A Psychosocial Equilibrium
If you think communication is all talk, you haven’t been listening.
- Ashleigh Brilliant
Are truths discovered or created in the counseling relationship? I offer three critiques to challenge the framing of this question. Then I segue to an underlying issue I find this philosophical excursion passing right over: a deep human need for psychosocial balance. I suggest this deeper issue can render the question moot.
First critique: didactic rhetoric
“All truths are relative,” my high school classmates declared. I laughed. Their assertion has to allow for at least one exception, and that is how all truths are relative. As Matthews (1998) points out, this is a paradoxical claim. So is the relativists’ claim “there are no absolutes” or “nothing is absolute.” Like the proverbial Cretan liars, does this include itself?
As Held (1998) points out, such a “dismissal is itself a universal truth claim.” How far can an antirealism epistemology go before it erodes its own truth claim of there being no “truth”? There is an inherent logical contradiction in using a foundationalist claim to assert all claims are socially constructed (Hanson, 2007). By trying to teach us to see a better way, do we not feel our own perspectives erased?
In countering the subjective tendencies of pre-modern authorities, modernism asserted the roles of rationality and empiricism to herald objectivity as the new lord. In so doing, modernist teaching tended to reify the distinction between subjectivity and objectivity for the sake of this new authority, or what Foucault asserts as power (Hanson, 2007). What if the distinction is arbitrated more by academicians and policymakers than those who must live within these interdependent modes of subjectivity and objectivity?
Second critique: false dichotomy
Second, are “truths discovered” and “truths created” mutually exclusive? The question is framed as a binary, but could be framed as a continuum. In the counseling relationship, how much are truths discovered and how much are truths created?
Isolating these for observation comes right out of the modernist playbook, but is perhaps better appreciated as a provisional starting point instead of a focus point for deep discovery. Doing so could result in distorted conclusions from leaving out many relevant independent variables.
In the counseling relationship, is co-creating a negotiated understanding mutually exclusive to discovering elements contributing to that understanding? If I share my observation with a client an apparent theme in what she is telling me, for example, could we both be uncovering contributory antecedents independent of our shared understandings?
Could our understanding of such antecedents fall along a continuum somewhere between subjective formulation and objective accuracy? Could the degree of divergence in our subjective formulations suggest where we might be along such a continuum? How much must we align our inner subjective experiences to both acknowledge there is some contributory importance in such antecedents?
Held (1998) calls out a false dichotomy when citing a postmodernist truth claim of a causality direction, “that discourse determines or affects reality itself, and not the other way around.” Held concludes, “we must really know both linguistic entities and concrete/nonlinguistic entities to claim to know that a real effect has occurred, and occurred (at least in part) as a consequence of the theory or discourse we have accepted” [emphasis in original].
Why not see these as interdependent? Why not see both affecting one another in cyclic succession? An event independent of language (e.g., loss of a child) triggers a problem (e.g., complicated grief), which the client reports as their reality. The negotiated discourse then frames the client’s experienced reality and the counselor’s reality of a therapeutic response. These divergent realities then inform the discourse, and so forth.
Imposing a binary perspective, understandably useful for examination in the short run, appears to reify their distinct roles in the long run. The resulting erasure of cyclic functioning points to another Westernized erasure: psychosocial balance.
Third critique: reified disequilibrium
Despite the privileged emphasis upon the individuated mind, we are psychosocial beings. We yearn for interdependent connection with others as much as we yearn to be independent and free. The Westernized emphasis of the self-apart-from-the-group stands in contrast to other cultural ways of being human, such as the more collectivist approach found in some Asian cultures. A feature of Native American culture is to seek dynamic parity between these apparently opposing needs.
This Westernized extolling of an individuated self, which is ideally objective, has its roots in resisting the subjective collectivist emphasis of pre-modern religious authority. Postmodernism appears to replicate this modernist value of the individuated self, only now it disparages modernist authority.
This continues the normalization of psychosocial tension, of crystallizing sociocultural norms that value one over the other, instead of seeking integration of the relational self with the individuated self. The resulting tension creates many of our needs, and the problems our clients report.
In short, when living in a cohesive group who intimately know one other’s needs and how best to respond to them, any felt need for an individuated “objectivity” seems far less important. Our value of objectivity over subjectivity, and empowered individuality over an imposing collective, is actually an artifact of shared history, and not as universal as our rhetoric may suggest.
Seeking psychosocial balance
A preference for a freer epistemology points, I think, to a psychosocial environment that fails to afford a psychosocial balance between the needs of others with the needs of oneself, between the relational self and the individuated self. If one experienced their internal ego needs in relative harmony with their external social needs, I believe there would be less of a motive to seek an alternative ontology, or epistemology.
“The fact that we (objectively) realize certain limitations in our quest for objectivity does not lead us to the inexorable conclusion that the quest itself should be abandoned” (Held, 1998). As Rudes and Guterman (2007) assert, “rather than striving for empathetic understanding of a client’s ISE, a futile endeavor when considered from a social constructionist perspective, we prefer to think of how words function in relationship to create meaning or intersubjective experience.” However, in so doing, the focus can be on relational and mental processes. Or we risk becoming so reductive we fail to help a client integrate these psychological and social dimensions.
Psychosocial equilibrium relies on the tools of communication, in which verbal language plays a minor role. Emotional connection in the therapeutic relationship allows for plenty of nonverbal communication of need, especially since emotion is need-communication. Indeed, it is “in relationships” that inner subjective experience is negotiated through not only verbal communication but much, much more. Therapeutic components depending upon the more didactic structures of language are understandably a small slice of the therapeutic pie.
The underlying point I take from postmodernist critique is to recognize the tendency to ascribe too much value to the cognitively constructed verbal elements of communication, albeit typically most salient in the counseling relationship, when we now understand how such modernist privileged elements account for a small percentage of actual interpersonal communication. Interestingly, that finding was developed from the modernist perspective of observation, albeit likely developed from inner observations of those in the field of psychology recognizing a generalizable pattern.
The counseling profession would do well to stretch beyond its traditional focus of the self. What we call “self” is in part a perspective upon our psychosocial being. This includes our inward directed self (of ego needs) and our outward directed self (of social needs). Emphasizing either one of the other tends to be reductive. And this threatens to erase much of actual human experience.
For someone enduring a loss, for example, the most effective therapeutic impact is not anything being said but the meaning the griever experiences in not having to bear the anguish alone (Walton, 1999). Upon reflection, a client may recognize the counselor knowing very little of the subjective content of her pain, but nonetheless can experience satisfactory support simply by the counselor focusing his empathic attention upon her in that moment. From a psychosocial perspective, there is room for both an ambiguous relational knowing and some specific reasoned conceptions.
Being in a secondary society—where most of our interpersonal exchanges are with people we do not know and who do not intimately know us—exacts a price upon our individual and collective psychosocial development. Once we normalize ourselves as emotionally disconnected from one another (what I call normative alienation), Western ideals has us compensating with rational discourse, to explain ourselves. How do we seek full psychosocial development if it is something we have never truly known?
Betrayed in the question “how can one person possibly come to know the ISE of another?” is this notion of know. In psychosocial development, rational knowing typically plays a relatively minor role. But in Western values one must “know” because “feeling” is deemed too untrustworthy. Feeling is left to the subjective realm of religion, and counselors are not mere religionists. Or are we? I don’t quite know.
Hansen, J. T. (2010). Inner subjective experiences and social constructionism: A response to Rudes and Guterman (2007). Journal of Counseling & Development, 88, 210-213.
Held, B. (1998). The many truths of postmodernist discourse. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 18, 193-217.
Matthews, W. (1998). Let’s get real: The fallacy of post-modernism. Journal of Theoretical and Philosophical Psychology, 18, 16-32.
Rudes, J., & Guterman, J. (2007). The value of social constructionism for the counseling profession: A reply to Hansen. Journal of Counseling & Development, 85, 387-392.
Walton, C. (1999). When there are no words: Finding your way to cope with loss and grief. Pathfinder Publishing of California.