The Assumptive Worlds of Psychopathy IX: The World of Aspirations
What Will the Psychologist Be Seeing Now?
From my point of view, it is not just enough that a psychologist or human service professional see people with “adjustment disorders” and advocate for annual mental health checkups. It is also important for these professionals to “see” their clients (I will no longer call them “patients”) in a new way. They are not adjusting to their “disorders”—though they might be in a state of profound distress. Instead, they are adjusting to the changing state of their own life aspirations. This appreciative approach is directly in line with the positive psychology movement of the early 21st Century psychology (Seligman and Csikszentmihalyi, 2020) and relates to the foundations of humanistic psychology (Schneider,2014). I propose that such an appreciative and aspirational perspective should undergird any contemporary human service program being engaged during the Age of Anxiety and serve as an alternative to the Era of Hedonia. An appreciative and aspirational perspective holds the key to masterful and effective psychotherapy under conditions that currently exist in our VUCA-Plus world.
Obviously, there are sources of human distress that have a strong physical base. There is illness and injury that must be treated and ameliorated. However, it is important to recognize that even physical illness and injury have a strong psychological and aspirational component. A biopsychosocial perspective (Engel, 1977; Melchert, 2014) complements an Aspirational perspective. They both require us to look beyond the immediate cause of physical distress to the broader psychological and societal forces that are operating in the life of the person who has been afflicted. As I have repeatedly noted regarding the observations made by Rosmarin, the environment in which a client is living can be “crazy” even if the person seeking treatment is not crazy.
What is the nature of an appreciative, aspiration-oriented perspective? In essence, an appreciative perspective that is aspirational concerns a willingness to engage with another person from an assumption of mutual respect, in a mutual search for discovery of distinctive competencies and strengths, with a view to helping them envision their future and fulfill their potential. This simple multi-tiered statement might at first seem to be rather naive and idealistic. At its core, however, this statement holds the promise of helping committed and empowered human service professionals generate extraordinary results. As we trace out its implications, a series of profound insights and realistic strategies emerge that relate back to a remarkable book initiating the appreciative revolution and contributing to the early framing of positive psychology: Appreciative management and leadership (Srivestva, Cooperider and Associates, 1990).
The term appreciation itself has several different meanings that tend to build on one another; however, as a foundation for our understanding of an aspirational perspective on psychopathy and human distress, appreciation refers first to a clear understanding of another person’s perspective. We come to appreciate the point of view being offered by our client—and in particular the aspirational challenges which this other person faces. This appreciation, in turn, comes not from some detached observation, but rather from direct engagement. One gains knowledge from an appreciative perspective by “identifying with the observed.” (Harmon, 1990, p. 43)
An intersubjective, relational approach to psychotherapy (e.g. Brothers, 2001) captures some of this commitment to understanding. Intersubjectivity focuses on not just the reality a client brings to the therapy session, but also the reality that is created by the interaction between the therapist and client. The potential for aspirational growth resides in the mutual understanding and appreciation of not only the perspectives being offered independently by the client and therapist, but also the shared perspective being generated by the two of them interacting with one another. In other words, the relationship between therapist and client itself has an aspirational component that the two of them, working together, seek to realize.
Empathy is critical. One cares about the matter being studied and about those people one is assisting. Neutrality is inappropriate in such a setting, though compassion implies neither the abandonment of professional discipline nor a loss of boundaries between one’s own problems and perspectives and those of the other person. Appreciation, in other words, is about fuller understanding of, not merging, with another person’s problems or identity. Intersubjectivity offers an important corrective in this regard. The shared identity that is forged in the therapy session is to be distinguished from the individual identities of the therapist and client. Both transference and countertransference are reframed as distinctions to be drawn between the dysfunctional diffusion of identities by both therapist and client, and the creation of a highly functional and growth producing third identity. This identity is forged in the midst of the intersecting lives of therapist and client in the therapy office (Breger, 2012).
Appreciation also refers to an increase in worth or value. A painting or stock portfolio appreciates in value. Van Gogh looked at a vase of sunflowers and in appreciating (painting) these flowers, he increased their value for everyone. Van Gogh similarly appreciated and brought new value to his friends through his friendship: “Van Gogh did not merely articulate admiration for his friend: He created new values and new ways of seeing the world through the very act of valuing.” (Cooperrider, 1990, p. 123) Peter Vaill recounts a scene from the movie Lawrence of Arabia in which Lawrence tells a British Colonel that his job at the Arab camp was to “appreciate the situation.” (Vaill, 1990, p. 323) By appreciating the situation, Lawrence assessed and helped add credibility to the Arab cause, much as a knowledgeable jeweler or art appraiser can increase the value of a diamond or painting through nothing more than thoughtful appraisal. Lawrence’s appreciation of the Arab situation helped to produce a new level of courage and ambition on the part of the Arab communities with which Lawrence was associated. The human service professional and psychotherapist can similarly increase the courage and ambition of their client.