Existentialist Psychology: No Excuses

Professor Robert C. Solomon in his lecture, No Excuses:  Existentialism And The Meaning Of Life (“The Great Courses” audio disc learning program), draws from the philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre and teaches that there are six basic excuses that people give for their actions.  None of them, for Sartre, are adequate:

Six Excuses

1.  Impotence (“What can I do?  I’m just one person.”)

2.  Innocence (“I didn’t start it.  It’s not my fight.”)

3.  Appeal To Social Norms (“Everyone else is doing it;” a herd-think excuse)

4.  Self-Preservation (“I’ve got to look out for myself.”)

5.  Helplessness (“I had no choice.”  “I couldn’t help it.”)

6.  Fear (“I was afraid;” an emotion-based appeal)

For Sartre, one should never need an excuse for one’s actions.  One simply desires or does not desire something, and acts accordingly.  A human being has Free Will; thus, the action one wishes to perform and the action one performs should be the same.  No “if onlys.”  If you catch yourself justifying your activities, then that’s a good sign you should not be performing those activities.  The idea that we “don’t have a choice” is erroneous …hogwash.  It may be that all our available options result in a situation worse than the one we are in now —perhaps one choice even leads to death– but we always have a choice.

What I’ve come to value most about Sartre’s philosophy (called “Existentialism”) is its applicability —not so much to the field of philosophy (at least in that field’s limited domains of today)— but in the field of psychology.

For one thing, as can be gleaned from the title of Professor Solomon’s series of lectures, Existentialism demands that we accept responsibility for our own lives.  We are conscious.  We possess Free Will.  We should not hide from the responsibility that comes with the power to choose.  As the Existentialists say:  like it or not, we are “condemned to be free.”

Psychologically speaking, recognition of our inescapable freedom has profound effects.  Assuming personal responsibility for one’s actions, and the results of those actions, can be a powerful curative for mental hang-ups.

Many  Freudian techniques, and in fact much modern psychoanalysis in general, is focused on rooting out the causes of one’s mental disequilibrium that are imbedded far, far back in the psyche— typically stemming from some event or situation from one’s childhood.  Kept in its proper place, this is fine.  But we must be wary when adopting this approach; there can be a pronounced tendency in this method to go back in time lugging bias and agenda— basically, we go back looking for someone else to blame.

Obviously, as children, not only are we physically and intellectually vulnerable to assault or manipulation, but we are biologically programmed to be in such a receptive state —to be absorbing information and skills like little sponges— that psychologically damaging events that occur in childhood can be the most devastating, most prolonged, and most eradicable of our lives.  And let us be frank:  changing patterns of thought ingrained in us from childhood is a very, very difficult thing to do.  It is almost as impossible to change our way of thinking as it is to change our blood-type.  But it is, most emphatically, possible.  We mustn’t forget:  WE ARE FREE.

The Existential approach to psychology (if one existed, and I’m not sure there ARE any active Existentialist Psychologists) would examine and treat the complex human psyche from another angle.  The emphasis for Existentialists is that we take responsibility for our own actions.  Yes, it is an important part of therapy to understand how we became the person we are today, but that is just the beginning.  It is what we do with that information that is key.  What is vital are the choices we make now, today—of our own free will— once we become cognizant of facts about ourselves that were not fully appreciated before the therapy.  Once realizing what our hang-ups are and how we got them, we have the freedom to decide to get over them.

I’m not trying to make it sound simple and easy.  It is almost impossible to change one’s way of thinking–  what we may call one’s nature.  But we possess the freedom, knowing our biases, to change our biases; knowing our fears, to overcome our fears; knowing our learned reactions, to teach ourselves new reactions; knowing our modes of thinking, to change our modes of thinking; knowing our bad behavior, to change our behavior.  In other words, we are free to change our lives.

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