Ultimate Satisfaction and Therapy

This is the tenth and final post in a series on Worlds, as understood by Descriptive Psychologists.

Pathologies of ultimate satisfaction suggest a somewhat different orientation to therapy. This final post in the Worlds series will touch briefly on some aspects of this orientation.

First, some disclaimers:

  1. Not all pathology is connected to ultimate satisfaction. Many persons who seek and benefit from therapy experience living in a world that makes sense to them, and they find themselves significantly restricted in their ability to participate in that world.
  2. I am not proposing a new school or approach to therapy. To the extent these thoughts have any utility at all, they very likely will be useful to seasoned therapists from a broad variety of approaches.
  3. You do not need to be a therapist to find these thoughts useful and applicable.
  4. Each thought is stated and briefly expanded; they are meant to be evocative, not complete. A thorough exploration would require at least a very long paper or a short book.

I’m using “therapy” here to refer to a course-of-action intended to help a person in a pathological condition move out of it. In this sense therapy is “done” when the person is no longer in a pathological condition. (The benefit that may accrue from continuing a therapeutic relationship in post-pathological circumstances is an entirely different topic.)

Pathologies of ultimate satisfaction involve a person who lacks a world that makes direct experiential sense, in which they experience their place in the world as fitting them well. Therapy, then, focuses on changing that. Some implications, in the form of slogans:

Focus on the person’s world. Most of traditional therapy is person-centric; it focuses on the client’s behavior, relationships and history. There is nothing at all wrong with this. Indeed, being person-centric is an explicit value for many therapists. But for pathologies of ultimate satisfaction this orientation is a bit like looking under the streetlight for the keys you lost in your garage – it’s easier to look for the keys where the light is better, but you’re not going to find them there.

The shift from person-centric is not a radical new insight. Family systems therapists over 40 years ago advocated focusing therapy on family dynamics – the primal community, if you will – instead of on the individual client. Modern social work often focuses on connecting the client with community resources.

I am suggesting going a bit further: focusing on the world of the client’s community and the client’s place in it. How does that world make sense to other community members, and what is different for the client? What is the client’s place in that world, and how well does it fit them? What would it take to change their place to one they can enact with satisfaction? Issues of eligibility and status-assignment loom large here; many clients have little awareness of their own capacity for self-status assigning. Have they in fact concluded that this community’s world is fundamentally flawed – it does not and cannot have a satisfying place for them, or it does not align with the world as they have come to know it?

Change the world, not the person. This may sound as if I am suggesting performing magic. I am not – or if I am, it’s just ordinary magic, the kind highly competent individuals do all the time. I am referring here to the Actor’s world of possibilities and non-possibilities for behavior, rooted in the world of his community. And the change we are looking for is from a world in which the Actor does not experience ultimate satisfaction to a world that in which she does.

Since every world is some community’s world, changing the person’s world involves either changing their community or changing their place in the community they already have. By the time most people reach therapy they have likely exhausted the approaches to changing their place to one that fits; changing the community is often the more readily available effective approach.

Bertrand Russell found the world of logic at an early age, rescuing him from a nightmarish world that made no sense. He did so by participating in the practices of the community of logicians – proving theorems, reading works by logicians, applying logic to everyday problems – and experiencing deep satisfaction in doing so. My friend Levi left the Mormon community in his 30’s to take his place in a community of humanist thinkers and practitioners, whose practices aligned with the world as he had come to know it.

Addicts who join recovery programs like Alcoholics Anonymous find themselves participating in a community with a complex set of practices: attending meetings, working with (and as) sponsors, working the twelve steps, telling their story and witnessing others telling theirs. As they get past the initial physiological and/or emotional effects of quitting their addictive behaviors, many find that the world of this community makes sense to them; they experience a deep, satisfying sense of belonging in this community, in a place that fits them well without engaging in their addiction. Some cynics say AA members swap one addiction for another – alcohol for AA. It may be more appropriate to say they have swapped a world that only makes sense when they are using (if at all) for a world that makes sense. It may not be a world that appeals to an outsider, but then, that’s probably true of most worlds.

Something comparable is seen in “conversion experiences” in which an important tenet of a religion or philosophy is suddenly, directly experienced as real (by contrast with merely believed to be real.) One experiences the ultimate satisfaction of a true member of the faith; the world in fact makes sense, and one takes one’s rightful place in it. Often this is all it takes to resolve a pathology of ultimate satisfaction. But membership in a religious community carries with it a complex set of practices, roles and beliefs. Sometimes participating in these does not yield the satisfaction of the conversion experience and may even seem antithetical to it. In this case the new convert may break with the community and seek one in which the practices better align with the person’s own experience of ultimate satisfaction. The proliferation since the 1960’s of new churches and spiritual communities in America can perhaps be understood as a search for community in which ultimate satisfaction is real and available.

Engage the Actor. Peter Ossorio famously stated that “Status assignments are impervious to fact.” Ultimate satisfaction has little if anything to do with the Observer/Critic world. Accordingly, therapy that engages the Observer/Critic, focused on cognitions, beliefs, doctrines, reasoning or any variety of fact is poorly suited to pathologies of ultimate significance. The key, to cite another of Ossorio’s admonitions, is to “Engage the Actor.”

A person becomes a member of a community by participating in it. At first one participates as an outsider or aspirant; experiencing the satisfaction that accompanies actual participation comes with practice. But in every case – and this is the link to therapy – the participation involves engaging in social practices with at least one person who is a full-fledged member, who in fact does experience the satisfaction of participation. If you are to help someone experience the sense your community’s world makes, you must experience it yourself as you interact.

This suggests that therapy for pathologies of ultimate satisfaction might best be done in a non-traditional relationship: more guide or coach or mentor than therapist. The difference is in the degree of involvement in the client’s life. Traditional therapists are trained to keep an appropriate distance in the therapeutic relationship. As such, there are limited opportunities to engage the Actor. Milton Erickson famously engaged the client’s Actor via subconscious suggestion; Ossorio used a variety of Status Dynamic methods. These methods can help a client experience their place in the world in a different, satisfying light; they are much less useful when a new world is called for. For that, it seems therapy takes the form of initiation.

Example: a growing community of eco-psychologists offer retreats and workshops for the purpose of “soul-encounter”. Participants are guided by experienced members through rituals and methods designed to deeply engage them in personal encounter with their deepest aspects, or “soul.” Participants consistently experience a breakthrough insight in which the world and their place in it makes new, profoundly different sense. Their world makes sense, and they experience ultimate satisfaction in participating in it.

Of course, they usually face the significant task of living in this new world while still living in their old communities, but then no-one said living was easy – we just want an actual opportunity to live our life in a world that makes sense. Or to quote another of Ossorio’s slogans: “Don’t count on the world to be simpler than it has to be.”



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