A Psychosocial Self
Thus, truth is both constructed and discovered.
- J. Christopher Muran
Therapy speaks to change, and change speaks to client needs. Language is the means we communicate the experience of need to others and to ourselves. But I do assert our experience of needs is initially independent of our constructs of them. Need experience is antecedent to language.
Our varying constructs of the self, modernist or otherwise, stem from our need to identify this significant dimension in our experience of needs. Much of what Muran (2001) and Gergen (1995) discuss revolves around our internal and our external resources to redress need experience.
In surveying therapeutic theories, Muran (2001) iterates this polarity as between “agency and self-definition” and “relatedness and communion,” between patient awareness “of their inner and outer realities”, between “solitary reflection” and “relational struggle”, between “autonomy and independence”, between “self-other and self-self relatedness”, between “intrahuman” and “interhuman” experience, between “interpersonal and introjective processes”, and between “change as [inner] correction or [external] expansion, with respect to the provision of both [inward] insight and [outward] interpersonal experience.” Gergen (1995) focuses on the social selves of “outward appearances” that complement the “inward feelings of personal identity.”
In postmodernist literature, I see modernist’s bias toward the individual being challenged. Indeed, no one is an island since we are social beings. Wellness is not merely psychological, it is psychosocial. Counseling’s emphasis on psychology appears to be a cultural artifact of the modernist era.
The pre-modern era emphasized a religious collective that tended to neglect the interests of the individual. Modernism countered by emphasizing individuality against this religiously defined collectivist tradition. Both approaches contribute to a normalization of psychosocial imbalance, in opposite directions. The medieval religious approach tends to favor social/external resources over ego/internal resources, while the modernist approach tended to favor just the opposite. Psychosocial tension remained the norm.
Such imbalance tends to remain invisible to those already enjoying stable social supports—if no longer in their church than perhaps in their secular fraternities. As they took these supports for granted, they tended to look disdainfully upon individuals presenting a less unified self. One problem I see with the psychology literature’s take on the self is its apparent white male privileged presumption that the self is situated in a resource rich environment. Problems in living are then posited in the individual, with little if any questioning of the environment or its fit for culturally others.
Less privileged lives must navigate hostile sociocultural environments, and this occasionally results in desperate acts which the more privileged define as deviant. The medieval category “morally evil” is now superseded by the modernist category “mentally ill” (Brym and Lie, p. 158). The plumb line gauging such deviance is typically measured around the dominant culture’s arrangement of resources, erasing viable alternatives.
Will the postmodern or post-postmodern critics help us appreciate how violence and problems in living frequently result from psychosocial disequilibrium? Will they add depths to our sociological understanding that deviance is constructed (Henry, 2009)? Where can postmodern or post-postmodern perspectives help deconstruct “therapy” where its construct of change expects individuals presenting problems to adjust to a status quo environment constructed more for the interest of the better privileged?
The very term “psychotherapy” denotes “individual change.” For ethical reasons, I cannot be a psychotherapist in this traditional sense, unless I can expand it to mean psychosocial therapy. For many minorities presenting a problem, including those from my own populations, I seek to instill empowerment to change harmful climates as a vital factor in their own wellness.
I do not mean to propose an overhaul of the profession. Understandably, some clients need to first own responsibility for their contributions to a problem before focusing on elements outside of their immediate control. Rather, I see a niche of needs not readily addressed in this modernist focus on the individual. Instead of serving as an agent perpetuating conformity to this potentially violent culture, I see myself as offering a viable alternative with a more psychosocial homeostasis approach—to ensure one has relatively equal access to reliable external resources as well as internal resources for meeting their needs.
Policy and ethics implications
The so-called drug war serves as a salient example. Although I do not use drugs, I am not quick to impose narrow constructs of therapy that tend to impose a privileged construct of rehabilitation. From a modernist perspective, anyone who would “visibly” abuse their “individual self” with “mind” altering substances must be mentally ill. Anyone who gets along with others by subsuming their minority culture experience under the umbrella of Western values, where drugs are only legitimate when prescribed by a medical expert, is deemed “visibly” well.
Little regard is given to the lived experiences of those finding less privileged means for coping with the resulting pain in their marginalized lives. Therapy, or its social construction as rehabilitation, normatively expects the troubled drug user to interpret their need for change as exclusively internal. If therapy fails because it leaves out the multiplicities of related selves, it is readily blamed on the individual client, or perhaps therapist, or the treatment method. Collective responsibility is rarely considered.
The modernist medical model sees individuals as being sick, but not whole cultures. That construct is left to the realm of politics. Consider the meta-research findings in Martinson (1974), concluding that programs for rehabilitating criminals were largely ineffective. Instead of attracting research into sociocultural wellness factors that underscore disprivileged forms of violence—a Far Left aspiration of the times and Martinson’s third point (p. 33)—it tended to serve a pre-modernist bias that criminals were essentially “evil” people beyond any individual ability to change. Policy shifted away from rehabilitating these “sick” individuals and toward punishing them in the name of getting tough on crime.
Half of all prison and jail inmates present a mental health problem (James and Glaze, 2006). With prisons becoming de facto mental health institutions, prisons and jails now house ten times as many mentally ill individuals as state psychiatric hospitals (Torrey, et al. 2014). Consequently, “1 in every 35 adult residents in the United States was under some form of correctional supervision at yearend 2012,” declining from its peak in 1997 (Glaze and Herberman, 2013), with up to half for non-violent drug offenses. This has rapidly increased state expenditures for their corrections budgets (Kyckelhahn, 2012 , NASBO, 2013), and diverted law enforcement’s focus away from public safety to attend to the acutely mentally ill (Biasotti, 2011). Meanwhile, incarceration keeps this social problem largely out of public view.
Some final desultory thoughts
Focus on the relational self appears corrective to the historical rendering of the individuated self; counseling ameliorates the problems stemming from the historical imbalance of psychosocial being. Therapy traditionally sought to help change the valued individual to adjust to the unquestioned sociocultural environment, but now we are finally beginning to question that environment. As a profession, counseling has yet to question the constructed barriers in the first place, that gives rise to the normalization of psychosocial disequilibrium.
If the modernism project hadn’t reified the self as individuated from its collectivist predecessors there may have been less of a felt need to deconstruct the self in postmodernist terms, as the psychosocial being of the human experience would then have readily remained in the less visible background. With the Enlightenment bringing the self as figural, it deferred to the realm of politics the art of maintaining some semblance of balance between the inward-facing self and the outward-facing self (i.e., the self reliably accessing its own internal resources and the self reliably accessing the external resources controlled by others).
A multiplicity of social selves speaks to our diversity of social referents, of our variation in external resources. Perhaps there is a similar variation toward internal resources, of personally accessing referents for relieving needs. Further, we can reasonably expect iHiHicksHmore diversity in our social selves than in our personal selves, that by comparison the personal selves seem to represent a relatively unified whole. The me that reaches for a cup of coffee to soothe my thirst, for example, is slightly different from the me that drinks coffee as a means to stay alert on the job. The nuanced distinction may not be salient enough to count as a different me relative to the social masks I wear when interacting with others impacting my needs beyond my immediate control.
In the process, I discover imperfectly what is true for others through the screen of language, as they imperfectly encounter through language what is true for me. We impact one another’s social needs, our access to external resources, while this integrates with our ego needs, our access to internal resources. There is this constant pull toward seeking some relative balance between both, independent of conscious awareness, although conceptualized in language. As Muran puts it (2001, p. 32), “truth is both constructed and discovered.”
Gergen, K. (1995b). The healthy, happy human being wears many masks. In W. Anderson (Ed.), The truth about the truth: De-confusing and re-constructing the postmodern world, (pp. 136-150) New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Muran, J. (2001). An introduction: Contemporary constructions and contexts. In J. Muran (Ed.), Self-relations in the psychotherapy process, (pp. 3-44) Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.