As a counsellor I draw on philosophy. But how can that help you, compared to a psychological approach? I will reflect on why, and how, philosophy enters into my counselling, and how that can benefit you.
The first thing to say is that psychology and philosophy are not mutually exclusive. Indeed they integrate well: I am a mainstream counsellor in my qualifications, registration, competencies, and recognition by others, and my work is as psychological as any other counsellor. For example I am deeply influenced by insights from psychoanalysis. But it was the love of philosophy that drew me to counselling, and that is a vital dimension of my work. So how does philosophy come in?
In the modern world philosophy is mostly an academic activity, but this was not always the case. In the ancient world philosophy was often a way of living. One of the greatest philosophers of ancient Rome, Epictetus, was born a slave. For him, philosophy was about facing the pain and difficulty of life well, and creating a good life. Ancient philosophy was reflection, aimed at helpful insights and truths, that could become guiding attitudes, which in turn could shape our actions and emotions. As I often say, you need a perspective that is as good, and as true, as possible. And you need to embody that as well as you can.
So ancient philosophy was about living deeply, meaningfully, and strongly, with our heads, hearts, and hands. And for some of us it is still mainly about that. I grew up in a tiny rural town in the dust of the Mallee. Despite the poverty there, we counted as poor by comparison. But hard-working. My love of philosophy is rooted directly in my attempts, beginning there, to face life’s hardship well, and to flourish, and to love life, no matter what. I know from experience that in the face of hardship, philosophy can deeply nourish our lives for the better, guiding us not only to find strength, but to grow and improve. More on this in a moment. In the last twenty years I have met many people who practice philosophy as a detached intellectual activity—which has an important place in society, but also serious limits—and have also met people (from many different classes and backgrounds) who are drawn to philosophy as a practical guide to living well. People like us do not fit well into the academic context. Our philosophical talent and passion lies elsewhere.
While doing postgraduate research and teaching at The University of Melbourne and elsewhere--the beginning of an academic career--I realised I was heading in the wrong direction. Scholarly work did not align with what drew me to philosophy: that passion for living well. I saw that counselling possessed the practical and emotional engagement I valued, and could integrate philosophy with psychology. So I took up studies in counselling, alongside everything else, and eventually that became my professional focus.
Counselling is an activity that does many things. Some of these things are explicit: for example we analyse a problem and strategise a solution, then I coach you to make that happen. But other things are implicit: for example, through our work together over time, your sense of yourself unconsciously changes—maybe you lose that shame or self-loathing, and start to feel like a worthwhile person, without even realising consciously that this is happening. These are only two examples from the wide range of things that we do, or which happen, through counselling. There’s much more going on and being offered that people realise. This applies also to the use of philosophy in counselling.
Sometimes philosophy has an explicit, more intellectual place in counselling. For example you have a problem in your romantic relationship, and aside from the emotional work we do, there might be a philosophical aspect; perhaps we spend time thinking through your ethical perspective on what you should do next. The moral or ethical side of how we behave matters, of course, and it is not just a psychological issue. There is more to life than just psychological functioning; there are values, and questions of love, and decency, and meaning, and so on, which are the subject of a philosophical exploration. That exploration can be done alongside the psychological work, but it is different to it and it should not be reduced to psychology. It has always shocked me that such issues are so central to many of our concerns and struggles, and yet psychologists have no training in thinking about them with discipline and depth.
Sometimes philosophy can have a more implicit place in counselling. For example, my own practice of philosophy enters the therapeutic space in how I interact with people. One way this happens is by helping people experience, or glimpse, a different relationship with life, by being present as somebody who has dedicated my life to exploring and living with philosophical depth and its emotional or spiritual richness. Both my parents grew up with violence and abuse and, like many people, the standard traumatic pattern took place: they coped through surviving and functioning, admirably, whereas the overt emotional fall-out took place in the next generation. And so, from my earliest memories on, I have struggled against melancholia, oftentimes to a dreadful degree. When something like that is old and deep in you, it can be helped by, but it may not go away through, psychological interventions--instead it is something you have to learn to live with. And that includes developing skills to live well with it, and also developing an inner depth that nourishes you more than it harms you. I often point out that each individual has a tendency to suffer to a certain level, as a part of their nature. Perhaps they are regularly melancholic, or anxious, or enraged, or overwhelmed, et cetera. On top of that, life can cut us off at the knees through injuries, disabilities, diseases, deaths, betrayals, misfortunes, cruelties, and so on. So you have a tendency, which is particular to you, to suffer to a certain degree, and you also have a capacity as a human being, to suffer deeply because of bad events. The overall point I am making is that, in the face of this depth of suffering, you need a meaning that goes even deeper. Otherwise you will not survive the suffering—it will damage you, whether through killing you, or more likely through distorting you. That "meaning" will be a perspective, but it must more than that. For one thing it must be embodied--it must shape your emotions and actions. Nothing will make you bullet-proof, but to the degree that you can embody a perspective which gives life real meaning to your life in the midst of the varieties of suffering, to that degree you can survive, and in the aftermath repair, heal, grow, and even flourish. Philosophy has done this for me, radically. My melancholia has forced me to look harder and work harder at finding and embodying meaning in my life. These days, feelings like utter gratitude and hope are spontaneous and strong emotions that colour my days. And they have led to courage, and so to actions--to creating a life--that arouses more of the same.
That is what philosophy has done for me. But I am speaking about how it comes into counselling, in an implicit way. All that I have just said is an example of what I carry inside thanks to twenty years of philosophical practice, and the point here is that not only has this enriched my life, but that this confident, hard-won, embodied knowledge shapes my way of being with my clients. I think that I share, in a deeper sense than only words, the heartfelt conviction of life’s deeper meaning. I share it as a lucid perspective, because suffering can purify our vision, especially when it comes to understanding life's goodness, provided one's vision is clear and integrated. That which I share is philosophy as something lived. And it’s not something special about me--I see this in others all the time. A person’s character overflows, all that is good and bad in it colours the experience of others who get close to them. Counselling is one of my particular ways of sharing what is best in me, in this case with respect to a life dedicated to living with philosophical depth, and wanting to share that with others, with respect to suffering and flourishing.
There are many ways that philosophy enters into counselling. Some of it is explict, while other ways are implicit. Philosophy is counselling, as I understand it and practice it, is a search for truth and goodness in our way of living, so that we can nourish ourselves, others, face hardship well, and create a flourishing, meaningful life. To my mind it is obvious that philosophy has a place in counselling alongside disciplines like psychology. Certainly, after more than a decade in this profession, that has been my experience.
Today the driver of a small bus almost hit a woman on a bicycle. He did so with conscious disregard, so after checking she was okay I pulled alongside him to have a brief word. He was an angry man, so rather than argue I simply said that he might become a happier person if he treated others better. That got me to thinking for the next hour. I thought about my words, questioning whether being a better person actually does make us happier?
As usual there are two opposing and extreme positions that get it wrong. On the one hand are those who think that hard work and decency necessarily lead to happiness. On the other side are those of us who think that life is ruled by chance, that happiness and flourishing do not follow from decency and hard work, and that it is morally corrupt to believe otherwise. It is important to get this issue right, as it serves as a compass, inspiring you to act while protecting you from delusion.
The idea that if you are decent and hard-working then things will necessarily work out for you is a tempting thought. But let’s be straight about this: it quickly becomes a cowardly and self-serving notion. It is cowardly because often it is really just a mask, a way of fantasising that you are safe from the dangers of living. Safe from human vulnerability. It is self-serving because it is callous; for it follows from this belief that those who do suffer misfortune have brought it upon themselves. That is to blame the victim of circumstance, in order to feel safe and self-righteous. In psychological terms that is narcissism. In economic terms it is neoliberalism. In class terms it is a petty bougersie morality. In spiritual terms it is superstition. In philosophical terms it is the belief that people are more rational and free than they actually are, a crude misconception that enables you to judge other people.
Of course some people do bring misfortune on themselves. Narcissists regularly do it. But of course to be a narcissist is to suffer a kind of emotional and moral disability which is usually rooted in early childhood, so even their shitty ways are a consequence of misfortune. That offers little consolation to those who have been hurt and want to respond by simplistically blaming and hating, but think of it this way, would you want to be a narcissist? Does anybody put their hand up and ask for that personality disorder? I am not denying that they also have responsibility, but when we consider the human condition with some depth and sophistication we find it hard to discover a person who is free enough to be truly blame-worthy. And so we must accept our universal vulnerability to chance and misfortune. And we must recognise that decency and hard work does not automatically lead to good fortune. That much about who we are and what we achieve is out of our hands. We are somehow free, but also very much determined.
And this is what many people in my circles rightly say. That we must “look upon the human condition in an accent of pity.” With a tragic sense of how chance can rob us of the things that matter most. But people who say these things can go too far.
They go too far when they say that hard work - in life, in work, in developing moral character – does not make a difference to happiness and flourishing. They are wrong. These things do make a difference, as research shows. What these things do not do, is guarantee happiness and flourishing. What they do do, is make it more likely. In different ways and to different degrees. There are no guarantees in life, but there are probabilities. It is a matter of genuine wisdom that we build and invest. Often the world does bend to our cleverness and hard work. We can be in friendship with reality. Sombre existentialists might bemoan the absurdity and cruelty of the world, and there is certainly much suffering and coldness in it, but there is also beauty and abundance. Both sorrow and joy. Both sweat and ease. Both chance and probability. Determinism and freedom.
The primary reason for being decent is that it is good in itself. We create a meaningful life by doing things that are meaningful. But there is a secondary reason and it matters greatly. Kindness leads to happiness and flourishing of different kinds. Or at least it tends to. It certainly makes them more likely. So too does creating a wise plan of life and persevering. So too does working on one’s own character.
As Dickens said, character is fate. It may not determine external forces and prevent misfortune, but a profound and large part of your life is what goes on in your heart and mind. And it is there that you can create much more happiness. And it is from there that you begin to shape the world around you.
I am endlessly excited about the work done in psychology today, which confirms age-old ideas about what makes life meaningful, and deepens our understanding of them. Research published earlier this year is a case in point. What leads to an assertive way of being? Is it a sense of entitlement? That's what we all fear; that narcissists are happier and more successful. Well this research suggests otherwise.
The researcher, Daniela Renger, distinguished self-assertion from aggression, and then across several large studies tested whether it was 1) self-entitlement, 2) self-confidence, 3) a sense of competence, or 4) self-respect, which led to assertiveness.
Assertiveness is the ability to stand up for yourself, to let others know when they are doing wrong by you, to assert boundaries in word and action, to say No to unwanted demands. If you lack assertiveness you know exactly what I’m talking about, for it's no joke to struggle with that. You are stepped-on often, especially by aggressive types. And yet you don't want to be like them - so entitled. Well there is good news for those who fear that narcissists are happier: entitlement led to aggressive behaviour, but not to assertive behaviour. And plenty of studies show that aggression tends to hinder people rather than lead them to success - in reality we tend to reward competent people who treat others well - so despite popular myths and those few examples you have witnessed, in general it does not pay to be a pushy narcissist.
Renger defines self-respect as “a person’s conviction that they possess the universal dignity of persons and basic moral human rights and equality.” Popular culture and scientific research have been confused about this in recent decades. It has confused self-respect with self-esteem. Many of us were raised on the notion that self-esteem will not only make us happier, but more assertive (as opposed to aggressive). Children are taught to focus on how special they themselves are. The thought has been that not only will children feel better about themselves, they will assert themselves and cooperate well. However Renger has found that it is self-respect which leads to healthy self-assertion. This is important given the possible connections between the self-esteem movement and the age of entitlement. Self-esteem is an attitude of concern for myself as an individual, different to others, whereas self-respect sees me as one among others, in community with them.
In further accordance with the older, profounder, and deeper notion of human worth, Renger also found that it was not self-competence which led to assertiveness. This is a trickier issue, for it seems to me that many of the ills of young people (and plenty of older people) have to do with not being provided, socially, with a meaningful sense of heirarchies of competence. And so they do not see a worthwhile use for their energies, a place to get to which is deeply worth striving for, and so they fall into dispiritedness, into a lack of direction and purpose. If you want to create meaning with your life, start by lifting a load, and learn to do it well. When people develop competence that makes them useful in the world then, insofar as it is woven through with genuine values, they typically become happier, more energised, and more assertive. Unless something deeper is wrong in them. At least this is what I have witnessed. But at the same there is a danger in basing your sense of worth on your abilities and achievements. What if you are disabled? What if you have foregone outward achievement to serve somebody, like you your children or an ill relative. What is the society does not provide clear structures of competence-development like it used to? At that point you have to return to what it means to be a human being, in a world which may not work well, where you may do everything you can to stand up and yet fall down, or be knocked down, yet again.
So it seems to me that if you want to become more assertive, then you should deepen your sense of what it means to be a human being. If you are somebody who respects others but devalues yourself, you need to do a 360 and turn that lens of respect on yourself. That is not egotism when it is done as expansion, treating yourself as one among others and giving respect to all. The highest value in you is not something you created or earned; and your life is not something you own, rather it is all a gift for which you are merely a caretaker. In this context, self-assertion is speaking up for what is true and what matters, values which are the source of genuine conviction and courage, which are the ingredients of proper self-assertion.
People who have followed my work over the last decade will know that I used to have a substantial blog, which then disappeared.
There were reasons for that. I have now decided to re-instate the blog, but with new writing.