Phenomenology and Healthier Organismic Self
Exploring the terminology of the word Phenomenology and its etymology, presents me with an overture dating back to a long tradition of philosophical literature. I find it very difficult to try and explain what phenomenology means, because expressing significant ideas of one philosopher, will exclude others, and my choices will contradict the very idea of what phenomenology is beginning to mean for me. Drawing examples from phenomenological theoretical sources, I shall integrate personal experience to support what I understand by the term phenomenology.
In brief, I am going to start to explain what I understand about the term Phenomenology by giving answers with references from theoretical sources. I shall, in no particular order along this essay, give examples to support the reason why I think phenomenology is important in Counselling and Psychotherapy. Lastly, I intent to discuss my current ability to understand my own, and another person’s worldview with some examples.The term Phenomenology originates from the Greek word phainomenon, meaning appearance, that which shows itself, and, logos meaning science or study.
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As Hans Cohn puts it, “the Greek word ‘phenomenon’ is derived from a verb meaning to appear, to come into the light, and ‘logos’, on the other hand, is rooted in a Greek verb meaning ‘to say’. (Cohn, 1997:9-10). To me this suggests, come into light through speech, or enlighten oneself through speech.
In simple terms phenomenology is the study of how things appear to be.In order to acknowledge the phenomenon of perception, Edmund Husserl (1859-1938), developed a method from his former teacher’s philosophical intentionality, Franz Brentano (1838-1917) that explains how reality cannot be grasped directly because it is available only through perceptions of reality, which are representations of it in the mind. This is a method that attempts to describe phenomena without prior assumptions, by rejecting prior beliefs or consciousness about things, events and people.His aim was to find a way to transcend subjectivity and understand phenomenon through experience as the source of conscious knowledge (Dermot Moran, 2002:1-22). He intended by this to suspend or bracket events, to go beyond the usual choices of perception to describe the things as they really are. Husserl’s phenomenological method includes concepts of Noema, ‘the object of our attention, or, blocks of meaning’, Noesis to mean, ‘the experience as it is experienced and the act of consciousness itself, or, process of conferring meaning’, and Bracketing ‘an act of suspending our prejudices and usual interpretations’ (Van Deurzen, 2005: 154).At this stage, these concepts are helping me to frame old acknowledged ‘blocks’ and consciously describe them.
It is also helping me to bring to my awareness some of my behaviour patterns, which I was unaware of, or aware in hindsight, but unaware of their reasons. Husserl’s method is ingenious in that it brings to light my ‘perspective dynamics’ (sense of reality, prejudices, family dynamics) and helps me to understand and realise how to locate my blocks. I can now begin to verbalise enigmatic reactions and unveil covert fears, when truth about my character and individual qualities begin to be more approachable and real.I very often have been lost in my own personal history not knowing any other way out of it. ‘This felt like a block in my life loosing touch, feeling alienated within myself and therefore, preventing the self to extend towards other people as fully as I would wish. In my understanding of phenomenology in the above example, my own blocks can prevent me from living in the moment of now. The examples that will follow, there are so many thoughts and emotions distracting me from the moment of now.
Learning to make conscious my personal assumptions in the form of noema, noesis and bracketing, an aspect of phenomenological reduction called Epoche, was to learn how to suspend prejudice, frame a particular behaviour in focus, and examine the way I view things and people. I don’t know if it is possible to translate this process of reduction in all layers of my behaviour. But what I do know, is that this reduction process has taught me to be aware, in a more awake state, of my hidden intentionality and to take responsibility, or better own my thoughts and actions consciously because very often I searched for the blame outside of myself.And the search was not to be found outside, but the understanding of those reactions is to be found deep inside of me. ‘Bracketing is necessary because the phenomenological inquiry is not mere fact-finding, it is the apprehension of intentional acts’ (Van Deurzen, 2005: 154). Husserl’s transcendental Phenomenology hasn’t particularly been followed by his students and former colleagues such as Martin Heidegger (Spinelli, 1989:2-3). A remark from Paul Ricoeur follows ‘that phenomenology is the story of the deviations from Husserl; “the history of phenomenology is the history of Husserlian heresies” (Moran, 2002:2).
I find that Husserl’s at the time controversial scientific opinions allows phenomenological progression. But his findings are a good basis to question what our true values are, to allow us to investigate our potential to be good therapists. Why is the relationship between Phenomenological philosophy, Existential, Person- centred Counselling and Psychotherapy, important in counselling and psychotherapy? I very soon started to comprehend that phenomenology addresses key questions of human experience and that this attempts to examine the process of subjective human nature, without being indoctrinated by some fixed theory.Philosophers have written a great deal about the nature of the self, and it is useful for psychotherapists to reflect if they are addressing human issues of existence from the right angle or just emphasising one from an infinity of possibilities, or simply if the theory needs progression. One concern that I think relevant to consider is that psychotherapy, particularly existential and person-centred counselling, focus on the promotion of the client’s autonomy (Sanders, 2004). Are the theories open enough to offer that autonomy, or are they in its effort to make sense of a state of mind, limiting its variability?In my opinion, it is essential to have an uncluttered mind which is free from unprejudiced assumptions when approaching psychotherapy and counselling. Existential therapists for example, put more emphasis on the existence, than on the essence through the phenomenological reduction, because they do not wish to suspend existence.
Carl Rogers‘s (1902-1987) concept of phenomenology maintains that knowledge of individual perceptions of reality is required for the understanding of the human behaviour, and suggests that we live in accordance with our subjective awareness (Nye, 1992:97).Rogers believed that human beings need the right psychological and environmental conditions to allow the troubled self to change and find a healthier organismic self. ‘Necessary and sufficient conditions of therapeutic personality change’ (Kirshenbaum & Henderson, 1990:219). There are three core conditions out of the six sufficient conditions: Unconditional Positive Regard (UPR), meaning truly accepting the person as they are with no pre-conceived judgements intruding in the process of the relationship between client and counsellor.Empathy, meaning listening carefully, leaves aside my conditions of worth, and, Congruence, meaning genuine authenticity within the counselling relationship (Hough, 1998:103-104). I found a way to process these conditions through phenomenology. I can see the parallel between person-centred and existential psychotherapy, because for example, Rogers’s therapy involves the therapist’s entry into the client’s unique phenomenological world, without attempting to search for unconscious motives, but rather concentrate on immediate conscious experience and expectations (Sanders, 2004:4).
These conditions have to be processed within myself first, before I can attempt to offer them to other people. To me, there was an intellectual and emotional understanding of how to integrate Rogers’ core conditions when with other people, but I was missing the link ‘how’ to do it, because the theory felt all very delicate, non-directive and carved for those who were born with those qualities. I wanted it to be part of my daily make up, but I many times regressed to old habits, and felt I was back to square zero.This is the reason why I think phenomenology is important in counselling and psychotherapy. It is a method that allows us to strip down any masks or shadows we have and work on many of our unprocessed conditions of worth, for a healthier organismic experiencing. I have been fortunate to find the path to work on my true self, and something definitely happened in my conscious mind caused by the above learning cues. I can honestly describe with some contentment that I am processing my projections successfully with my environmental relationships.
The example that follows, describes a significant event that showed me I have brought into light what looked like a projection into my full conscious. Right at the beginning of the academic year, I used to hear one of my colleagues speak, and I used to feel some irritation. I didn’t know the cause. It was only after the third week that I questioned myself the reason why because the symptom persisted. I wrote on my journal: I feel I was quite disrespectful today towards ‘Blue Sky’ when she was speaking in the group experience. (Blue Sky is a pseudonym name.I give all my course group colleagues a pseudonym name to keep their identity protected).
I reflected on my interrupting her several times while she was speaking. Interrupting felt intruding because something was not flowing. I like Blue Sky but I have ambivalent feelings towards her. I still don’t know what and why I feel the way I do. She is lovely and warm and welcoming and emotionally intelligent … ??? Today, my tutors introduced philosophy to the group. It is fascinating to be introduced to the question about subjectivity.Our subjective truth is based on our subjective human experience.
Is this going to help me to find out about my incognitos? … I don’t want to be lost in my own personal history and yet I do want to know all those parts of me that hurt and why. In learning phenomenology and the wish to get acquainted with those parts of me that remain unclear, provoked some sort of brewing threatening sensation. Nevertheless, over the next few weeks I went through a very painful learning curve. Phenomenology helped me to discover my irritability about Blue Sky.After class, we took the train together and we were talking fluidly, when all of sudden, that cloudy irritable sensation about her struck back again, and I noticed it affected my congruent and empathic responses towards her. She must have felt it because our conversation fell flat. When she left the train, I knew it wasn’t her doing.
I knew I was transferring something berried deep in me. I couldn’t write my journal for the rest of the journey as I usually do, and was suspended over that event that just happened.I went back to that feeling that made me feel that way, and I connected the event. I knew somebody 24 years ago that looked like Blue Sky. I was struck by the physical and verbal similarities and even more surprised how the arms and body expressions are so similar. Why didn’t I see that before? She was my then husband’s ex-girl-friend. It was a very painful experience at the time, because she didn’t seem to be able to forget him, and I could see her pain, and with that she was hurting my relationship with my husband by not wanting to give him up.
Linking the irritation about Blue Sky with a totally unconnected old event, is proof that unresolved emotional and psychological experiences impedes reciprocal interaction and communication with another person in the present. For this reason, I was so happy to release Blue Sky out of my perception, and see her for what she really is. On that same week another projection towards one of my tutors was resolved, and when I discovered what it was, I experienced that same relieved sensation. I am now able to see my tutor for whom he is showing to be and not for what I was projecting.To me this is a sign that I am learning to identify my introjects, and not just let the natural attitude react as the victim of my conditions of worth. I feel that I am growing towards my potential, in Rogerian terms called actualising tendency, for a healthier organismic self (Mearns & Thorne, 1988:11-14). In Gestalt terms this is described as healthy cycle, the drive towards actualisation of the self (Clarkson, 1989:27).
Although these projections were resolved, I continued to feel a threatening sensation that there was more to come and I even felt physically sick over a period of two weeks with sleepless symptoms and anxiety.I felt all my toxicities were coming to the surface as a result of this process and told this to the group. All the present negative experiences were mirrored in the way I was articulating myself. The group reacted very strongly when I used the word toxic to describe myself, and said that they didn’t experience me that way. It was with the group process that I realised I was using punitive self-description, such as ‘I am toxic‘, that were introjects from a significant other’s values imposed upon me.I was beginning to believe those descriptions about me, and owning them. My language was showing self-condemnation in front of the group, but in truth I was using the group as a healthy pillar, or in Gestalt (form) terms, healthy cycle, to test my organismic experience of failure, and to examine the accuracy of my introjects (Clarkson, 1989:27).
What came to the surface was how I feel vulnerable and unsupported at home. This showed me a dysfunction in the boundary disturbance of my private cycle, and a disclosure of my coping mechanisms.By believing the negative description of my significant other, I’m taking in the other person’s projection. I showed therefore a coping mechanism called confluence, which is a merging sense of self with the projection of the other. Patricia Clarkson explains that Fritz Perls saw these coping mechanisms ‘only as neurotic when used chronically and inappropriately ‘… they are useful and healthy when authentically chosen temporarily…’ The other person‘s negative view of me is often things they cannot acknowledge or accept in themselves.There are other three most important psychological coping mechanisms, out of the seven fixed Gestalts called, introjection, meaning to take in values without questioning them; projection, as explained above, and retroflection meaning inability to externalise emotion, the act of directing a difficult emotion such as anger at oneself rather than at somebody who has provoked the emotion (Clarkson, 1989:42-45). What I have learned from these experiences is how some of my own subjectivities and defences can get in the way of being open to other people.
I would be carrying a false-self when offering non-judgemental acceptance, empathic and genuineness towards others, if I haven’t inwardly processed my conditions of worth. This process of dismantling my projections so intensely are absolutely essential in that I am responsible for knowing myself to the fullest of my capacity before I come in serious helping contact with clients. There is a danger of not resolving blocks that can interfere with a therapeutic relationship, in that clients can become the projection of the counsellor.This is why I think phenomenology is important in counselling and psychotherapy, because it helps us to put in practice the process of identifying our troubles and put it aside in order to be able to understand another person’s world view to the fullest of our competency. I do befriending volunteering once a week, and I noticed that my listening skills have improved and that my natural attitude for interpreting is decreasing, leaving room for the client to find meaning in the description of their feelings.I noticed that the quality of the relationship with some of my clients is deepening in that we are allowing more sensitive layers of hurt to surface. Clients on the search of a healthier organismic self will benefit the most from a therapeutic relationship when the counsellor can facilitate deepest understanding for the client’s perception of their world.
This is only possible, if the counsellor has developed skills to discern about what is the client’s concern and what is the counsellor’s projection.A good relationship can only be built as far as a counsellor’s skills facilitate the client to feel the space is theirs to explore in the present. Irvin Yalom puts beautifully, ‘… a therapist helps a patient not by sifting through the past but by being lovingly present with that person; by being trustworthy, interested; and by believing that their joint activity will ultimately be redemptive and healing’ (Yalom, 1989:227).Just as I thought I have learned a substantial amount of phenomenological theory to expand openness in my thinking process, with the aim to prepare me to understand myself, and then another person’s worldview, I read about Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980).
I find Sartre’s concept of nothingness, that human beings are essentially emptiness and that we are constantly creating and reinventing ourselves, mind blowing. The human tragedy is that we aspire to being definite and fixed as objects are’; ‘… human paradox: on the one hand we are nothing definite and, because of this, on the other hand we are able to become many different things…’ Sartre would call what I described in the above paragraphs about introjects, ‘bad faith’ as an important human strategy. To be in bad faith is to perform role-plays in the here-and-now to cope with situations (van Deurzen, 1997:45- 48).In conclusion, phenomenology has opened gates to infinite possibilities of thinking consciously, supplying me with more space to understand how to be with other people. It is hardly surprising and I can understand why psychotherapy chooses to draw wisdom from phenomenological philosophy, because there seams to be a flux with no fix point to allow further exploration of the human distinctive many layered qualities. What is special and significant about this Phenomenological movement is its evolving history in search for truth in perceptions and beyond perceptions.My argument that my ability to understand another person’s world view, lies in my ability to comprehend and integrate all of the above discussed theoretical processes in my behaviour.
The vignette ‘Blue Sky’ illustrates my present ability to recognise limits in my character and the willingness to change. I have set myself in an un-compromised path to know myself profoundly for both the benefit of my self-development and ultimately for the benefit of my future clients.I can choose the state of my mind and the emotions attached to it, and that therefore, interactions between me and other people will be of an egalitarian and mutual understanding. The examples I gave about my tutor and voluntary placement with clients, illustrate my endeavour to be fully authentic and transparent in all parts of me, including the understanding of relationship’s phenomenon. I could give other examples of how interactions with other people were successful, but they would have not demonstrated the difficulties and the painful metamorphosis I am going through towards the route of understanding myself, and others.