Dissolving the Life Style?

Published October 11, 2018, The NASAP Newsletter (TNN), Erik Mansager, PhD

Maybe in this third installment it’s time to share a little of what classical Adlerian depth psychotherapy aims for in practice. What is the clinical focus of our work, and how might that differ from the way others practice Adlerian counseling or therapy?

How about we start at the finish: the goal. The betterment of humanity was Adler’s big target – and this made the wellbeing of the individual and the welfare of the community equally important. You can’t have one without the other. His grasp of democratic living was not a “representative” model where some are expendable while others represent the welfare of all. No, Adler understood the world could work optimally only when each individual felt safe and secure. Under such conditions, each individual could contribute to the whole – and the secure whole was the assurance that no individual would be left out. The welfare of the community is assured by the individuals’ willingness to make the contribution they are capable of providing.

Ideally, such involvement aims at individual benefit as well as mutual benefit; what we can call a virtuous cycle. It assures that, potentially, one is for all and all are for one (to play on the Swiss national maxim adopted, by the way, over four centuries before Dumas’ made it his musketeers’ motto).

So while we could focus on the whole or the individual, just now I have in mind the individual client; and it is fair to ask, “What is the wellbeing of that individual that is our target for therapy?” Is it the same thing for everyone? Well, “Yes,” if we mean that everyone has the potential to better him or herself continually (personal wellbeing). But, “No,” if the road to such wellbeing is thought of as identical for each person. The potential of bettering oneself is a path that is so unique, only that individual can identify it for her or himself and calls the clinician to create a unique therapeutic approach for each unique client.

But how can bettering oneself – reaching one’s potential – be the focus when we deal with so many crippling traumas and hardships in our clients’ lives? Look at all that gets in the way of their potential! Still, the size of the task doesn’t discourage the prepared therapist. It’s only a matter of “good (ß emphasis here) hard work.” After all, for Adlerians counseling and therapy address the hard work of life style change; understanding and modifying the patterned responses that make up our personal style or personality.

Many counselors reading this would agree that the life style, when rigid or chaotic, is at the heart of the psychological problem. Following Adler’s dictum: it’s not what happens to us but what we make of it that is the determinant, we target the life style to be softened or organized respectively. They would likely organize their interventions accordingly. But how many would say that the life style itself is the problem, needs to be seen as such – and dissolved altogether?!

From the CADP perspective, an intervention to tweak the life style as the primary goal of therapy leaves the fictional final goal (i.e., the personality ideal or the goal of the life style movement) – untouched, or worse, strengthened. Such effort from both the therapist and client would be aiming to make the client who is in misery, just a little less miserable. As a short term goal this is altogether humane and appropriate; but to think that this is the most we can do may be short-sighted and perhaps a little cynical. Once therapy takes hold, the agreed-to therapeutic goal can be pursued. But that goal is a moving target and is assessed and updated regularly. Therapy’s building on positives includes assessing again and again what the potential of our client entails. This mutual assessment springs naturally from the deepening relationship during the 12 interlocking stages identified from the Classical Adlerian perspective.

It was Adler’s original theorizing and Maslow’s finishing touches that helped us understand that our potential is practically limitless, while understanding our limitations as springing from a self-sustained misunderstanding of life. From this misunderstanding come the polar mistakes made in conceptualizing the depth of our inferior feeling as well as the imagined height of a goal needed to compensate for it. Our movement between such fictional poles is our life style. And a willingness and ability to travel with our clients as far as they are willing and able to dismantle this arrangement is among our most serious responsibilities.