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Authenticity at the Northern Existential Group

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Monday, 5 Dec 2011, 11:02

24th November 2011 saw the third meeting of the Northern Existential Group (NEG). This month our reading was a paper called 'A Road Less Travelled' by M. Guy Thompson. Based on the author's own relationship with R.D. Laing, the paper wove together biography of the famous 'anti-psychiatrist' with an account of his understanding of the concept of 'authenticity'. What did authenticity mean to Laing, and how well did he embody it within his own life?

This paper was a perfect one for the NEG as our discussions tend to focus on the personal and pragmatic issues of the concepts under consideration. Are these existential ideas something that we want to strive for in our own lives and, if so, how might we go about that?

Here we will briefly introduce R. D. Laing for those who are unfamiliar with him. We will outline the concept of authenticity as it is presented in M. Guy Thompson's paper, and then give a flavour of the NEG discussion on the topic.


R. D. Laing

R. D. Laing (1927-1989) grew up in Glasgow. He studied medicine there and became a psychiatrist in the British army. Later he trained and worked at the Tavistock clinic alongside the likes of Bowlby and Winnicott. Laing formed the Philadelphia Association in 1965 and set up a psychiatric community project at Kingsley Hall and later other locations. At PA houses patients with diagnoses of psychosis lived together in communities with therapists and other patients, and there was minimal use of the restraints or drug treatments which were commonplace in mental health systems.

Although Laing did not embrace the term 'anti-psychiatrist', his views about mental illness were – and continue to be – radically challenging to conventional views. Influenced by existential philosophy he questioned the idea of mental illnesses which could be diagnosed according to symptoms (although his opinion on whether there were real mental illnesses or not altered over time). Instead he saw the feelings and behaviours of people with 'mental illness' as expressions of their lived experience and valid attempts to communicate their distress.

Instead of locating mental illness in biology, he saw it as a response to, often contradictory, messages within the family and wider society. Indeed, at times he suggested that 'madness' may be a saner response than 'sanity' to the impossible double binds in which people are placed when their experiences are not allowed to be articulated. These ideas are covered in Laing's famous book The Divided Self.


Authenticity

Laing's ideas about authenticity are explicitly related to his theories of mental illness because he suggests that people erect false versions of themselves in order to conform to society, and that this is why they frequently become confused about who they are. For this reason, part of the ethos of Kingsley Hall, and the other Philadelphia Association houses, was to communicate without falsity. People were encourage to speak in all conversations as honestly and openly as they would in a therapy session, with no small talk. Laing's own style was frequently confrontational in attempt to break through falsity in communication.

Thompson distinguishes Laing's version of authenticity from the kind of 'pop' authenticity of US talk-shows and self-help books. This latter form of authenticity is rooted in the humanistic view that there is some core inner self that we can get in touch with, often through our feelings rather than our thoughts, and that this authentic self will be a nicer, more loving, person. Such an idea is based on both a dualistic splitting of emotions and thoughts, an optimistic vision of what human beings are 'naturally' like, and a theory of selfhood that is problematic from an existential perspective.

Laing's authenticity was based more on Nietzsche and Heideggers' versions of authenticity which did not link authenticity and ethics and which dispute the idea of any core self beneath what we construct. This existential form of authenticity involves a courageous facing of the inevitable anxieties of life. This includes going against societal norms when they conflict with this. Heidegger's position was that humans were inauthentic the majority of the time (seeking approval, validation, recognition and so on). We get our sense of identity and – along with it – inauthenticity from the crowd we (seek to) belong to, but it is possible sometimes to transcend this. This is not about getting at any genuine self (because the self is always constructed) but rather being aware of our general inauthenticity and acting in a way that does not attempt to fit in or to court favour.

Laing's authenticity, however, was intrinsically related to ethics because he saw human suffering as resulting from inauthenticity (particularly the double-binds it places people in). Therefore authenticity was a superior way of relating which involved loving another person without 'trespassing' on them or doing them violence by using them for our own narcissistic ends. This requires both the courage to open up to another person, and the awareness to see when you are in danger of trespassing (for example, by demanding that they conform in some way rather than being authentic themselves). This is the awareness that Laing saw as frequently absent in the mental health profession: those who think they are being helpful deny the thoughtless way in which they treat the vulnerable people they are caring for, and the demands they place on them to act in inauthentic ways.

From Thompson's summary it seems that Laing's authenticity includes the following elements:

  • Honestly owning up to our inauthenticity

  • Acting without regard for what others will think of us (rather than being a 'phoney' and adhering to social niceties)

  • Having the courage to stick to our principles rather than being hypocritical

  • Being brave enough to open up, authentically, to others

  • Being aware enough not to trespass on others, doing violence to them by denying their authenticity

 

Discussion

The rest of Thompson's paper – and much of our discussion – focused on whether Laing, himself, embodied the form of authenticity that he espoused. This is part of a wider question of whether such thinkers need to 'walk the walk as well as talk the talk' in order to be convincing, or for us to take up their ideas. We could see both positions on this. On the one hand, when the personal is political as it so clearly is in Laing's work perhaps his personal behaviour should be under scrutiny. On the other hand, all thinkers are likely to have feet of clay and we can question whether it is acceptable to use this to pathologise them and to dismiss their ideas, as has been done with Laing, Neitzsche and Heidegger.

Thompson points out that Laing's writing became increasingly pretentious and inaccessible over time, that he courted fame despite this surely being a form of inauthenticity, and that his behaviour became bullying and cruel in ways that alienated most of those he was close to. Again, this latter seems far from Laing's ideals of open-hearted communication and not trespassing on others, although it could be argued that he was deliberately trying to confront people with their own inauthenticity.

A classic example of this was in his exchange with the American humanistic therapist, Carl Rogers. Thompson tells the tale of the night before the organised debate between Rogers and Laing. Laing and his group invited Rogers and his group round to his home and then out to a restaurant. Laing told Rogers that his 'California nice-guy' act would make an authentic exchange impossible. Laing proceeded to get drunk and to shout out (about Rogers) 'he's not a man, he's a perrrrson!' (a sarcastic reference to Roger's book On Becoming a Person). Later he spat in the drink of one of Rogers' colleagues.

The NEG group spent much time considering Laing's idea that anger is the Royal Road to authenticity. Is niceness always inauthentic? Is it always authentic to strip away artificial niceness however much trespassing is required to do so? We found ourselves questioning why the so-called 'negative emotions' would be considered more authentic than the 'positive' ones. Is this another problematic dualism? Also, we noted the contradictions between two aspect of Laing's authenticity (in order to be authentic in this way one has to trespass on others, demanding that they be authentic according to his definition).

We wondered if Laing would have the same impact if he had not acted the 'trickster' in these ways: punching holes through inauthenticity. Then again, might he potentially have had more impact if he could have expressed his ideas in a way that was more palatable to people. Related to all of this there is the question of whether one person can ever really judge the authenticity of another.

In response to this latter, we reached the conclusion that we certainly can't judge the authenticity of another (there can be no objective measure of authenticity), but that equally that we cannot really trust our subjective sense of whether we are being authentic or not because we are likely to be a poor judge of whether or not we are in a form of 'false consciousness' (believing we are being authentic when actually we are simply saying or doing what is expected of us). There is also the question of whether it is always authentic to go against the norms and conventions around us. We considered Sartre's example of wearing a moustache when everyone else was doing so: Would it be authentic to sport such a moustache nowadays (as long as we weren't doing it for 'movember' – the charitable event where people grow moustaches for the month of November)? Even in going against convention are we still in relation to this and potentially even reinforcing it?

As often in our discussions we related Laing's ideas to gender. We considered how somebody with Laing's ideas and behaviours might have been treated if they were a woman, and this led us to consider whether it was possible for women to be seen as authentic in the same way that men could be, given the way that men are regarded as 'normal' humanity (according to Sartre, de Beuavoir and others), and the potentially harsher sanctions (internal and external) against women behaving authentically.

Another question we explored was whether authenticity may only be possible when all ways of being were open to us. For example, some of us felt that kind of anger that Laing displayed simply wasn't an option in our behavioural repertoire. Did that condemn us to 'inauthentic niceness'? We decided that there would always be limits and constraints on what was possible, but that authenticity was possible so long as there was some degree of choice over how we acted.

In the group there was a sense that it was valuable to hold both a Laingian and a Rogerian way of being. The question which we kept returning to was 'how far do you go?': How much do you flout convention and how much do you police yourself? These are important, and emotionally loaded, questions. 'Too far' in one direction can leave us alienated and alienating, 'too far' in the other and we can loose ourselves completely in the (contradictory) demands of others.

In a way the contradictory nature of Laing's version of authenticity can provide a helpful constant corrective: be honest and courageous, but in open-hearted ways that does not trespass on others. Of course it is impossible to know how our actions will be experienced by others, but if we hold these tensions when engaging with the world perhaps we will occasionally experience moments which at least feel authentic.

 

Questions to Consider

  • Do you agree with the components of authenticity that Laing identified?

  • Is inauthenticity implicated in human suffering?

  • Is anger the royal road to authenticity? Can we be nice and authentic?

  • If we are being authentic is it our task to point out the inauthenticity around us, and in others' behaviours?

  • Is authenticity equally open to everyone?

  • How can we know if we, or others, are being authentic?

  • Is authentic something to aspire to?

  • Does authenticity lie in our actions or in the reasons behind them?

  • How far do you go?

 

Find Our More

You can download M. Guy Thompson's paper here.

The international R. D. Laing institute is here.

The Philadelphia Association is here and has plenty of downloadable pdfs on existential topics.

The BBC documentary, The Trap, covers R. D. Laing's ideas in some depth, as does the documentary Just Another Sinner.

The website of the Northern Existential Group is coming soon!

 

 

Permalink 1 comment (latest comment by Meg-John Barker, Monday, 5 Dec 2011, 11:03)
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Six short posts about mental health 5: Self-monitoring culture and distress

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A friend of mine recently posted a cartoon on Facebook which had Sigmund Freud saying 'before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, surrounded by assholes'. I responded that I thought this said something rather profound about mental health at the moment. Could it in fact be said that a key aspect of many experiences of suffering is the problem of being 'surrounded by assholes' or - to be more generous - being surrounded by damaging cultural messages perpetuated by those around us?

When I first started counselling I became very aware that virtually everybody I saw was convinced that there was something wrong with them that needed fixing, mostly based on the fact that - when they looked around themselves - nobody else seemed to be struggling the way they were. Conversations with close friends, and self-reflection, suggest that this is an extremely common feeling: that everybody else is managing fine so there must be something wrong with me. Of course, when I asked clients how they thought they appeared to other people they recognised that they generally put on a 'happy, managing everything fine mask' which probably gave off the impression that they weren't struggling either.

It strikes me that many experiences of depression, anxiety and other common mental health problems have a strong element of self-scrutiny and comparison to others in them (whilst, of course, I am wary of proposing any universal explanation because these experiences mean many different things to different people and at different times). Michel Foucault used Jeremy Bentham's Panopticon to explain how people self-police in contemporary society. In the Panopticon prison there is a tower in the middle and cells all around an outer circle, such that a guard in the centre could – at any time – be looking into your cell. Because of this, prisoners begin to monitor their own behaviour rather than having to have huge numbers of guards. This idea has been linked to the high degree of surveillance that we now have, meaning that we could – most of the time – be being watched or recorded.

Foucault suggested that contemporary culture worked in this way more broadly. People are encouraged to scrutinise and judge themselves at all times, with advocations to self-improve, to work on themselves, and to present a positive and successful self to the world. This is linked to consumerism which is all about seeing ourselves as lacking and needing something to fill that lack. Advertising, and many other forms of media, create fears (e.g. we might look bad, be out of date, or be a failure) and then offer products to allay those fears (e.g. beauty products, the latest fashion, recipes for success in various arenas).

Within such a culture it is no wonder that people would be particularly driven to constant self-scrutiny, comparison to others, and presentation of themselves as happy, satisfied and successful (even when they may not be any of these things). This shores up the 'us and them' that I wrote about in my second post. Rather than distress and suffering being an inevitable part of everyday life, it is seen as a problematic lack which must be addressed, and is probably outside of the power of the person who is suffering to address.

Perhaps the major challenge for mental health practitioners, counsellors and psychotherapists is the danger that our work can perpetuate this perception: creating new diagnoses and categories and offering an ever-increasing menu of products to fix these (at a price). Even the one-to-one therapy situation is at risk of exacerbating this sense that people are wrong and need fixing, given that one person (the client) is encouraged to express their distress to another person (the therapist) who is generally fairly quiet and certainly not expressing any of their own problems. This is not to say that therapists and counsellors should be inappropriately burdening clients with all their difficulties. But we need to find ways to challenge the idea that the client's struggles mean that there is something wrong with them, and the perception (which most clients have, even when they are therapists themselves) that the therapist has no struggles, or deals with them all perfectly.

Existential therapy includes the idea, not only that all people will inevitably suffer, but also that all responses to this suffering are sensible so long as we properly understand the person who is responding in this way. This, to me, is a very useful counter to the common assumption of something being 'wrong' and the person being flawed and lacking in some way if they do not respond in ways that are deemed culturally acceptable.

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Tragic Optimism in the Northern Existential Discussion Group

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Sunday, 18 Sep 2011, 11:31

Tragic Optimism in the Northern Existential Discussion Group

7th September 2011 saw the second meeting of the Northern Existential Discussion Group. This month our reading was a short essay by the existential psychiatrist, Victor Frankl, called The Case for Tragic Optimism. He wrote this in 1984 as a postscript to his classic book about his experiences of the holocaust: Man's Search for Meaning. The essay makes the case for finding meaning in life despite the inevitable tragedies which we will experience. Frankl is, perhaps, one of the most accessible existentialist writers to read, and the essay is very engaging and thought-provoking indeed.

Here I'll say a bit more about the author, summarise his argument, and then give a flavour of our discussions: what we found inspiring about the essay, and where we felt it was limited or problematic.

 

Victor Frankl

Victor Frankl (1905-1997) was a professor of neurology and psychiatry who founded a type of therapy known as logotherapy. This was the thrid type of therapy to come out of the University of Vienna Medical School (following Freud's psychoanalysis and Adler's individual psychology). However, it was a lot more existential in nature than these more psychodynamic approaches, and has gone on to have a significant influence on the field of existential psychotherapy more broadly.

Frankl spent three years in Auschwitz, Dachau, and other concentration camps during World War II and these experiences had a marked impact on his philosophy and his therapy. They are movingly recounted in his book Man's Search for Meaning. Following the war, Frankl returned to Vienna where he practised, and wrote and published over thirty books. He was also a visiting professor at Harvard.

 

Tragic Optimism

The Case for Tragic Optimism basically advocates a certain way of living, that is saying 'yes' to life in the face of its tragic elements. Here is a quick summary of the argument:

Frankl states that life involves three inevitable kinds of tragedy, the 'tragic triad':

  1. Pain and suffering,

  2. Guilt, because we are free to make choices in our lives, and are responsible for the impact of those choices, and

  3. Death, and knowing that our life is transient.

He says that it is hard to find meaning in the face of such tragedy, but that if we do not, then our sense of meaninglessness lies behind our experiences of:

  1. Depression,

  2. Aggression, and

  3. Addiction.

He also argues that meaninglessness is a particular issue in current western societies (when he was writing in 1984) where the youth see themselves as having 'no future' and people 'have enough to live by but nothing to live for' (p.142).

Frankl then puts forward three ways in which we can find meaning in our lives:

  1. Through our work or deeds,

  2. Through experiences or encounters with other people (e.g. love), and

  3. Through rising above, and growing from, the inevitable suffering which we will experience.

So Frankl is advocating that we make meaning from all three kinds of tragedy:

  1. Pain and suffering – from learning from the experience and finding meaning in it,

  2. Guilt – by taking responsibility for our actions, and

  3. Death – by living our life as if it was for the second time, knowing how we got it wrong the first time.

Frankl says that it is easy, in the face of inevitable tragedy, to fall in to nihilsm or to chase after things like happiness, success or youth instead of seeking meaning, especially in a culture which seems to encourage such pursuits. However, he is clear that the quest for meaning is the only one which he considers worthwhile. He suggests that seeking happiness is a form of 'hyperintention': Like trying to get to sleep, or trying to have an orgasm, it is one of those things that if we try too hard to make it happen we will be even less likely to achieve it. For Frankl the only true way to happiness is through finding meaning.

 

Discussion of the Essay

The group found much to like in this essay, but we also had some serious reservations about some of the arguments. I'll try to summarise, first of all, what we resonated with, and then some of our key concerns about Frankl's philosophy.

 

The Potential of Tragic Optimism

First of all, I think we mostly agreed with the idea that life does contain a great deal of tragedy, and that it is useful to acknowledge this rather than denying it. We were interested that Frankl highlighted suffering and death as inevitable facts of life (in common with Buddhist, and other existential, philosophers), but that he also included guilt, which other writers rarely talk about. We wondered whether the experience of surviving the holocaust might have led him to reflect upon guilt more than most.

We also related very much to the pain of meaninglessness, and many of us agreed that our darkest and most troubling times were located in such experiences. We were struck that it is hard, or even impossible, to capture the feeling of meaninglessness in words, and that it is an experience which is kept private, and taboo, perhaps more than any other. We may express anger, sadness, joy, and fear, but the expression of meaninglessness is often shunned by other people, as if it were contagious. According to those who had experience of mental health systems it is also dealt with quite poorly there, perhaps because it requires an intuitive and nurturing response which isn't what professionals tend to be trained in.

In terms of Frankl's suggestions for finding meaning, we could relate to the ideas he put forward. For example, I reflected on my experience of writing and trying to get published this year. First of all I certainly found meaning in the deed of writing the book. When it wasn't immediately taken up by a publisher, I found that another way to meaning through it was in giving it to a few people to read and sharing an encounter with them through that. Finally, I found that it was useful to move away from a focus on striving for the accomplishment of publishing, to a decision to find meaning through the process of learning about how to get published, and through finding that I could deal with the inevitable pain of rejection that is part of this process. It seemed that perhaps cultivating all three paths to meaning (particularly the last one, as a fall back option) was a good way of ensuring a sense of meaning and fulfilment in life.

 

Problems with Tragic Optimism

One problem we had with Frankl's ideas was with the contradiction between the suggestion that it is good to pursue meaning, but not to pursue other things (e.g. happiness, success, etc.) We wondered why meaning was a special case of something that it was okay to pursue. Perhaps, just like pursuing sleep or happiness too vigorously, seeking meaning too desperately would also inevitably prevent us from finding it.

I reflected that my own way of dealing with meaninglessness in life, as well as employing many of Frankl's suggestions, has also been to embrace it as an inevitable part of life which will happen with some regularity. There will be times – perhaps quite frequently - when we feel that our projects are pointless in the grand scheme of things, or when the world feels an overwhelming and cold place to live in, or when disconnections and conflicts with others feel unbearable and we feel utterly broken by life. If we see such times as evidence that we are 'getting it wrong' and try desperately to find some meaning quickly, we are – perhaps – likely to spiral even further into hopelessness. Some of us in the group said that, when we had such moments, we instead found it useful to focus on the very basic mundane activities of life (walking the dog, making our breakfast, having a shower), getting on with it until it passed. And sometimes we just have to be with the horror of the meaninglessness while it is there without trying to change it, and without being able to do anything whilst it is happening.

We also thought that Frankl implied that meaning was 'out there' (or 'in us') somewhere to be found if we searched for it, and that disagreeing with this was a form of nihilism. We didn't all agree with this and many of us were more in line with philosophers such as Sartre and de Beauvoir who hold that we create our own meanings but that there is no intrinsic meaning in life. In fact, perhaps facing this fact is also a vital part of finding meaning (recognising that we create our own meanings and could create them differently).

Finally, we had a big problem with how individualistic Frankl's philosophy seemed to us. The focus appeared to be very much on each person finding their own meaning, rather than any collective meaning-making (although, you could argue, that both guilt and death are very relational experiences as one is all about the impact we have on others, and the other is only something we understand through seeing others die).

Frankl seems to see the ultimate in meaning as being the person who can 'hold their head high' in the face of suffering: for example, the people he saw who found meaning even in the hell of the concentration camps, or a person rendered paraplegic who insisted that 'I broke my neck, it didn't break me.' Whilst such examples are incredibly inspiring, we thought there was a real neglect of the different circumstances of people's lives here. Surely it is far more easy for some, than others, to find meaning: for example, for those in a position of relative privilege, and who have resources and lots of support, compared to those who are oppressed, marginalised and alienated in various ways. Frankl's philosophy could lead to a dangerous kind of victim blame where we judge people for not being able to make meaning from their suffering.

Also, he seemed to argue that it was never okay for somebody to choose death over life, and we felt that such a choice could be considered meaningful (and who is anybody else to judge this anyway?) We thought there were resonances of Frankl in recent political speeches and journalism about the UK 'riots': the focus on the individuals involved and the need for them to take more responsibility, rather than any consideration of the wider socioeconomic context in which these occurred.

 

Questions to Consider

  • Is life inevitably tragic?

  • Are pain, guilt and death the only, and inevitable, tragedies we will experience?

  • Do you agree with Frankl that we can't force ourselves to be optimistic, or happy?

  • Do you agree that meaning is the thing we should strive for in life?

  • Is meaninglessness the root of all depression, aggression and addiction?

  • Is meaningless a particular issue in contemporary society? Do Frankl's comments on youth, and on having nothing to live for, ring true at the moment?

  • Are the three paths to meaning work, encounters and growing through suffering?

  • How does the world we live in now encourage, or discourage, the kind of philosophy which Frankl was advocating?

  • Is our sense of meaning something that we can find (as Frankl seems to imply) or is it something which we create (in a world where there is no given meaning)?

  • In our search for meaning should we be looking for a great purpose or project (the meaning of life) or seek meaning in the more mundane, everydayness of life?

 

Find Our More

You can read another summary of The Case for Tragic Optimism, here.

You can list to an audio version of the essay here.

The essay is also included at the end of Frankl's famous book about his experience of the holocaust, Man's Search for Meaning, which you can find here, and summarised here.

There are several clips of Frankl himself talking on YouTube here.

 

 

Permalink 4 comments (latest comment by Meg-John Barker, Wednesday, 14 Sep 2011, 10:35)
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