back and seeing myself as another person, and by discerning what that generalised person should do, according to general ideals. And this will mean I feel confident doing things sometimes for myself ahead of others’ interests, and of course sometimes second to others, depending on what seems morally better at the time.”
“Yes. As I say, you have a responsibility toward yourself. That sentence means one thing when you are bound up in your egoistic perspective, and another when you stand outside your self-interest to take a broader view. I am not saying all this will always be easy, or that you will always have answers. Nor am I saying, actually, that everything can be reduced to general rules. But actually a lot of things can, at least to a degree, and it becomes easier to do this over time.”
"Won't I become a bit of robot, doing what one does?"
"I am suggesting that you consider what is best in us as human beings, and form your principles according to that view."
“And I will be less flustered about things, because I will feel less that I am imposing, because I am not basing my decision on my desires versus those of others, but rather on what I think is good behaviour for a person in my shoes?”
“Yes. It also frees you from the tyranny of consequences – you accept that you cannot control other people’s responses, that what matters is simply doing right. So you are doubly less flustered.”
“Okay! I do what is right, prudently, and if they react badly, well that is out of my control! I don’t have to feel so responsible for something which, in reality, I can't be responsible for.”
"Wanting to bring something about, and actually bringing it about, are two different things. But there's more to this - it goes further, beyond dealing with anxiety and freeing yourself to act. Cultivating your intention, which is in your control, transforms you as an individual: when you always intend to do good, to do what is right, just, loving and so on, then as I hinted a moment ago, you are expressing what is best in you as a human being. Over time this effort becomes more and more natural, such that you transform your character.”
“I get it, and I love it. I haven’t seen things this way before."
"Well then, go forth!"
We laughed, and sat with these ideas for a minute. Then Klara continued.
"But as you speak I have a nagging concern."
"It seems to me that things are more complicated than this distinction between things in my control and things out of it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Often, looking back at myself, I don’t know whether I acted through choice or whether I had no choice: whether I am determined, say through psychological forces, and so less free than I would like to believe.”
“I think I see what you are saying.”
“So your theory might not apply, for I might have no control, in which case I am back to square one.”
“If I understand you then I too share your theoretical question. But be wary! I think you've wandered to the edge of a philosophical marshlands, where many people who reflect on this a bit, but not hard enough, or in imbalanced ways, drown."
"What do you mean?"
"Many people demand a perfect theory before they can act. I have seen numerous past students of philosophy in counselling, whose practical lives have been paralysed by what I like to call the demandingness tremens: an addiction to pure reason, or to extreme theories."
"Just because they are extreme, or have extreme consequences, does not mean they are false."
"I agree. The picture I have been suggesting is a half-truth. And yet it is a really important one. (Though I think it might be a three-quarters truth, or even a five sixths, but that does not matter!) The thing is, we need clear pictures that enable us to move forward, to navigate our difficulties, and to become better, happier people. These pictures may have gaps and flaws, but they need to be largely true and good. Even beautiful. These pictures need to take account of reality – they can’t be mere fantasies which make things seem more simple or certain than they are - they cannot be mere defence mechanisms, as so many people's pictures of life are. I think that the picture I am proposing, which expresses the insights of many ancient philosophers, meets such criteria. At the same time we should be always ready to question it, to notice its gaps, flaws and limits - to keep a creative and critical eye on it. But take care to keep a critical eye on the practice of criticism!"
"People forget to do that, and so lose all practical wisdom. Where is a theory rooted? What gives reason its sense and value?"
"Life! Don’t let critical thinking paralyse you - it is not wisdom on its own. Wisdom is embodied, lived, and the needs of life have authority. The picture I am proposing gives you a way of being good toward others, toward ourselves, of improving ourselves, of freeing ourselves from useless anxiety. And based on our discussion it seems sound, it seems to hold much truth, to picture things more truly than the options we've explored...even if you can pose abstract objections to it based on speculative questions about free will and determinism.”
“I’ll have to think about that.”
“Yes, and I gave a bit of a speech there, sorry. What I am proposing is what Aristotle called practical wisdom. The disembodied critic is a sickly being: be careful not to catch her illness."
“I hear you. And I see that we are running out of time, so to get clear on what you’ve been saying, my picture of human interaction involves a confusion between what is in my control and what is out of it. And my confused picture is leading to confused, distressed emotions?”
“Yes. And that leads to your conflation between doing good to others, versus making them feel good.”
“So if I can distinguish these things whenever I am faced with the sorts of situations I have described, this will help me?”
“Give it a go. I strongly suspect it will.”
I looked up at the clock and also noticed that our time was over for the day.
You can see that the conversation moved through an examination of several concepts, and dug down into important issues which it turns out were at play in Klara’s way of being and experience of life. This dialogue is an example of philosophical counselling and therapy. A psychological analysis alone may not have made these distinctly philosophical issues so central, or have dealt with them with the required depth and sophistication that the study of philosophy affords, for psychology's strengths and points of focus are very different. People fall into holes in life by means of holes in their philosophy, and are raised out and upward by philosophical reflection. This is where we have the ability to change things, this is the location of our humanity: in our head and our heart, in our reflective intention. Philosophical pictures and ethical perspectives need an analysis that goes beyond psychological mechanisms and which, rather, has its eye on meaning and value as the realities we need to think well about. These are the matters that go to the heart of people's lives and their struggles. This new, but actually very old, form of counselling and consultation is ultimately the art of manifesting the best in our humanity, through our struggle with the particular challenges we face as individuals. An examination of the philosophical roots of Klara's problems led us to explore what it is to be human, and what she might become as a human being.
Author: Matthew Bishop
Image: Emily Balivet
My name is Matthew Bishop. I am a counsellor, with a background in philosophy. I have spent years exploring how philosophy enters into therapy, both theoretically and practically. One of my big influences is existential therapy. Although uploaded here recently, these are reflections written at different times over the last ten years.