Carl Rogers’ Propositions [IV]

[IV] The organism has one basic tendency and striving – to actualize, maintain and enhanced the experiencing organism.

carl-rogersThis particular proposition feels, to me, as a required follow up to the preceding one: that there seems to be a force that drives all organisms forward towards a satisfactory goal. Rogers postulates that this driving force is inherent in all living things and has one fundamental purpose: to progress towards all that we can be, as much as our environment allows us. But this driving force acts as a whole, an entity that encompasses all the parts that we have that makes us who we are.

“Rather than many needs and motives, it seems entirely possible that all organic and psychological needs may be described as partial aspects of this one fundamental need.”

Rogers [1951],p.487-488

So, if behaviour is motivated by needs then it’s fair to say that it is essential that all of them get pulled in one direction. Forward. It just wouldn’t make sense if some needs go a different way to others. For example, if you need to avoid pain, you move away from the area that threatens it. For this, the body prepares to make sure the muscles are primed, the blood flow is good, the senses are alert to any possible danger that may prevent you from getting to safety. This wouldn’t work if one of these important needs was not co-operating with the others. For maximum chance of survival, everything needs to be working towards the same goal.

People are like freight trains. The engine at the head pulls all the trucks carrying different but essential supplies to a given destination. It is the engine that determines where the trucks end up. They have no choice and can make no decision as to where they are going. The freight train operates on a particular railway track and does what it does in continual fashion, and always in one direction.




640px-BNSF_5216_West_Kingman_Canyon_AZ by russavia

Photo credit: russavia

Rogers doesn’t say that all of us will succeed in life, only that we have the potential to do better in the continuum of life. It is up to us how we deal with events that happen.

If I lose my job I can do two things: I can go and find the next one or give up altogether. But even if I choose to give up, my tendency to progress to fulfillment would still be active, although limited. It entirely depends on my needs and goals in life.

The actualizing tendency would still try to push me in a direction that would give me the opportunity to enhance myself. But who is to say that my decision to give up is not a negative development? I may have been deeply unhappy at my job and losing it has actually freed me from a situation that was making my life a misery.

Alternatively, if I became depressed and suicidal over losing my job, finding a way to not end my life would also be looked upon as the actualizing tendency doing its job. It’s almost as if this force is embedded into our DNA to help us survive.

Have you ever wondered why you are here, in this present moment, doing what your’re doing thinking what you’re thinking? What has led you to this moment in life? That may well have been the work of the actual tendency, acting unconsciously as well as consciously, putting you in a position dictated by your environment. When the environment has such an influence on your fortunes in life it’s easy to assume that everything is predetermined, which I don’t really believe in, at least in the context of divinity. I can see how easy some people can construe this force as evidence of the existence of God.

I see it this way. If an environment is not working for you then there needs to be a change. You have the power to alter your situation, making you in control of your own destiny. Unfortunately a lot of people are not aware they have this option. Fear can play a part in making decisions in life.

As well as linking the above to God, this basic actualizing tendency can also be associated with evolutionary theory. Rogers mentions this.

“The directional trend we are endeavoring to describe is evident in the life of the individual organism from conception to maturity, at whatever level of organic complexity. It is also evident in the process of evolution, the direction being defined by a comparison of life low on the evolutionary scale with types of organisms which have developed later, or are regarded as farther along in the process of evolution.”

Rogers [1951] p.488-489

As Ian Malcolm famously said in Jurassic Park [1993], “Life finds a way.”

Rogers noticed that this forward drive towards maturity and independence was evident in therapy. In fact he regarded it as the only ‘tool’ a therapist can really rely on.

“I find that the urge for a greater degree of independence, the desire for a self-determined integration, the tendency to strive, even through much pain, toward a socialized maturity, is as strong as – no, is stronger than – the desire for comfortable dependence, the need to rely upon external authority for assurance…”

Rogers [1951] p.490

He found that people were prepared to move forward, under the guidance of the therapist, towards a better understanding of themselves, even if it meant facing pain and struggle.



Client-Centered Therapy [1951]

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Carl Rogers’ Propositions [III]

[III] The organism reacts as an organized whole to this phenomenal field.

In my mind this proposition is possibly one of the most influential of all in regards to successful counselling. It encapsulates Rogers’ life-long belief that everyone has an inherent ability to move forward despite the individual’s circumstances.

Behaviour is dictated by needs and goals and the human organism strives to achieve these whatever the situation.

“…there is increasing acceptance of the fact that one of the most basic characteristics of organic life is its tendency toward total, organized, goal-directed responses.”
[Rogers, 1951]

He recognizes that the body can overcome physical setbacks and still find a way to fulfill the function desired. But he argues that this can also be the case with psychological instances as well. If we encounter difficulties with life on a mental level, we do have the ability to get overcome them and achieve our needs in other ways. Bereavement is a good example of this. We are naturally distressed when we lose someone we are close to but in time we find a way to get over the sadness and the shock. The self re-organizes to eventually accept the reality of the loss and gives us a platform to carry on with our lives. It could be said that bereavement is the “total, organized, goal-directed response” to loss.

But Rogers was outlining a natural movement towards goal-directed behaviour; the life-force that is inherent in keeping us going forward, explained further in his 4th proposition. Of course, not everyone experiences this movement to acceptance and require outside help to guide them to where they need to be. Other factors dominant in a person’s life may be making it difficult to make the process of bereavement as natural as it should.

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Carl Rogers’ Propositions [II]

[II] The organism reacts to the field as it is experienced and perceived. This perceptual field is, for the individual, “reality”.

carl-rogersThis is one of my favourite Propositions. The idea that no objective reality exists and so everyone experiences their own personal reality is something that can take some time to digest. But in light of Rogers’ thinking, who can argue against it.

The fact that two people can be exposed to the same stimulus from the phenomenal field and come up with a different ‘take’ on what they have experienced, or to be more exact perceived, ventures into the realm of an ageless philosophical debate. We all want to know what exactly constitutes reality, whether it is objective or subjective. But psychological phenomena also has an important influence on how we see the world, and Rogers’ clearly leans on the subjective side.

Rogers’ gives a fine example of this in his book ‘Client-Centered Therapy’ where he explains how two different people can hear a politician’s speech and interpret its meaning differently (Rogers, 1951, p. 484-485). The same stimulus has succeeded in creating two personal realities and behaviour. But was this already decided and predicted before hearing the speech? Was the foundation for their perceptions already established through the earlier formation of their personalities. Preconceived ideas of the world they live in, their perceived reality, would no doubt serve as the springboard for their interpretation, as would the influence of their political affiliations.

Everyone processes their experiences uniquely (due to their personality, bio-chemical disposition, memories, emotions, values etc.) and stimuli that are constantly in flux all around us, will be interpreted or measured against these attributes and fit into a ‘personal theory’ of an individual’s perceived reality. This, I suppose, is how the Self plays a part in person’s reality, which I will come up in later Propositions. Do experiences, conscious as well as unconscious, contribute to a person’s reality? Is there a solid line that separates the Self as experienced and reality as perceived? Or are they constantly interchanging as we move into the future? I believe they do.

We have relationships with objects that we perceive, even with those that may seem innocuous and irrelevant. That may sound absurd because most people conceive a relationship as having a close or an intimate connection with another living thing, or a special object of sentimental value. A photo perhaps, or a car. But I believe that a connection of some degree is achieved with every object that we come across. A table in my house can exist in different realities – mine and someone else’s. The fact that it has a place in my house already qualifies it to be perceived differently.  I remember when and where I bought it, which gives it added values to my perception of it, as opposed to someone who comes into my house and sees it for the first time. In other words I have a different perception to the table and it fits into my reality and has a definitive place in it, whereas with someone else it will not.

Granted, most people do not think this way when they encounter normal, seemingly meaningless objects. They merely see them as functional, unemotional objects rather than things that can be perceived as meaningful entities to individuals. I’m not suggesting that we should be overly emotional about such everyday objects, but there is, I feel, a hidden symbolic element or value to us, perhaps beyond measure.  Sometimes you have to look under the hood to find the true reality.


A book is another good example. Surely it is perceived as something much more of value to the author than to the casual reader? We can ponder and imagine the effort, research and the thoughts that passed through his mind that the author has put into producing his book, but we will never experience it as he has. Therefore it has a special significance to his reality.

The confusing aspect of this debate about whether a reality exists in the objective or subjective world is the fact that objects that we see every day are undeniably real. They are solid and of recognizable form so they are obviously perceived as existing for everyone. But if we were incapable of sensing them they would not exist. A person with no senses, and with no memory of the world as perceived, would essentially be living in non-reality, something that doesn’t bare thinking about.  The physical constructs that we see everyday, the buildings, the monuments, transportation, have been created by motivation to achieve goals, by a will to progress. Civilization has been fueled by a combination of ingenuity and determination to improve, be better, rather like the actualizing tendency that Rogers’ believed existed in all individuals. But the designers and the constructors have to perceive the stuff that they need to build their creations in the first place.


“For psychological purposes, reality is basically the private world of individual perceptions, though for social purposes reality consists of those perceptions which have a high degree of commonality among various individuals. Thus this desk is “real” because most people in our culture would have a perception of it which is very similar to my own.”

Rogers, [1951] p. 485.


The desk may be real but is it as solid as we all seem to know that it is? The wood that it is composed of, or any other solid object, is kept together by gravitational forces binding billions of atoms, which are surrounded by empty space.


“And what about the reassuring hardness of my metal pen? They tell me it is composed of invisible atoms, moving at great speed. Each atom has an nucleus…each particle is endowed with fantastically unbelievable characteristics; it moves in possibly random, possibly orderly trajectories in the great inner space of each atom. My pen is hardly the firm solid object that I so clearly feel and hold.”

Rogers [1980] p. 98.


And we have to be safe in this “reality” that we have formed. By safe I mean being assured that our behaviour is consistent with what we perceive to be going on around us. We perceive, hypothesize, test then conclude with a theory in order to form our reality. This is repeated with other phenomena of interest and the same principles are applied. In this way our reality expands because we have tested out, as much as we can, everything we have confronted so far, with the inevitability that it will continue to expand as further experiences come to be perceived.


“Thus the world comes to be composed of a series of tested hypotheses which provide security. It acquires a certain predictability upon which we depend.”

Rogers [1951] p. 486.


But reality can change. It is as fluid as the air that circulates around this globe of ours. Every perception that is tested has the potential to be interpreted in different ways. And if the quantum physicists are right when they say that every thought and decision that a person makes creates a different reality, then it would mean a whirlwind of activity the mind has to contend with.




So, can I assume that with each day, hour, minute or even a moment, that goes by, that I enter into a different reality? Every decision I make, every new thought can change the way that I perceive the world? Now that is a staggering concept. If true, it would mean that my existence is in a continuing flux, never static, always changing direction, depending on how and what I think. I end one day of experiencing and wake up the next with the inevitable possibility that I will enter into a new, perceived world. A new reality, different because my as yet unencountered experiences will replace, to an unknown degree, the reality I knew from the day before.

Therefore, I go to bed at night with my world in relative order, that is to say that I have an acceptance to what state my world order is. The next day I hear that a relative has passed away. This ‘order’ has now been disturbed, shifted to another level, to a place that is new to me, as yet unexplored. I can never go back to the old order that existed the day previously, the old reality. My perception of the world has changed; it will never be exactly the same again. I must accept that my perceived reality has changed with the sad news that I have received and that I need to adapt.

The Proposition states that the organism reacts to the field (of phenomena) which has a very important statement to say about the nature of humanistic well-being. Whatever the world throws at us, be it an insensitive comment or some unfortunate, unpredictable event, it is up to us to react, to deal, to cope with the consequences. The phenomenal environment is what it is. We all have the ability to change how we feel about the multitude of stimuli that we perpetually encounter. The battered wife who can’t seem to leave her husband, the timid office worker who is scared of the promotion opportunities that will change his/her life. These scenarios can be changed given the right conditions but it is down to the individual to make it happen. In the end decisions have an important role to play in what reality we live in, and in some ways we have always been in control of it, although not all of us realize this.

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Carl Rogers’ Propositions [I]

carl-rogersI’ve been refreshing myself with Rogers’ 19 famous propositions which form the corner stone of his theory of personality and behavior. Familiarity of these goes a long way to understanding the world we live in and the individuals who populate it.

[I] Every individual exists in a continually changing world of experience of which he is the                                                              center.

When anyone puts some thought into what this proposition describes it literally opens up their world. Or at least their perceived world. When it is realized that every second of the day we are being bombarded by our environment by sensory information in many different compositions it comes as quite a shock. You would think the mind would quickly become overloaded and soon break down under the constant traffic. But the mind has a clever way of dealing with it all.

As a computer hard drive accumulates files it will eventually fill up and fail to function. The mind, however, with all its complex parts connected by the most sophisticated architecture, handles all this without too much trouble. Not all this information is in awareness, which is just as well.

It doesn’t really have a delete button either. Of the things we are aware of and we don’t need, because it is unimportant or dangerous to our mental health, gets filed into the unconscious. It all gets stored behind a mentally constructed wall of high security, kept away from troubling the conscious mind. We assume they are gone forever, faded in time until no memory trace is left. But they are still there and if ever some got out then the conscious mind will have to deal with them. And that could be the start of troubling thoughts that escalate to such an extent as to disrupt normal living.

Most of the things that flow towards us are not in our awareness. There is a multitude of information just waiting to be experienced but only a small amount is actually perceived. The rest are still out there waiting for you to become aware of them and permit them into your consciousness. Think of yourself as a conduit who attracts all the stimulus around you that emanates from the environment. You can’t avoid all this traffic. There is no way you can dodge to get out of the way, unless you can find a way of blocking all your senses. The mind can unconsciously assess what’s important and what’s not. Those that need attending to will enter consciousness and some stuff just glides innocently into our unconscious without our even knowing about it. When was the last time a chair made an impression on you?

“It should be recognized that in this private world of experience of the individual, only a portion of that experience, and probably a very small portion, is consciously experienced. Many of our sensory and visceral sensations are not symbolized.”

Rogers [1951] p. 483

I just took a swig of my drink just now. I had placed the glass on my bookshelf only a few minutes before, and very quickly, it was replaced by another attentive matter – to continue writing this post. I only became aware of it again when I felt the sensation of thirst.

Our whole day, indeed every day, is practically an accumulation of different needs, stacked up after one another. It’s what creates our existence, or at least fills up a large part of it.

We only become aware of certain things whenever a need arises. It’s a no-brainer I know. A thought enters the conscious mind and then slips back to the background when the need ceases. Since that sip of my drink I have successfully relegated it back to my unconscious because in the last few minutes my immediate need has switched to finishing this post.
In a little while no doubt I will feel another thirst sensation and I will repeat my previous action. My awareness will switch from foreground to background constantly, assessing the priorities of needs, as I progress through time, as I continue to exist.

The phenomenal field is vast, perhaps infinitely so. It is populated with all we see, hear, touch, feel and smell. It’s a conveyor belt of objects and sensations all vying for our attention, ready to be interpreted. Therefore, we are in constant interaction with our phenomenal landscape. This field affects and changes our cognitive interpretations, dictating our actions and behavior.




So, there is a steady and continuous flow of experiences potentially available to all of us. Each one is unique, personal, and only open to an individual. No-one else can encounter the same experiences, despite being exposed to a similar one in appearance or sensed. Even that sip of drink I had earlier is a unique experience to me.

“An important truth in regard to this private world of the individual is that it can only be known, in any genuine or complete sense, to the individual himself.”

Rogers [1951] p. 483

A good exercise to test awareness to experiences is to concentrate on what is around you. Encounter the sights and sounds, the smells and the tactile touch, and sense how much is really going on. Which noises had you not been aware of before? What objects have you noticed that you were not previously aware of? You will realize that there are a lot more going on than you thought; a lot more information that you are now aware of.

You are literally the center of the universe because you are, in effect, in possession of a universe of your own. You create your own reality because all reality is subjective. And everyone you meet is in the same situation. Think about that. Everyone else is subjected to the same bombardment as yourself, interpreting the same phenomena in their own, unique way. But interpreting the data differently. And possibly putting into action a different behavior. How many times have you met up with a friend and during lunch, got into a debate about a subject, which revealed two different views?

Rogers’ first proposition lays down a pretty simple statement which also succeeds to be a powerful one. Never again will you look at an object or sense a sensation or attitude in the same way. It is impossible for two people to interpret their phenomenal field in exactly the same way. That is mind-blowing and a gateway to opening up debate and theory into the philosophy of reality itself. As objects in space can collide, it is the same with human interaction; a meeting of different worlds with unique rules and interpretations, customs and traditions, and equal potential for self-actualization and self-destruction.


Carl R Rogers, Client-Centered Therapy (1951)[2003]

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Finding Meaning in Bereavement

The loss of someone close feels like it is the end of the world. Your world, or your perception of it as it used to be. Reality for the bereaved is predominantly stuck in the past, with the occasional forays into the future. The present seems too hard to contemplate; too painful to remain there for long. But the only way to get through these terribly sad times is to find a way to remain in the present for longer periods, despite the anguish. I remember looking at old family photos when I lost my father and for those moments I was sent back to the times when he was still alive in the physical world, something I didn’t want to confront at first. With the sudden cessation of his presence, I needed to reinforce the belief that he did exist. For the journey ahead I had to adapt to a world where he was not a member of anymore, and accept that from now on he can only exist within me.

But how do we find the strength to carry on? To indulge ourselves with friends and family again with the world a different one than it used to be. Time does heal most people as the emotional wounds of grief are eventually covered up by the very environment that we now interact without the deceased in it. We learn to live again, rebooted to function in the world because we have to. People may depend on us and we have to carry on. It’s a transition from one reality to another with which we get used to, but the journey there must be one of pain and suffering. It is in the suffering that we have to find a new meaning for us, a new purposeful goal to aim for.


I’ve been reading Viktor Frankl’s book ‘Man’s search for Meaning’ lately and it is truly an inspirational piece of work written by a man who survived the horrors of Auschwitz. He argued that if he had believed that life had no purpose or meaning he would not have survived. He had drafted a psychological manuscript just before he was sent to the infamous concentration camp and it was subsequently lost never to be recovered. The prospect of rewriting it when he got out gave him a purpose to survive. What also helped was his belief that his wife would be waiting for him when he got home, even though he knew that she too was held at Auschwitz, kept apart at the women’s barracks. Not all could achieve this and he witness many who literally lost the will to live. It must have taken great mental strength to overcome considering that most of the Jewish population in Europe were being sent to camps where the probability of non-survival was extremely high. He contemplated the reality to some that there would be no-one to come home to after mentally preparing such an event countless times.

“Woe to him who found that the person whose memory alone had given him courage in camp did not exist any more! Woe to him who, when the day of his dreams finally came, found it so different from all he had longed for! Perhaps he boarded a trolley, traveled out to the home which he had seen for years in his mind, and only his mind, and pressed the bell, just as he has longed to do in thousands of dreams, only to find that the person who should open the door was not there, and would never be there again.”

Viktor Frankl (1992)


He also highlighted the dangers inherent in a long confinement where the prisoner has no knowledge of when he will be released. Not knowing how long the incarceration would be prevents some from forming a goal for the future. The prisoners in Auschwitz and other death camps had no idea how long the war in Europe would last, and whether they would still be alive when that eventuality came. Death seemed to be the only outcome in such barbaric existence, but Frankl believed that man could still find meaning in such conditions. Most thought that meaning had been taken away from them but they failed to realise that meaning changes constantly. In Auschwitz they had to rethink and for different meanings for themselves, even when death was near. Frankl and others in the camp were intelligent enough to educate their fellow prisoners with techniques for survival and for those which helped cope with the suffering that ensued.

In a concentration camp situation, time seemed to be experienced differently. Many related the fact that a day seem to last longer than a week. There was so much repetition in the camp, work, fatigue and stress all played a part in making time seem endless.

These themes struck a chord with me about bereavement. I had often experienced distortions in time soon after the death of my father. In the week before the funeral the days seem to pass so slowly, which made that particular week seem like about two weeks. My father passed nearly five years ago and strangely, perhaps paradoxically, that time has flown by. But I’m really interested in how meaning can be thought of as a way of changing a mind state that appears to be lost and unrecoverable by a bereavement, to a perception of a future with a possibility of hope and fulfillment.

“This feeling of lifelessness was intensified by other causes in time, it was the limitlessness of the term of imprisonment which was most acutely felt; in space, the narrow limits of the prison. Anything outside the barbed wire became remote – out of reach and, in a way, unreal. The events and the people outside, all the normal life there, had a ghostly aspect for the prisoner. The outside life, that is, as much as he could see it, appeared to him almost as it might have to a dead man who looked at it from another world.”

Viktor Frankl (1992)

Doesn’t this sound like grief for a loved one to you? I often feel that clients perceive themselves as being trapped in a place where they cannot get out with no idea how long this grief period will last.

I had a client not so long ago, I’ll call her Jane though that is not her real name, who came to me with in severe grief over a much loved husband. The bereavement was fairly recent so her despair, anguish and hopelessness was raw and very prevailing. She was convinced that life would never be the same for her and indeed she was preparing to live the rest of her life dominated by the grief she was experiencing at this time, which was imprisoning her. I was as if she was looking from inside a confined space (her life with her husband was her world) and unable to integrate comfortably with others no matter how hard she tried. Week after week she sobbed for the life she had as part of a devoted and loving couple which she knew she could never reclaim or experience ever again. It was this particular reality that was plunging her into a deep pit of despair, and she could only forecast a continuation of this to the end of her days. She desperately wanted to know how long this period of black despair was going to last, a question I had no answer for her.

Jane’s meaning for existence centred on her life as a wife and as a loving partner to her husband. She cherished his existence as much as she did her own, if not more. Her self-esteem was on the low side and she had a history of pleasing others, sometimes on the verge of being taken advantage of. When her husband passed, she lost her only reason to live and indeed had thoughts of ending her life at her most darkest times. At this point, I could see that she was not in a position to be focusing on any future goals. She was still in the process of dealing with her loss, being still emotionally interconnected to her husband. We talked about the despair that descended on her during the previous week; the intensity of her emotions created a vivid picture of uncontrolled, unrelenting suffering. It wasn’t until after six months of counselling that she entered into a realm in her grief time that she began to see any benefits for the future.

“Meaning making is an important process for the grieving deaths that tend to challenge beliefs about oneself, others, and the world. Death can shatter the core of one’s life purposes, and it is important to discover and invent new meaning in the face of loss (Attig, 1996).

Worden (2009) 

As it turned out, Jane had already found a way to redirect her to a new meaning for her life before she started counselling. Prior to our first session, she had joined an internet bereavement site which encouraged sharing grief experiences and regular meetings with other members. As counselling continued she gradually became more involved with other members and in time was helping others with their grief.

She had found another meaning for her existence, contributing on forums and even attending a funeral with one of the site’s members. She had a found a reason for her existence; to help others get through what she had experienced. Her self-esteem seemed to have got better because she started to make decisions for herself. She now had a purpose, a task to accomplish with her life, and the understanding of her own suffering helped to assist others.

Throughout our sessions there was two redeemable features about Jane that gave me the confidence that she would get through her grief; her fortitude and determination. She never once looked like giving up even in the times when she was at her lowest. She fought through the suffering and perhaps she eventually realised that the suffering was unavoidable and necessary. As Nietzsche said,

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger”.

Viktor Frankl was in a unique position to ultimately pass on a fundamental insight into the strength of the human spirit, the very limits of emotional endurance. By some sheer luck and fortuitous situations he survived where it seemed impossible to, and passed on such a valuable percipience on existential psychology. Many have stated that the book is one of the most influential and life-changing ever written and I can understand why. His perceptions in the nature of suffering seems to lie in Buddhist philosophy where suffering is an unavoidable element of existence.

“Whoever we are, we cannot avoid painful experiences. We become sick, we get disappointed, and we lose people we love. We do not get what we want, and we die. This was the Buddha’s first understanding. More than this, though, these things are not shameful. They are inevitable parts of life and they are noble.”

Brazier (2003)

In bereavement we are forced into a suffering with which we need to cope and find a way to carry on fulfilling our lives.


Frankl’s ideas on meaning was turned into a psychotherapeutic approach which he termed logotherapy, a method dedicated to help people find meaning in their lives. What I like about logotherapy is that it comprises the humanistic doctrine of looking at the client’s experience rather than the direct, therapist led approach favoured by the psychoanalytic approach. If needed Frankl utilised the client’s established belief systems, religion for instance, as a way to find a way to help.

I would highly recommend reading ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’.


Frankl, Viktor E., “Man’s Search For Meaning”, (1992 – originally published 1959).

Worden, J. William, “Grief Counselling and Grief Therapy”, (2009, 4th Edition).

Brazier, Caroline, “Buddhist Psychology”, (2003).

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Relationships and Reality: Isolation within Bereavement

It goes without saying that when one enters a state of bereavement another reality is unavoidably entered. Through death, a shift in our perception of our world is forced upon us without our consent. We are faced with two choices; accept what has happened or deny it. Through the difficult early period of the grieving process, we are inundated with feelings and emotions; thoughts unregulated and impossible to avoid, searching for peace that can only be temporarily found by avoiding the present reality.

Counselling signpost

Grief and Relationships

The recovery from bereavement begins when the reality of life without the deceased is accepted, though the grief process starts at the point of death. Shock and bewilderment go hand in hand from the outset. But facing a reality that we never wanted to experience in the first place has a process that starts with illusion and denial, and finally acceptance. Everyone knows that death will happen at some point in the future, to us and others, but most of us prefer to neglect dealing with it until it happens to someone we care about. Living with the idea of your own demise can greatly help when grieving for a loved one. Accepting that death is a necessary part of the continuum of life helps to bring a sharper focus on the importance of the time that is left, and make the most of the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead.

Losing someone close to you changes the environment you live in, perhaps thrived in because of the special connection that existed between the bereaved and the deceased. Life does not feel the same and it probably never will. That is a stark and terrifying reality that has to be faced. It seems the more you loved that person the harder it feels to get through the grieving process. According to Martin Buber we are relational beings and do not exist as separate entities. We are born seeking relationships, perhaps trained in the womb when survival is so dependent on the connection with the mother. As we experience our life we form relationships with all objects that we encounter. Buber sees two possible relationships with the world: ‘I-Thou’, a relationship involving deep understanding with another being, and ‘I-It’, an uninvolved or even detached relationship with another. Who we are is dependent on which one of these relationship types we conduct with others. As Yalom explains,

“The I-Thou relationship is a wholly mutual relationship involving a full experiencing of the other…The very ‘I’ is different in the two situations. It is not the ‘I’ that has pre-eminent reality – an ‘I’ that can decide to relate to ‘Its’ or ‘Thous’ that are objects floating into one’s field of vision. No, the ‘I’ is ‘betweenness’; the ‘I’ appears and is shaped in the context of some relationship. Thus the ‘I’ is profoundly influenced by the relationship with the ‘Thou’. With each ‘Thou’ and with each moment of relationship, the ‘I’ is created anew.”

Irvin Yalom (1980)

This possibly explains the world of the bereaved when a significant loss is suffered. Enjoying an ‘I-Thou’ relationship is more meaningful than an ‘I-It’ one, heightening the severe grief than can follow. We have become (‘I’) and have been shaped by the other (‘Thou’) and have formed a mutual understanding, content at being the person the other wants us to be. This seemingly blissful arrangement has created an almost single organism, functioning and in sync with the world, living a life together, creating lasting memories that will one day feel painful, but then subside as precious incarnations of a life well lived.

Death is part of reality of which most of us find difficult to acknowledge it’s awareness. Of course, we know it exists and we encounter it’s effect a few times during our lifetime, but usually it is a taboo subject for many people. How many of us, for instance, have avoided making a will? Facing the reality of our eventual destruction is not something we want to consider every day, and we conveniently distract ourselves in order to save our delicate sanity. One way to deflect such a horrible scenario is to convince ourselves that we have plenty of time before the inevitable happens, that we will be safe from the grim reaper until we are of a certain age. At least that’s how I remember rationalising it when I was younger. When I got older I was conscious that people were dying of all ages and for different reasons. Life events such as marriage and children provide the markers in time that will bring the notion of death nearer to consciousness. In life we tend to have multiple worries to deal which, according to Yalom, replaces the underlying anxiety that is our own personal death.

“Primary death anxiety is rarely encountered in its original form in clinical work. Like nascent oxygen, it is rapidly transformed to another state. To ward off death anxiety, the young child develops protective mechanisms… which are denial-based, pass through several stages, and eventually consist of a highly complex set of mental operations that repress naked death anxiety and bury it under layers of such defensive operations as displacement, sublimation, and conversion. Occasionally some jolting experience in life tears a rent in the curtain of defenses and permits raw death anxiety to erupt into consciousness. Rapidly, however, the unconscious ego repairs the tear and conceals once again the nature of the anxiety.”

Irvin Yalom (1980)

This view may explain the concept of time as a natural healer. The shock of the reality of death is lessened as time progresses, the repairing of the tear in this new and uncomfortable reality is eventually healed by the normality of everyday engagements. We are therefore experts at deluding ourselves and for good reason. We would not survive or function efficiently if we couldn’t. For some the reality of life is sometimes as scary as that of eventual death itself. We will even believe in certain concepts in order to justify our reality, and cushion us from this harsh reality.

Religion is one effective method of relieving our anxiety about death. If we believe that there’s a beautiful place to go to when we die, and that we will meet up with family again and live an everlasting existence with God, wouldn’t that ease your worries about death a little bit? Religion and the belief in a heaven created by God can act as an effective crutch, evangelical medication if you will, that will hold the believer’s hand through the fearful transition from life to death.

I have no idea if a heaven exists, and it would be wrong of me to deny such a possibility. But I do depart from the believer’s view that heaven must have been created by a God, and I find it hard to seriously consider the sugar coating description of heaven as promoted by religions. The fact that there are many religions in the world, all of them professing to preach the true word of God, can’t all be right. There has to be some of them who making it up! If God existed, wouldn’t there be one truth, one religion to explain this truth? The competition between them is driving humanity to constant conflict, as attested by history. Religion takes a sinister path for me when the concept of Hell is introduced as a means of control and manipulation for the glory of personal greed, sin and power.

“All things are subject to interpretation whichever interpretation prevails at a given time is a function of power and not truth.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

I have no objection to anyone having a belief in God, despite my own misgivings about His existence. I have seen how powerful a belief in a deity has on people. I remember talking to a man who was absolutely convinced that he was visited by Jesus who appeared to him through his hospital window. Now, as a non-believer, I could have offered a variety of explanations to him how he could have experienced such a vision, but I was prepared to believe in his experience. I could see that it had given him something to hold onto in his life. I think that is not a bad thing to have. Everyone should have something or someone to believe in. As a non-believer, I believe in myself as the creator of my world and my destiny, and if I succeed or fail in my life the responsibility rests with me, rather than it be attributed to the intervention of an external unproven power.

Tree and couple


What compounds bereavement is the isolation that usually follows, especially when the loss is a life-partner. It homes in on the realisation that life from now on may well be a lonely and isolated existence. Many are unable to connect with new interactions or with those that they had a established bond with, even those that have endured for many years. Some of my clients have experienced this detachment from others which has reduced them to experience both anger, surprise and sadness in equal measures. In itself this is a further loss to deal with. They feel relegated to a lower status in the friendship hierarchy because they are no longer a part of a couple, and potentially become a threat to other relationships. This distancing causes resentment with the bereaved, a prejudice that they had not expected from people they thought they knew and would be there for them in times of need. The problem seems to be an inability to provide an emotional need to those who have become bereaved. The lack of support is interpreted negatively and leads to a re-evaluation of the relationship. The behaviour is misunderstood as a personal slight, and inevitably the relationship is affected, sometimes abandoned.

But there are more than one types of isolation. Irvin Yalom identified three, namely interpersonal, intrapersonal and existential isolation. Obviously loneliness is a natural by-product of a loss, and I feel that this is the biggest problem when faced with a life without a loved one by your side. We all suffer from isolation at some point in our lives. We can feel aloneness when we lose the ability to interact, or are involved with incompatible people etc., and we can feel detached to a specific part of our Self, a part that we keep hidden behind sophisticated defence mechanisms, caused by some psychological trauma or event. This is especially true when individuals lose the ability to make their own decisions, or are easily swayed to behave as others wish them to. They feel that there is a part of their true Self has been disassociated from the rest of the Self, sometimes so distant that it would be almost impossible to unite to become a whole again. This description sums it up for me.

“I am fifty-six and have been divorced for years. When I was still with my husband and told someone I was lonely they responded with “but you’re married.” I have learned the difference between being alone and lonely. In a crowd, at work, even in a family setting, I always feel lonely. It can be overwhelming at times, a physical sensation. My doctors have called it depression, but there is a difference. I read once, you are born alone and you die alone. But what about all the years in between? Can you really belong to someone else? Can you ever resolve the inner feeling of being alone? Shopping won’t do it. Eating won’t do it. Random sex doesn’t make it go away. If and when you find any answers, please write back and tell me.”

John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick (2008)

But what is existential isolation? It is true that it is slightly different to the other two just described, but it is possible that in some cases they can be interlinked. It refers to being alone even when you are encompassed by other people; it is a feeling of being not in tune with others, not on the same page as other people who exist around you.

“Existential isolation refers to an unbridgeable gulf between oneself and any other being. It refers, too, to an isolation even more fundamental – a separation between the individual and the world”.

Irvin Yalom (1980)

Drowning in grief, the bereaved individual has lost a sense of self as well as the physical loss. Who is left to give a meaning for existence now that the one person who truly understood has gone forever? The need to avoid isolation drives some to other relationships, but ones that are vulnerable because they are designed for needful functionality, a ‘I-It’ relationship, rather than one that has the foundation for growth.

Counselling session

Perhaps people innately need to have something or someone in their journey through life. Perhaps the ultimate goal of existing harmoniously is to seek companionship of some form or other, be it human or another form of relationship. Those who genuinely seek solace have accepted that being alone is what works best for them. They are quite happy to detach themselves from others. But some are led by circumstance to a life of isolation through no desire nor preference. Many unfortunate souls seek it through substance addiction, when they realise that human interaction is beyond their control, and their only alternative is to create a substitute shoulder to cry on.

If we truly are a species that relies heavily on the need to relate to others, then one can understand to some extent the pain of bereavement. If we become reliant on how others perceive us, as Cooley demonstrated in ‘Human Nature and the Social Order (1902) then our very identity is intertwined with the deceased, making the loss a deep and personal one. In effect we lose a major segment of our very own self-concept, and relying on our own true self can be a very daunting experience. For a majority of the time in grief we are still bonded to the deceased. We still feel the need to be connected to them to avoid any possible feelings, such as guilt. Here begins the real battle between the true self and the self-concept, contesting for the right to experience the necessary feelings that would appease both the memory of the deceased and the future actions of the survivor.

The grieving that occurs is for the bereaved as much as it is for the deceased, a self-concept fragmented and never to be re-attached to form the comfortable wholeness that existed previously. How life used to be can never be reclaimed and being alone, possibly for the remaining years, without the deceased is a prospect that is different to any other type of loneliness. One must accept the reality of this particular loneliness before moving on to another significant relationship.

“Individuals who are terrified of isolation generally attempt to assuage that terror an interpersonal mode: they need the presence of others to affirm their existence; they long to be swallowed by others greater than they, or they seek to alleviate their sense of lonely helplessness by swallowing others; they attempt to elevate themselves through others; they search for multiple sexual bondings – a caricature of authentic relating. In short, the individual who is flooded with isolation anxiety reaches out desperately for help through a relationship. The individual reaches out, not because he or she wants to but because he or she has to; and the ensuing relationship is based on survival not on growth. The tragic irony is that those who so desperately need the comfort and pleasure of an authentic relationship are the very ones least able to form such a relationship.”

Irvin Yalom (1980)

Some are dependent on the attention of others, to receive the gratifying injections of affirmations on a regular basis, in order to fuel their identity. This explains why many people suffering any kind of loss avoid being alone at all costs. When death denies some a partner who was loved, the resulting feelings of isolation and abandonment can be frightening because that unique bond that was shared has gone, and the new reality is unwanted and even resented. There is safety in relationships but it takes courage to face the loneliness that is first encountered and then to accept this future reality.


Irvin D Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy (1980).

John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (2008).

Charles Horton Cooley, Human Nature and the Social Order (1902)

Posted in Death, Death Anxiety, Isolation, Nietzsche, Reality, Yalom | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Reality of Death Anxiety: Personal Observations

As my existence travels through time, my subjective reality changes with it. Almost re-inventing, tweaking the aperture of my senses to form a new perspective on the world. Helping me along the way is the incredible knowledge I’m gathering through my counselling studies, client sessions and the observations of life around me. And what is life without the experiences of learning more each day as you exist? I’m glad that I’m not letting all this valuable stuff drift by me. I practice my awareness and attention every day which enriches my life experiences. As Martin Heidegger observed, the experience of life should be authentic, should be experienced as it truly is. By being authentic we can understand our connections to the world, the world of objects and other people. We can easily slip into a life of uninteresting repetativeness, hence well known sayings such as ‘where did all those years go?’

We have a tendency to let ourselves fall into mediocrity and averageness, living our lives like They do. This fallenness with others makes us inauthentic.”

Everyday Mysteries: Existential Dimensions of Psychotherapy (1997), p.39.

 I read an interesting comment from a recent interview given by the progressive rock musician Steven Wilson which struck a chord with me. He was answering a question relating to the fate of his superb rock group Porcupine Tree. Fans feared that his work on recent solo albums signal the end of the group as a musical outlet for him (PT have been making music since 1993). His answer was this. Would you like to work with the same people in the same job until your retirement? The impression I got from this comment was that he wants the freedom to do other things and make music with other musicians. Which is fair enough. I would concur with him that I feel the same way! I have always got itchy-feet after a certain amount of time in the employment I’ve been involved with. The thought of doing the same thing for 40 odd years is, well, not feel right for me. Other people I worked with seem to be content with the security their jobs brought to them, and quite prepared to be satisfied with this scenario. To me that would be accepting the fate of taking on a belief system that represented a two step hop into the grave. This job would take up a great majority of my life-time, and then, after retirement, death was ’round the corner. I could visualise a future time, with the years gone unnoticed and ordinary, when I would be nearer to death. I needed those years to be eventful, surprising and daring. I wanted uncharted possibilities not mundane safeness. I wanted to feel that death was always a long way off. What was the origin of this preoccupation?

Of course for many, many years I wondered why this bothered me but didn’t get anywhere near an answer until I read Irvin D. Yalom’s excellent book “Existential Psychotherapy” published back in 1980. It is an excellent book and a must for all budding therapists who have a particular leaning towards existentialism and the meaning of life. Yalom states that at some point in our lives we will suffer four existential issues that will bring anxiety; death, isolation, freedom and meaninglessness. Half of the book is dedicated to death, an universal anxiety, suffered by all but repressed so deep into our unconscious that we almost believe that death will never happen to us. These defence mechanisms are necessary for good reason. The ultimate truth in life is that death will come, sometime, but we have no way of knowing when this will happen. So why are we not worried about it 24/7? The defence mechanisms are doing a very good job, that’s why! They are there to make sure that we don’t constantly get reminded that we will die one day. So, we worry about other things to help mask this awful realisation.

Then, one day, I was struck by the classic ‘light-bulb’ moment.

I have an annoying, perplexing habit of starting projects and leaving them unfinished. In fact not only projects but also other everyday stuff such as stopping to watch the ending episodes of a TV series, odd jobs around the house etc. Books have been started and never reached the last page. In fact “Existential Psychotherapy” is one of them! Pen and ink drawings are half finished, some going back to the 1990’s. Writing projects with ideas formulated but not honed into works of possible merit. I realised that my employment record follows the same pattern. I could not envisage myself being awarded the dreaded gold watch at the end of a career spanning decades at one company. That future just didn’t seem to fit. But I never was concerned about promotion as such, probably saw it as the first step to being trapped in the same job. I did say trap, didn’t I? Talk about anxiety! Does this mean that money and status is unimportant to me? Yes they are! But it appears my death anxiety is stronger. Whether this job longevity existence naturally happened for others and not me I have no idea. I worked for local government on many ocassions so I could easily have stayed where I was and wait for that gold watch. And I was offered a promotion or two in that time. But I chose to opt for a different path to retirement. I made decisions that on reflection may not be wise. But did I unconsciously engineer my apathy to security and promotion because of my own death anxiety?

What is death anxiety?

Self explanatory really but put simply it consists of fears concerning the possibility of an afterlife, how death occurs and the existential notion of the finality of life; personal extinction(Yalom, p.43). Kierkegaard and May argue that the anxiety over death seeks a fear, creating something out of nothing (Yalom, p.43). Primary death anxiety is rarely identified as it usually hides itself under layers of other anxieties. A brush with death may cause the death anxiety to filter through the many layers of defence mechanisms and materialise briefly to consciousness, but the unconscious soon starts working on repairing this leakage and exchanged what has escaped through as secondary anxieties, such as self esteem issues or relationship problems. An example would be someone finding that they had been burgled, and had confronted the unwelcome guest during the burglary. Later, because of thoughts of what might have happened, such as being attacked or even killed, the person develops anxieties relating to security, over-checking locks and being preoccupied with being burgled again. These new anxieties have become a preoccupation and could lead to further anxieties or even turn to full blown mental disorders (OCD springs to mind).

How did I connect all the evidence? How did I rationalise it as possible death anxiety?

I think that by leaving things unfinished I have convinced my mind that I will have to return to them sometime in the future in order to finish the task. Of course to do so I have to be alive when that time comes. This illusion is protecting me from death; it’s keeping me from the reality that I am growing old and getting closer to the time of my death. Of course the genuine reality is that I will always have the time to do these things, and it is safe to finish what I started because there will be other projects to complete. This illusory misconception has spawned other irrational belief systems. For instance, if I finish all of my projects, what will I do after I have accomplished all that I want to do in life? Can I survive in a future where I have nothing else to do? What I can’t seem to grasp in the present is what will be available for me in the future. Who knows what may develop? Do novelists know what they will be writing about in 10 years time? Of course they don’t!

Another irrational belief, and I’m sure others may recognise, is that whenever something good happens, something bad will follow. This I can vouch has come from my childhood. I do remember having such thoughts that bad luck follows me wherever I go. This even reached and seemed to conspire the fates of people I knew or people connected to my family. In my early youth I noticed that people died around my birthday. Every year I paid particular attention to any news of people expiring in or around January 13th. I never contemplated the notion of coincidence, or that people die every day of the year, or that a lot of people suffered illnesses during the wintertime. I urgently checked with my mother if I was born on a Friday! No, a Sunday. I’m wondering if there is a connection between these belief systems, and whether they were covering up my death anxiety, even at my tender age.

So, if Yalom is correct, then I am really afraid of death but I’ve figured a way to safely keeping it behind powerful defence mechanisms. As long as those things I’ve left remain unfinished or that I don’t pursue a stupendous life I am safe from death. This has been part of my reality for a very long time and my behaviour has been controlled by my death anxiety. I do know that I am uncomfortable with this reality and have been for many years. It is preventing me from fulfilling some destiny that I am afraid to pursue. It’s preventing me from achieving the goals that will always be concepts in my mind deemed never to actually be realised.

All human beings experience death anxiety, but some experience such excessive amounts of it that it spills into many realms of their experience and results in heightened dysphoria and/or a series of defences against anxiety which constrict growth and often themselves generate secondary anxiety.”

Existential Psychotherapy (1980), p. 207

 Learning to drive has been a particular thorn in my conscious reality. I’m convinced that avoiding this is a direct result of my death anxiety. It fits the belief system. Passing the test would increase my life chances and whilst I see it as a future project instead of a present one, I will be safe from death. All this time I have thought that I feared crashing the car and inviting death in this way. Obviously the reasons were much more complex than that. Yalom describes one of his clients of whom I can relate to:

As the past disappears, so does the coil of the future shorten. Joyce’s husband helped her to freeze time-the future as well as the past. Though she was not conscious of it, it was clear that Joyce was frightened of using up the future. She had a habit, for example, of never quite completing a task: if she were doing housework, she always left one corner of the house uncleaned. She dreaded being ‘finished’”.

Existential Psychotherapy (1980), p. 46-47

 This sounds familiar and I could not help but compare the tale with my own experience. I live my life as if time never advances. I try to make each day the same and probably avoid new experiences from which I would enjoy and give my life a healthier meaning. This, I feel, is what I meant earlier by what is uncomfortable. My life slipping away without achieving anything substantial bothers me but I am frozen on the spot and unable to do anything about it. I feel guilty because I do not act towards fulfilling any satisfied destiny. It sounds to me as an example of existential guilt. I am afraid to live, essentially, by the fear of death, from which I am trying to protect myself from by trying to existentially freeze time. I am stuck as if in a time warp, unable to fulfil my destiny, because any attempt to do so will invite death closer. The end result is nothing gets achieved, or at best very slow progress towards it.

I have a burning desire to leave a mark on this world but not sure what it will be, or how to achieve it without fear. My children are one such legacy of which I am proud to have been a part of, but I feel I need to leave something creative. I have felt the dread of time running out, just as Joyce did, but for some reason it doesn’t make me get on with finishing things. I am fooled to believe that I have all the time in the world but the reality is that I don’t. Am I so deluded that I think I will live forever that I have an unlimited time? Am I experiencing the specialness that both Heidegger and Yalom wrote about.

The belief in personal specialness is extraordinarily adaptive and permits us to emerge from nature and to tolerate the accompanying dysphoria…Our belief in exemption from natural law underlies many aspects of our behaviour. It enhances courage in that it permits us to encounter danger without being overwhelmed by the threat of personal extinction.”

Existential Psychotherapy (1980), p.121

 “The key to becoming authentic is to face our own death and with it our own limitations. In the process of opening ourselves to this reality we find ourselves most truly.”

Everyday Mysteries: Existential Dimensions of Psychotherapy (1997), p.39.

 Whereas Yalom describes specialness in terms of a comforting irrational belief in immortality or the ultimate rescuer, Heidegger referred to human beings being able to face death as enabling a person to live life authentically. Becoming your unique self and realise that this is possible with only the dimensions of a mortal body is a way of overcoming the struggle it is to be human.

Now that I’ve identified my death anxiety I hope I can confront and accept the harrowing truth that I will die one day. I have to measure my life as a finite entity and use that time to complete what I set out to do. I have to believe that I will find a way to finish what I start and then hope that I can find further projects for me to fill whatever time I have left. I have come to see the world as a place of endless possibilities as long as I keep my mind open in order to find everything that I want to seek and do. Most of all I have to find the courage to live, to be not afraid of what might be, and to be more afraid of unfinished legacies. I must grasp the responsibility that comes with this courage and not fear rejection or the truth of failure. 


Yalom, Irvin D. ‘Existential Psychotherapy, (1980) Basic Books.

Deurzen, Emmy van, ‘Everyday Mysteries: Existential Dimensions of Psychotherapy’ (1997) Routledge.

Posted in Death, Death Anxiety, Reality | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments