Personality Theory:
A Biosocial Approach

C. George Boeree, PhD
Psychology Department
Shippensburg University

© Copyright C. George Boeree 2009


It is somewhat surprising that, for all the variation in theories, there is considerable agreement regarding therapy.

First, there is an emphasis on self-awareness or, as Freud put it, making the unconscious conscious. We encourage our clients to understand their biological, social, and personal unconscious and related motivations, to examine the conflicts between their needs and the standards society and they themselves impose, and to look behind their defensive posturings.

We are also taught to encourage our clients to discover more conscious, higher motivations - meaning the development of competence, creativity, and compassion, becoming valuable to oneself and to others....

And the means of therapy?  We are taught to use genuinely caring dialog, and to provide support (not management or control) with a goal of eventual autonomy for the client.

Now, each theory has its own set of preferred techniques.  Some, such as the radical behaviorist approach, insist that techniques are all you need.  Others, such as Rogers’ approach, suggest that you don’t need techniques at all, just an empathic, respectful, and honest personal presence.  Probably the majority of therapists, however, follow the middle path and use a few techniques that they have found useful and that fit their clients’ and their own personalities.

In addition, we now have a fairly reliable set of drugs that appear to help.  Our understanding of the physiological bases for psychological problems has been growing rapidly, and, while that understanding is far from complete, it has allowed us to help people more effectively.  Most therapists are still hesitant to rely entirely on medications, perhaps rightly so.  But these medications certainly seem to help in emergency situations and for those whose suffering just doesn't respond to our talk therapies.

Next, let's take a look at some of the better known forms of therapy.

Sigmund Freud

Freud (with his friend Joseph Breuer and Breuer's client Bertha Pappenheim, better known as "Anna O") invented psychotherapy.  That's why we still keep him in our hearts - even thought he was wrong about so many things.  The basic idea is very simple:  Provide the patient with a comfortable physical environment and a safe social environment.  That's the idea behind the famous couch and the reason for the tapestries on the walls of Freud's office, and the reason he sat out-of-view of the patient.  Then, let the patient talk about whatever comes to mind - free association.  He or she will inevitably drift towards his deeper concerns, while a direct attack would simply cause resistance.  Help the client make sense of such clues to the unconscious as dreams, accidents, and slips of the tongue (Freudian slips, of course).  Encourage the patient to bring the unresolved unconscious conflicts into the open by allowing him or her to express these feelings to the therapist (transference).  Help the client to reexperience the original trauma in the safety of the therapy situation (catharsis).  And help him or her to understand the source of the trauma and lay the experience back to rest (insight).

For all the criticism we sometimes heap on old Sigmund, this isn't far from what we all do as therapists.  His particular form of therapy worked best for the conversion disorders experienced by many of his upper-class young female patients suffering, as they did, from the repression of their natural sexuality.  Of course, it wasn't as effective with other types of neurosis.

Carl Jung

Another common theme in therapy is the idea of balance.  This idea goes all the way back to the ancients.  The Greek's theory of health emphasized that your bodily fluids, called humors, needed to be kept in balance.  If one humor or another were to gain dominance, the result is ill-health, including psychological problems.  Chinese and Indian traditional medicine also emphasizes this balance or harmony of parts.

Carl Jung's entire theory revolves around balance, especially between anima and animus (one's feminine and masculine aspects) and between the ego (one's individuality) and the shadow (one's biology).  The former in particular has received a great deal of attention and empirical support:  Androgenous people (those who combine qualities of both the "feminine" and the "masculine") appear to be mentally healthier.  The latter also has support:  For example, people who are able to think in "shades of gray" are much more mature than those who see everything as black and white, good vs. evil, us vs. them.

Otto Rank

Otto Rank was another one of Freud's close associates, and his theory picks out one particular form of balance that would inspire many other theorists.  He was interested in the minds of artists - famous painters, musicians, and writers.  On the one hand, Rank says, the artist has a particularly strong tendency towards glorification of his own will.  Unlike the rest of us, he feels compelled to remake reality in his own image.  And yet a true artist also desires immortality, which he can only achieve by identifying himself with the collective will of his culture and religion.  Good art could be understood as a joining of the material and the spiritual, the specific and the universal, or the individual and humanity.

This joining doesn't come easily, though.  It begins with the will, Rank's word for the ego, but an ego imbued with power.  We are all born with a will to be ourselves, to be free of domination.  In early childhood, we exercise our will in our efforts to do things independently of our parents.  Later, we fight the domination of other authorities, including the inner authority of our sexual drives.  How our struggle for independence goes determines the type of person we become.  Rank describes three basic types:

First, there is the adapted type.  These people learn to "will" what they have been forced to do.  They obey authority, their society's moral code, and, as best as they can, their sexual impulses.  This is a passive, duty-bound creature that Rank suggests is, in fact, the average person.

Second, there is the neurotic type.  These people have a much stronger will than the average person, but it is totally engaged in the fight against external and internal domination.  They even fight the expression of their own will, so there is no will left over to actually do anything with the freedom won.  Instead, they worry and feel guilty about being so "willful."  They are, however, at a higher level of moral development than the adapted type.

Third, there is the productive type, which Rank also refers to as the artist, the genius, the creative type, the self-conscious type, and, simply, the human being.  Instead of fighting themselves, these people accept and affirm themselves, and create an ideal, which functions as a positive focus for will.  The artist creates himself or herself, and then goes on to create a new world as well.

To explain the roots of these types, Rank suggested that we all have within us two conflicing instincts, which he call the life instinct and the death instinct.  The "life instinct" pushes us to become individuals, competent and independent.  The "death instinct" pushes us to be part of a family, community, or humanity.  We also feel an aversion to each:  The "fear of life" is the fear of separation, loneliness, and alienation;  the "fear of death" is the fear of getting lost in the whole, stagnating, being no-one. 

Alfred Adler

There are considerable differences between Adler's therapy and Freud's: First, Adler preferred to have everyone sitting up and talking face to face. Further, he went to great lengths to avoid appearing too authoritarian. In fact, he advised that the therapist never allow the patient to force him into the role of an authoritarian figure, because that allows the patient to play some of the same games he or she is likely to have played many times before: The patient may set you up as a savior, only to attack you when you inevitably reveal your humanness. By pulling you down, they feel as if they are raising themselves, with their neurotic lifestyles, up.

This is essentially the explanation Adler gave for resistance: When a patient forgets appointments, comes in late, demands special favors, or generally becomes stubborn and uncooperative, it is not, as Freud thought, a matter of repression. Rather, resistance is just a sign of the patient's lack of courage to give up their neurotic lifestyle.

The patient must come to understand the nature of his or her lifestyle and its roots in self-centered fictions. This understanding or insight cannot be forced: If you just tell someone "look, here is your problem!" he or she will only pull away from you and look for ways of bolstering their present fictions. Instead, A patient must be brought into such a state of feeling that he likes to listen, and wants to understand. Only then can he be influenced to live what he has understood. (Ansbacher and Ansbacher, 1956, p. 335.) It is the patient, not the therapist, who is ultimately responsible for curing him- or herself.

The goal is to help the client realize his or her own self - his or her "style of life" as Adler put it. Style of life refers to how you live your life, how you handle problems and interpersonal relations. Here's what he himself had to say about it: "The style of life of a tree is the individuality of a tree expressing itself and molding itself in an environment. We recognize a style when we see it against a background of an environment different from what we expect, for then we realize that every tree has a life pattern and is not merely a mechanical reaction to the environment."

Finally, the therapist must encourage the patient, which means awakening his or her social interest, and the energy that goes with it. By developing a genuine human relationship with the patient, the therapist provides the basic form of social interest, which the patient can then transfer to others.

Carl Rogers

Carl Rogers is best known for his contributions to therapy.  His therapy has gone through a couple of name changes along the way:  He originally called it non-directive, because he felt that the therapist should not lead the client, but rather be there for the client while the client directs the progress of the therapy.  As he became more experienced, he realized that, as "non-directive" as he was, he still influenced his client by his very "non-directiveness!"  In other words, clients look to therapists for guidance, and will find it even when the therapist is trying not to guide.

So he changed the name to client-centered.  He still felt that the client was the one who should say what is wrong, find ways of improving, and determine the conclusion of therapy - his therapy was still very "client-centered" even while he acknowledged the impact of the therapist.  Unfortunately, other therapists felt that this name for his therapy was a bit of a slap in the face for them:  Aren't most therapies "client-centered?"

Nowadays, though the terms non-directive and client-centered are still used, most people just call it Rogerian therapy.  One of the phrases that Rogers used to describe his therapy is "supportive, not reconstructive," and he uses the analogy of learning to ride a bicycle to explain:  When you help a child to learn to ride a bike, you can't just tell them how.  They have to try it for themselves.  And you can't hold them up the whole time either.  There comes a point when you have to let them go.  If they fall, they fall, but if you hang on, they never learn.

It's the same in therapy.  If independence (autonomy, freedom with responsibility) is what you are helping a client to achieve, then they will not achieve it if they remain dependent on you, the therapist.  They need to try their insights on their own, in real life beyond the therapist's office!  An authoritarian approach to therapy may seem to work marvelously at first, but ultimately it only creates a dependent person.

There is only one technique that Rogerians are known for:  reflection.  Reflection is the mirroring of emotional communication:  If the client says "I feel like shit!" the therapist may reflect this back to the client by saying something like "So, life's getting you down, hey?"  By doing this, the therapist is communicating to the client that he is indeed listening and cares enough to understand.

The therapist is also letting the client know what it is the client is communicating.  Often, people in distress say things that they don't mean because it feels good to say them.  For example, a woman once came to me and said "I hate men!"  I reflected by saying "You hate all men?"  Well, she said, maybe not all - she didn't hate her father or her brother or, for that matter, me.  Even with those men she "hated," she discovered that the great majority of them she didn't feel as strongly as the word hate implies.  In fact, ultimately, she realized that she didn't trust many men, and that she was afraid of being hurt by them the way she had been by one particular man.

Reflection must be used carefully, however.  Many beginning therapists use it without thinking (or feeling), and just repeat every other phrase that comes out of the client's mouth.  They sound like parrots with psychology degrees!  Then they think that the client doesn't notice, when in fact it has become a stereotype of Rogerian therapy the same way as sex and mom have become stereotypes of Freudian therapy.  Reflection must come from the heart - it must be genuine, congruent.

Which brings us to Rogers' famous requirements of the therapist.  Rogers felt that a therapist, in order to be effective, must have three very special qualities:

1.  Congruence - genuineness, honesty with the client.
2.  Empathy - the ability to feel what the client feels.
3.  Respect - acceptance, unconditional positive regard towards the client.

He says these qualities are "necessary and sufficient:"  If the therapist shows these three qualities, the client will improve, even if no other special "techniques" are used.  If the therapist does not show these three qualities, the client's improvement will be minimal, no matter how many "techniques" are used.  Now this is a lot to ask of a therapist!  They're just human, and often enough a bit more "human" (let's say unusual) than most.  Rogers does give in a little, and he adds that the therapist must show these things in the therapy relationship.  In other words, when the therapist leaves the office, he can be as "human" as anybody.

I happen to agree with Rogers, even though these qualities are quite demanding.  Some of the research does suggest that techniques don't matter nearly as much as the therapist's personality, and that, to some extent at least, therapists are "born" not "made."

George Kelly

Therapy is a matter of freeing clients from the dead-end perceptions and behaviors and cognitions and emotions they have set up to protect themselves from the hardships of life.  Snygg and Combs once said that "Therapy is the provision of a facilitating situation wherein the normal drive of the organism for maintenance or enhancement of organization is freed to operate."  This can be done by active intervention by a therapist or by enabling the client to discover his or her own differentiations, depending on the individual's needs.

If a person's problem is poor construction, then the solution should be reconstruction, a term Kelly was tempted to use for his style of therapy. Psychotherapy involves getting the client to reconstrue, to see things in a different way, from a new perspective, one that allows the choices that lead to elaboration.

Kellian therapists essentially ask their clients to join them in a series of experiments concerning the clients' life styles. They may ask their clients to loosen their constructs, to slip them around, to test them, to tighten them up again, to "try them on for size." The intent is to encourage movement, essential for any progress.

Kelly, with his background in drama, liked to use role-playing (or enactment) to encourage movement. He might take the part of your mother and have you express your feelings. After a while, he might ask you to reverse roles with him - you be your mother, and he'll be you! In this way, you become aware of your own construction of your relationship and your mother's construction. Perhaps you will begin to understand her, or see ways in which you might adapt. You may come to a compromise, or discover an entirely new perspective that rises above both.

Kelly's therapy often involves home-work, things he would ask you to do outside the therapy situation. His best known technique is called fixed-role therapy. First, he asks you for a description of yourself, a couple of pages in the third person, which he calls the character sketch. Then he constructs, perhaps with the help of a colleague, another description, called the fixed-role sketch, of a pretend person.

He writes this sketch by examining your original sketch carefully and using constructs that are "at right angles" to the constructs you used. This means that the new constructs are independent of the original ones, but they are used in a similar way, that is, they refer to the same range of elements.

If, for example, I use genius-idiot as a construct in dealing with people, I don't give them a lot of room to be somewhere in between, and I don't allow much for change. And, since we use the same constructs on ourselves as we use for others, I don't give myself much slack either. On a really good day, I might call myself a genius. On most days, I'd have no choice, if I used such a dramatic construct, but to call myself an idiot. And idiots stay idiots; they don't turn into geniuses. So, I'd be setting myself up for depression, not to mention for a life with very few friends.

Kelly might write a fixed-role sketch with a construct like skilled-unskilled. This is a much more "humane" construct than genius-idiot. It is much less judgmental: A person can, after all, be skilled in one area, yet unskilled in another. And it allows for change: If I find that I am unskilled in some area of importance, I can, with a little effort, become skilled.

Anyway, Kelly would then ask his client to be the person described in the fixed-role sketch for a week or two. Mind you, this is a full time commitment: He wants you to be this person 24 hours a day, at work, at home, even when you're alone. Kelly found that most people are quite good at this, and even enjoy it. After all, this person is usually much healthier than they are!

Should the client come back and say "Thank you, doc! I believe I'm cured. All I need to do now is be "Dave" instead of "George" for the rest of my life," Kelly would have a surprise in store: He might ask that person to play another fixed-role for a couple of weeks, one that might not be so positive. That's because the intent of this play-acting is not that the therapist give you a new personality. That would quickly come to nothing. The idea is to show you that you do, in fact, have the power to change, to "choose yourself."

Kellian therapy has, as its goal, opening people up to alternatives, helping them to discover their freedom, allowing them to live up to their potentials. For this reason, and many others, Kelly fits most appropriately among the humanistic psychologists.

Albert Ellis

Ellis sees neurosis as based on the presence of three main irrational beliefs:

1.  “I must be outstandingly competent, or I am worthless.”
2.  “Others must treat me considerately, or they are absolutely rotten.”
3.  “The world should always give me happiness, or I will die.”

The therapist uses his or her skills to argue against these irrational ideas in therapy, or, even better, leads the client to make the arguments.  For example, the therapist may ask...

1.  Is there any evidence for this belief?
2.  What is the evidence against this belief?
3.  What is the worst that can happen if you give up this belief?
4.  And what is the best that can happen?

In addition to argument, the REBT therapist uses any other techniques that assist the client in changing their beliefs.  They might use group therapy, use unconditional positive regard, provide risk-taking activities, assertiveness training, empathy training, perhaps using role playing techniques to do so, encourage self-management through behavior modification techniques, use systematic desensitization, and so on.

Ellis has come to emphasize more and more the importance of what he calls “unconditional self-acceptance.”  He says that, in REBT, no one is damned, no matter how awful their actions, and we should accept ourselves for what we are rather than for what we have achieved.

One approach he mentions is to convince the client of the intrinsic value of him or herself as a human being.  Just being alive provides you with value.

He notes that most theories make a great deal out of self-esteem and ego-strength and similar concepts.  We are naturally evaluating creatures, and that is fine.  But we go from evaluating our traits and our actions to evaluating this vague holistic entity called “self.”  How can we do this?  And what good does it do?  Only harm, he believes.

There are, he says, legitimate reasons for promoting one’s self or ego:  We want to stay alive and be healthy, we want to enjoy life, and so on.  But there are far more ways in which promoting the self or ego does harm, as exemplified by these irrational beliefs:

I am special or I am damned.
I must be loved or cared for.
I must be immortal.
I am either good or bad.
I must prove myself.
I must have everything that I want.

He believes very strongly that self-evaluation leads to depression and repression, and avoidance of change.  The best thing for human health is that we should stop evaluating ourselves altogether!

But perhaps this idea of a self or an ego is overdrawn.  Ellis is quite skeptical about the existence of a “true” or “real” self, ala Horney or Rogers.  He especially dislikes the idea that there is a conflict between a self promoted by actualization versus one promoted by society.  In fact, he says, one’s nature and one’s society are more likely to be mutually supporting than antagonistic.

He certainly sees no evidence for a transpersonal self or soul.  Buddhism, for example, does quite well without it! And he is skeptical about the altered states of consciousness mystical traditions and transpersonal psychology recommend.  In fact, he sees these states as being more inauthentic than transcendent!

On the other hand, he sees his approach as coming out of the ancient Stoic tradition, and supported by such philosophers as Spinoza.  He sees additional similarities in existentialism and existential psychology.  Any approach that puts the responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the individual and his or her beliefs is likely to have commonalities with Ellis’s REBT.

Existential Therapy

Existential psychologists make a point of discovering their client's world view (or world design). This is not a matter of discussing a person's religion or philosophy of life, necessarily. They want to know about your Lebenswelt, Husserl's word for "lived world." He is looking for a concrete, everyday world view.

Ludwig Binswanger will, for example, try to understand how you see your Umwelt or physical world - things, buildings, trees, furniture, gravity....

He will want to understand your Mitwelt, or social world, as well. Here we are talking about your relations to individuals, to community, to culture, and so on.

And he will want to understand your Eigenwelt or personal world. This includes both mind and body, whatever you feel is most central to your sense of who you are.

Binswanger also talks about different modes: Some people live in a singular mode, alone and self-sufficient. Others live in a dual mode, as a "you and me" rather than an "I." Some live in a plural mode, thinking of themselves in terms of their membership in something larger than themselves - a nation, a religion, an organization, a culture. Still others live in an anonymous mode, quiet, secretive, in the background of life. And most of us live in all these modes from time to time and place to place.

Our relationship with others is as important to existential psychologist Medard Boss as it is to Binswanger.  We are not individuals locked up inside our bodies; We live rather in a shared world, and we illuminate each other.  Human existence is shared existence.

While Binswanger likes to use Heidegger's Umwelt, Mitwelt, and Eigenwelt, Boss prefers Heidegger's existentials, the things in life that we all have to deal with.  He is interested, for example, in how people see space and time - not the physical space and time of measured distances and clocks and calendars, but human space and time, personal space and time.  Someone from long ago, who now lives far away, may be closer to you than the person next to you right now.

He is interested in your view of time.  He would like to know how you view your past, present, and future.  Do you live in the past, forever trying to recapture those golden days?  Or do you live in the future, always preparing or hoping for a better life?  Do you see your life as a long, complex adventure?  Or a brief flash - here today, gone tomorrow?

Also of interest is the way you treat space. Is your world open, or is it closed? Is it cozy or is it vast? Is it warm or cold? Do you see life as movement, as a matter of journeys and adventures, or do you see it from an immovable center? None of these things mean anything all by themselves, of course, but combined with everything else, learned in the intimate relationship of therapy, they can mean a great deal.

Boss is also interested in how we relate to our bodies.  My openness to the world will be expressed by my bodily openness and my extension of my body out into the world, what he calls my "bodying forth."

A particularly "Bossian" concern is mood or attunement:  Boss suggested that, while we are always illuminating the world, we sometimes illuminate one thing more than another, or illuminate with different hues.  It's no different from how we try to set a certain mood by lighting a room one way rather than another.

For example, if you are in an angry mood, you are "attuned" to angry things, angry thoughts, angry actions; you "see red."  If you are in a cheerful mood, you are "attuned" to cheerful things, and the world seems "sunny."  If you are hungry, all you see is food; if you are anxious, all you see are threats.

As you can see, the language of existential analysis is metaphor. Life is much too big, much too rich, to be captured by anything so crude as prose. My life is certainly too rich to be captured in words that you thought up before you even met me! Existential therapists allow their clients to reveal themselves, disclose themselves, in their own words, in their own time.

Boss has studied dreams more than any other existentialist, and considers them important in therapy.  But instead of interpreting them as Freudians or Jungians do, he allows them to reveal their own meanings.  Everything is not hiding behind a symbol, hiding from the always-present censor.  Instead, dreams show us how we are illuminating our lives:  If we feel trapped, our feet will be bound by cement; if we feel free, we will fly; if we feel guilty, we will dream about sin; if we feel anxious, we will be chased by frightening things.  Existentialists might suggest that you let your dreams inspire you, let them guide you, let them suggest their own meanings. They may mean nothing, and they may mean everything.

The essence of existential therapy is the relationship between the therapist and the client, called an encounter. An encounter is the genuine presence of one Dasein to another, an "opening up" of one to the other. Unlike more "formal" therapies, such as Freud's, or more "technical" ones, such as the behaviorists', an existential therapist is likely to be involved with you. Transference and countertransference are seen as natural parts of the encounter, not to be abused, of course, but not to be avoided either.

On the other hand, humanists might find the existential therapist more formal than they, and more directive. The existential therapist is more likely to be "natural" with you - often quietly listening, but sometimes expressing their own thoughts, experiences, even emotions. "Being natural" also means acknowledging the differences between you. The therapist has the training and the experience, after all, and it is the client (presumably) who has the problems! Existential therapy is seen as a dialog, and not a monologue by the therapist, nor a monologue by the client.

But existential analysis has as its goal the autonomy of the client. Like teaching children to ride a bicycle, you may have to hold them up for a while, but eventually you have to let them go. They may well fall down, but if you never let them go, they will never learn to ride! If the "essence" of Dasein - being human - is freedom and responsibility for one's own life, then you can't help people become more fully human unless you are prepared to release them.

Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl is nearly as well known for certain clinical details of his approach as for his overall theory.  The first of these details is a technique known as paradoxical intention, which is useful in breaking down the neurotic vicious cycles brought on by anticipatory anxiety and hyperintention.

Paradoxical intention is a matter of wishing the very thing you are afraid of.  A young man who sweated profusely whenever he was in social situations was told by Frankl to wish to sweat.  “I only sweated out a quart before, but now I’m going to pour at least ten quarts!” (1973, p. 223) was among his instructions.  Of course, when it came down to it, the young man couldn’t do it.  The absurdity of the task broke the vicious cycle.

The capacity human beings have of taking an objective stance towards their own life, or stepping outside themselves, is the basis, Frankl tells us, for humor.  And, as he noted in the camps, "Humor was another of the soul's weapons in the fight for self-preservation."  (1963, p. 68)

Another example concerns sleep problems:  If you suffer from insomnia, according to Frankl, don’t spend the night tossing and turning and trying to sleep.  Get up!  Try to stay up as long as you can!  Over time, you’ll find yourself gratefully crawling back into bed.

A second technique is called dereflection.  Frankl believes that many problems stem from an overemphasis on oneself.  By shifting attention away from oneself and onto others, problems often disappear.  If, for example, you have difficulties with sex, try to satisfy your partner without seeking your own gratification.  Concerns over erections and orgasms disappear - and satisfaction reappears!  Or don’t try to satisfy anyone at all.  Many sex therapists suggest that a couple do nothing but “pet,” avoiding orgasms "at all costs."  These couples often find they can barely last the evening before what they had previously had difficulties with simply happens!

Frankl insists that, in today's world, there is far too much emphasis on self-reflection.  Since Freud, we have been encouraged to look into ourselves, to dig out our deepest motivations.  Frankl even refers to this tendency as our "collective obsessive neurosis." (1975, p. 95)  Focusing on ourselves this way actually serves to turn us away from meaning!

For all the interest these techniques have aroused, Frankl insists that, ultimately, the problems these people face are a matter of their need for meaning.  So, although these and other techniques are a fine beginning to therapy, they are not by any means the goal.

"(H)uman existence - at least as long as it has not been neurotically distorted - is always directed to something, or someone, other than itself - be it a meaning to fulfill or another human being to encounter lovingly." (1975, p. 78)  Frankl calls this self-transcendence, and contrasts it with self-actualization as Maslow uses the term.  Self-actualization, even pleasure and happiness, are side-effects of self-transcendence and the discovery of meaning.

Rollo May

For the American Existential psychologist Rollo May, the most important motive for most people is eros.  Eros is love (not sex), and in Greek mythology was a minor god pictured as a young man (who the Victorians wouls later transform into that annoying little pest, Cupid).  May understood love as the need we have to “become one” with another person, and refers to an ancient Greek story by Aristophanes:  People were originally four-legged, four-armed, two-headed creatures.  When we became a little too prideful, the gods split us in two, male and female, and cursed us with the never-ending desire to recover our missing half!

Just like with Rank, another important concept for May is will, which he defines as the ability to organize oneself in order to achieve one’s goals.  This makes will roughly synonymous with ego and reality-testing, but with its own store of energy, as in ego psychology.

Another definition of will is “the ability to make wishes come true.”  Wishes are “playful imaginings of possibilities,” and are manifestations of our daimons.  Many wishes, of course, come from eros.  But they require will to make them happen!  Hence, we can see three “personality types” coming out of our relative supply, you might say, of our wishes for love and the will to realize them.  Note that he doesn't actually come out and name them - that would be too categorical for an existentialist - and they are not either-or pigeon holes by any means.  But he does use various terms to refer to them, and I have picked representative ones.

There is the type he refers to as “neo-Puritan,” who is all will, but no love.  They have amazing self-discipline, and can “make things happen”... but they have no wishes to act upon.  So they become “anal” and perfectionistic, but empty and “dried-up.”  The archetypal example is Ebenezer Scrooge.

The second type he refers to as “infantile.”  They are all wishes but no will.  Filled with dreams and desires, they don’t have the self-discipline to make anything of their dreams and desires, and so become dependent and conformist.  They love, but their love means little.  Perhaps Homer Simpson is the clearest example!

The last type is the "creative" type.  May recommends, wisely, that we should cultivate a balance of these two aspects of our personalities.  He said “Man’s task is to unite love and will.”

As I said, these concepts are pretty universal among personality psychologists, even when the words we use differ.  I use the words individuality and community.  Others use words such as autonomy and homonymy, agency and communion, egoism and altruism, and so on.  Founded in our instincts for assertiveness and nurturance, in their highest forms they are self-enhancement and self-transcendence, respectively.

Whatever the words, the balance to be achieved is between the impulse to serve oneself (becoming all one can be as an individual) and the impulse to serve others (become one with the universe of others).  But serve only yourself, and you end up alone; serve only others, and you lose your identity.  Instead, one must serve oneself in order to serve others well, and serve others in order to best serve oneself.  At some point the two aren't so much balanced as working synergistically.  Here's a nice quote from good old Einstein that sums it up nicely:

Man is, at one and the same time, a solitary being and a social being. As a solitary being, he attempts to protect his own existence and that of those who are closest to him, to satisfy his personal desires, and to develop his innate abilities. As a social being, he seeks to gain the recognition and affection of his fellow human beings, to share in their pleasures, to comfort them in their sorrows, and to improve their conditions of life. Only the existence of these varied, frequently conflicting strivings accounts for the special character of a man, and their specific combination determines the extent to which an individual can achieve an inner equilibrium and can contribute to the well-being of society.  (Einstein, "Why Socialism?" in Monthly Review, NY, May 1949)

The eightfold path

As promised, we now take a look at the Buddhist approach:

The first two segments of the path are refered to as prajña, meaning wisdom:

Right view - understanding the Four Noble Truths, especially the nature of all things as imperfect, impermanent, and insubstantial and our self-inflicted suffering as founded in clinging, hate, and ignorance.

Right aspiration - having the true desire to free oneself from attachment, hatefulness, and ignorance.

The idea that improvement comes only when the sufferer takes the first step of aspiring to improvement is apparently 2500 years old.

Therapy is something neither the therapist nor the client takes lying down - if you will pardon the pun. The therapist must take an assertive role in helping the client become aware of the reality of his or her suffering and its roots. Likewise, the client must take an assertive role in working towards improvement - even though it means facing the fears they've been working so hard to avoid, and especially facing the fear that they will "lose" themselves in the process.

The next three segments of the path provide more detailed guidance in the form of moral precepts, called sila:

Right speech - abstaining from lying, gossiping, and hurtful speech generally.

Speech is often our ignorance made manifest, and is the most common way in which we harm others. Modern psychologists emphasize that one should above all stop lying to oneself. But Buddhism adds that by practicing being true to others, and one will find it increasingly difficult to be false to oneself.

Right action - behaving oneself, abstaining from actions that hurt others (and, by implication, oneself) such as killing, stealing, and irresponsible sex.

Right livelihood - making one's living in an honest, non-hurtful way.

Here's one we don't talk about much in our society today. One can only wonder how much suffering comes out of the greedy, cut-throat, dishonest careers we often participate in. This by no means means we must all be monks: Imagine the good one can do as an honest, compassionate, hard-working accountant, business person, lawyer, or politician!

I have to pause here to add another Buddhist concept to the picture: karma. Basically, karma refers to good and bad deeds and the consequences they bring. In some branches of Buddhism, karma has to do with what kind of reincarnation to expect. But other branches see it more simply as the negative (or positive) effects one's actions have on one's integrity. Beyond the effects of your selfish acts have on others, for example, each selfish act "darkens your soul," and makes happiness that much harder to find. On the other hand, each act of kindness, as the gypsies say, "comes back to you three times over." To put it simply, virtue is its own reward, and vice its own hell.

The last three segments of the path are the ones Buddhism is most famous for, and concern samadhi or meditation. I must say that, despite the popular conception, without wisdom and morality, meditation is worthless, and may even be dangerous.

Right effort - taking control of your mind and the contents thereof.

Simple, direct practice is what it takes, the developing of good mental habits: When bad thoughts and impulses arise, they should be abandoned. This is done by watching the thought without attachment, recognizing it for what it is (no denial or repression!), and letting it dissipate. Good thoughts and impulses, on the other hand, should be nurtured and enacted. Make virtue a habit, as the stoics used to say.

There are four "sublime states" (brahma vihara) that some Buddhists talk about. These sublime states are fully experienced by saintly creatures called boddhisattvas, but the rest of us should practice them every moment of every day as an exercise in self-improvement. They are loving kindness to all you meet, compassion for those who are suffering, joy for others without envy, and equanimity or a peaceful, evenly balanced attitude towards the ups and downs of life.

Right mindfulness - mindfulness refers to a kind of meditation involving an acceptance of thoughts and perceptions, a "bare attention" to these events without attachment.

It is called vipassana in the Theravada (southern Buddhism) tradition, and shikantaza in the Ch'an (Zen) tradition. But it is understood that this mindfulness is to extend to daily life as well. It becomes a way of developing a fuller, richer awareness of life, and a deterent to our tendency to sleepwalk our way through life.

One of the most important moral precepts in Buddhism is the avoidance of consciousness-diminishing or altering substances - i.e. alcohol or drugs. This is because anything that makes you less than fully aware sends you in the opposite direction of improvement into deeper ignorance.

But there are other things besides drugs that diminish consciousness. Some people try to avoid life by disappearing into food or sexuality. Others disappear into work, mindless routine, or rigid, self-created rituals.

Drowning oneself in entertainment is one of today's favorite substitutes for heroin. I think that modern media, especially television, make it very difficult to maintain our balance. I would like to see a return to the somewhat Victorian concept of "edifying diversions:" see a good movie on PBS or videotape - no commercials, please - or read a good book, listen to good music, and so on.

We can also drown awareness in material things - fast cars, extravagant clothes, and so on. Shopping has itself become a way of avoiding life. Worst of all is the blending of materiality with entertainment. While monks and nuns avoid frivolous diversions and luxurious possessions, we surround ourselves with commercials, infomercials, and entire shopping networks, as if thery were effective forms of "pain control!"

Right concentration - meditating in such a way as to empty our natures of attachments, avoidances, and ignorance, so that we may accept the imperfection, impermanence, and insubstantiality of life.

This is usually thought of as the highest form of Buddhist meditation, and full practice of it is pretty much restricted to monks and nuns who have progressed considerably along the path.

But just like the earlier paths provide a foundation for later paths, later ones often support earlier ones. For example, a degree of "calm abiding" (shamatha), a beginning version of concentration, is essential for developing mindfulness, and is taught to all beginning meditators. This is the counting of breaths or chanting of mantras most people have heard of. This passifying of the mind is, in fact, important to mindfulness, effort, all moral practice, and even the maintaining of view and aspiration. I believe that this simple form of meditation is the best place for those who are suffering to begin - though once again, the rest of the eightfold path is essential for long-term improvement.

Biosocial therapy

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
the courage to change the things I can change;
and the wisdom to know the difference.

Now this is just what we need:  Another approach to psychotherapy!  Don't panic, though.  I have no intention (nor the competence) to invent a new form of therapy.  Instead, allow me to outline what I think are some of the best ideas to be found in the various therapies we discussed above, while relating these ideas to the basic orientation of biosocial psychology.

Basically, psychotherapy is a form of education.  Like old Socrates once said, a bad man does bad things out of ignorance.  If he knew better, he wouldn't do these things.  The same applies to someone with psychological problems.  So our job as therapists is to be educators - or, as Socrates would say, to help people remember what they already know.

1. Gaining control of the beast

Those of us that develop psychological problems are likely to have physiological roots to those problems.  Especially common are overly strong emotional responses.  Sometimes it is the lack of responsiveness.  Sometimes it is the strength or weakness of physical needs such as our need for food or sex.  Sometimes it is an acquired need, such as the need for alcohol or heroin.  With inadequate coping skills and sufficient stress, we react in ways that are not helpful.  So one thing we can try to do is to find a way to remedy the original physiological weaknesses.

Drugs should not be discounted.  There is nothing particularly noble about doing without them.  Mental health is not a matter of "willpower"!  Even drugs that are presently illegal may well have their uses.  Always remember the central idea of biosocial psychology: Mind and body are not two separate things. Psychological pain is physical pain, and physical pain is psychological pain, and likewise for everything else we've discussed in this book. Drugs can be your worst enemy or the best friend you've ever had.

Other ways of developing some control over emotions, needs, and instinctual processes include meditation, music, art...

The most basic form of meditation involves attending to one's breath.  Begin by sitting in a simple chair, keeping your back erect if you can.  The more traditional postures are the lotus position, sitting on a pillow with each foot upon the opposite thigh, and variations such as the half lotus (one foot on the opposite thigh, the other out in front of the opposite knee).  This is difficult for many people.  Some people kneel, sitting back on their legs or on a pillow between their legs.  Many use a meditation bench:  kneel, then place a little bench beneath your behind.  But meditation is also done while standing, slowly walking, lying on the floor, or even in a recliner!

Traditionally, the hands are placed loosely, palms up, one on top of the other, and with the thumbs lightly touching.  This is called the cosmic mudra, one of a large number of symbolic hand positions.  You may prefer to lay them flat on your thighs, or any other way that you find comfortable.

Your head should be upright, but not rigid.  The eyes may be closed, or focussed on a spot on the ground a couple of feet ahead of you, or looking down at your hands.  If you find yourself getting sleepy, keep your eyes open!

Beginning meditators are often asked to count their breath, on the exhale, up to ten.  Then you begin back at one.  If you loose track, simply go back to one.  Your breath should be slow and regular, but not forced or artificially controlled.  Just breathe naturally and count.

A few weeks later, you may forego the counting and try to simply follow your breath.  Concentrate on it entering you and exiting you.  Best is to be aware as fully as possible of the entire process of breathing, but most people focus on one aspect or another:  the sensation of coolness followed by warmth at the nostrils, or the rise and fall of the diaphragm.  Many meditators suggest imagining the air entering and exiting a small hole an inch or two below your navel.  Keeping your mind lower on the body tends to lead to deeper meditation.  If you are sleepy, then focus higher, such as at the nostrils.

You will inevitably find yourself distracted by sounds around you and thoughts within.  The way to handle them is to acknowledge them, but do not attach yourself to them.  Do not get involved with them.  Just let them be, let them go, and focus again on the breath.  At first, it might be wise to scratch when you itch and wiggle when you get uncomfortable.  Later, you will find that the same scant attention that you use for thoughts and sounds will work with physical feelings as well.

Many people have a hard time with their thoughts.  We are so used to our hyperactive minds, that we barely notice the fact that they are usually roaring with activity.  So, when we first sit and meditate, we are caught off guard by all the activity.  So some people find it helpful to use a little imagination to help them meditate.  For example, instead of counting or following your breath, you might prefer to imagine a peaceful scene, perhaps floating in a warm lagoon, until the noise of your mind quiets down.

Meditate for fifteen minutes a day, perhaps early in the morning before the rest of the house wakes up, or late at night when everything has quieted down.  If that's too much, do it once a week if you like.  If you want, do more.

If you are more of a physical person, rather than a mental one, you might prefer progressive relaxation, the technique developed by Joseph Wolpe for systematic desensitization.  Or try yoga or tai chi.  Or sit in a comfortable chair and listen to calm classical or "new age" music.  When I am stressed, I sometimes play Albinoni's adagios while watching my screen saver, which has peaceful pictures of places and things that I've collected over the years from the internet.  These can all be considered forms of meditation!

Most therapists know: Anxiety is the most common manifestation of psychological suffering. And when it's not anxiety, it's unresolved anger. And when it's not anger, it's pervasive sadness. All three of these can be toned done to a manageable level by simple meditation. Meditation will not eliminate these things - that requires wisdom and morality and the entire Buddhist program - but it will give the sufferer a chance to acquire the wisdom, morality, etc!

Beyond recommending simple meditation, therapists might recommend simplification of lifestyle, avoidance of sensationalistic or exploitative entertainment, a holiday from the news, a retreat to a monastery, or a simple weekend vacation. When it comes to mental health, less is more!

2. Seeing what is there

Therapy is an art, not a science.  The therapist must deal with individual human beings, and no general laws of human nature will ever cover the uniqueness of the individual before him or her. The therapist must come to understand the client "from the inside out," understand the world the client lives in, in an act of creative empathy.  That will then permit you to begin where the client is, rather than from where you would like to see him or her go!  And it doesn't hurt if you as a therapist have experienced some anxiety or depression or anger in your life.  Heaven forbid you haven't had any problems or even traumas!  These will only help you experience the client's suffering more clearly.

People with psychological problems follow their interpretation of reality, rather than an accurate perception of it.  We start off our lives obeying authority - mom, dad, your teacher, the cop on the corner...  This becomes conformity to "everybody", as in "everybody knows you should do x and not y!"  From this, we build a constructed reality, using our social constructs.  This in turn keeps us from seeing the world as it is, from seeing unconstructed reality, "raw" reality - the peach pit under all that fuzz.  And we can only be free from "everybody" when we have learned to differentiate constructs from phenomena.

We do this by (1) understanding intentionality and (2) practicing bracketing.  Intentionality means being open to all aspects of the phenomenon, not leaving out what belongs.  So we must allow phenomena - whether it be a thing out there, or a feeling or thought inside us, or another person, or human existence itself - to reveal itself to us. We can do this by being open to the experience, by not denying what is there because it doesn't fit our philosophy or psychological theory or religious beliefs.  Spiegelberg said "The genuine will to know calls for the spirit of generosity rather than for that of economy...." (1965, p. 657.)

Bracketing is the other side of the coin.  Bracketing means setting aside all our usual, "natural" assumptions about the phenomena.  You can't hear something (or someone) if you are loudly telling it what it is!  Practically speaking, this means we must put aside our biases, prejudices, theories, philosophies, religions, even common sense, and accept the phenomenon for what it is.  If therapists brought all their prejudices into the therapy situation with them, they would never be able to understand their clients in all their frustrating uniqueness.  The same is true for any human being!

One very odd, but important, point (originally suggested by Viktor Frankl):  Do not over-analyze!  The idea is to get an accurate, realistic perception, not to dig for unconscious explanations.  In fact, we are not looking for explanations at all, really - just the facts.  Dwelling on the problem makes it an emotional issue once again, which we were trying hard to deal with in step one!  A part of what makes neurosis so difficult to deal with is that neurotics as extremely self-centered.  This is not a criticism of them:  If you are hurting, of course you are going to be self-centered!  But typically, analysis only makes people even more self-centered than they already are.  The idea instead is to become problem-centered instead, because a problem is something you might be able to solve.

3. Learning to reason

The first line of the Buddhist text Dhammapada is "actions follow thoughts like the cart follows the ox", and much of Buddhist teaching concerns the connection between our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.  Another philosophical text from the ancients that I love is the first century philosopher Epictetus' Manual, a stoic guide book also loved by the soldiers of the Roman Empire.  It tells us that "People are disturbed, not by things, but by the views they take of them."

I agree with Karen Horney and Albert Ellis (and Carl Rogers and George Kelly...) that a great deal of what makes for mental illness is our irrational beliefs.  The basics of irrational thinking is clear:  we exaggerate the negative; we ignore the positive; and we overgeneralize.  By overgeneralize, I mean that people tend to see their problems as coming from everyone (not just a few), as occuring all the time (instead of occasionally), and as refering to all aspects of life (not just one or two).  In addition, there are several consequences:  emotional disturbances such as anxiety, depression, and hostility; self-defeating behaviors; the blocking of your goals and an overall blocking of positive development.  But there is more.

We get our irrational beliefs, for the most part, from others.  It can be from specific individuals, such as your mother or father.  It can be from the general atmosphere of your culture.  These beliefs are often a matter of standards - what Rogers called "conditions of worth."  If we are fortunate, we can meet others' expectations of us.  If we are not, we live in that "tyrrany of the shoulds" that Horney talks about, and get into the "musturbation" that Ellis so colorfully talks about.  Do you need success?  fame?  sainthood?  total independence?  Who says?

Something that exacerbates this "should" business is our tendency to mistake our desires for our needs.  It certainly would be nice to be successful and famous.  Who wouldn't like that?  Or to be brilliant, or beautiful, or athletic.  Who wouldn't like the best food, a wonderful house to live in, tons of friends, a fantastic spouse?  But do you need these things?  One of my favorite characters from ancient Greek philosophy is Diogenes.  He ate scraps, wore rags, and lived in one of those giant jugs the ancients used to ship olive oil.  And he was happy!  You  don't need very much to stay alive or even to find happiness.  Only when you start wanting this and that, and believing that you can't be happy without it, do you start to feel deprived.

One root of our problems is that fact that human beings are very conservative creatures.  We don't particularly like change, especially when it comes to changing ourselves.  We would rather continue doing things the way we have always done them - even if doing things this way has made us totally miserable. You can see this conservative tendency in everything from how babies respond to frustration to how we deal with the loss of a loved one:  The first emotion we experience is anger!  The world is wrong, and it must change now!  It is only when the anger fails to get results that we accept the fact that we must patiently wait for our mind to accept the reality before us, which makes us very sad indeed.

There is also an unfortunate feedback (or is it feedforward?) mechanism here as well.  The best illustration of this is Viktor Frankl's anticipatory anxiety:  The woman who is afraid of public speaking gets herself so worked up that her mouth goes dry, her hands tremble, her mind goes blank, and she fails once again at public speaking, which confirms her fear.  It is a vicious cycle:  You expect the worst, anxiety builds up, you get what you expected.  Another, broader example is the person who, feeling incompetent, learns to depend on others.  This avoids not just the original problems but all opportunity to learn self-sufficiency, thereby augmenting the problem.

Further, you don't just augment the problem, you can multiply the problem: The alcoholic is the archetypal example:  He's got problems, and a drink or two gives him temporary (but welcome) relief.  But his problems continue, so he drinks a bit more.  After a while, his drinking is causing more problems than he had to begin with!  His wife leaves him, his kids won't talk to him, he loses his job, his house, his money...  So what does he do?  He has another drink.

The answer, of course, is to stop the vicious cycle.  Frankl's methods of paradoxical intention and dereflection may be useful.  A more general technique is gradualism:  While it is often impossible to take on a problem head-on, it is just as often quite possible to approach it gradually.  Gradual exposure to a phobic object, for example, often works well, as does gradual exposure to the object of a compulsion while restrained from acting on it.  Baby steps!

One more effect of this conservatism is fatalism: our tendency to believe that our pasts - especially our childhoods - determine the way we feel today.  We tear our hair out thinking "If only my parents had been perfect! If only I had this or that when I was a child!  If only....  then I would be healthy and happy today!"  There is no doubt that the past leads to the present, and there is no doubt that some events in your past can leave permanent scars.  But what happened then does not have a direct causal link to your feelings right now.  Intervening are all the skills and experiences and values you have accumulated since then.  And self-determination improves with practice!

Bifurcation is perhaps the most common fallacy used in irrational beliefs.  People seem to find it easier to see the world in extremes - "black and white" - rather than in gradations or dimensions - "shades of gray".  Like adolescents commonly do, everything is either "awesome" or "sucky".  People are either good (typically "us") or bad ("them").  Of course, if we use these radicalized constructs on others, we will use them on ourselves as well.  So if I can't quite manage to see myself as "brilliant", I will have no choice but to see myself as "useless".  Notice how such a bifurcation is immune to reason:  You must be one or the other; you cannot change; there is no middle way; it is applied to all aspects of life instead of to only one or another.

If you bifurcate in this way, you tend to turn "lousy" into "unbearable."  Of course, we all feel bad sometimes.  Perhaps we don't feel so great much of the time.  But if your world-view is one of extremes, you can't just feel lousy - it's great or it's unbearable.  You can't just be decent - you must be perfect!  Of course, since perfection is pretty much impossible, you will wind up feeling terrible, and you eventually settle down with your terribleness and stop trying at all.  Or you apply the same dichotomy to others, and expect them to meet up with your perfectionistic standards.  No matter how you boss and bully them, they never quite make the mark, the idiots!

Troubled people need to learn to view things in a more graduated way, a way that permits change, that can be applied differently to different aspects of life, that doesn't hang a label on a person.  If someone believes that everyone must be good, or they will be damned, he must be lead to ask him or herself:  What does it really mean to be good?  It means being kind, doesn't it? and nothing else.  And  it is the act that is good, not the person.  So, we should try to act in a kindly fashion as best we can.  And we can expect no more from others.  Perfection is for angels, not humans.

4. Finding the meaning of life

Our lives are such small things.  Sometimes we think we need something grand to make them worthwhile - like eternal life in paradise, or great success, or intense experiences.  Or we feel we need a grand philosophy or religion to give our lives meaning.  But that’s just not true.

It’s the little happinesses of life that give it meaning.  Some laughter, some conversation, good food and a little sex, satisfaction at a job well done, a walk on the beach, making a difference, even if its a small difference, seeing your children become happy, healthy, productive adults, washing your car, a game of cards, a good movie, a beer....

One major source of happiness is competence.  It is the essence of our drive towards individual development.  To master an art, a craft, a musical instrument, a science, to be so well practiced at something means that you begin to experience that sense of flow we've talked about.  You feel more like a conduit of something higher - which is purpose.  Don't get me wrong:  You don't need to be a concert pianist or a brain surgeon.  Knitting a perfect scarf, playing a favorite tune on an old guitar, balancing the books, or doing your best at your job, all function as purpose.

Another important source of happiness is compassion.  Even mastery doesn't fully satisfy unless it is directed outwards, towards others.   As I said, meaning doesn't come from above.  Neither can we give it to ourselves.  Ultimately, the only source of meaning is others.  We are meaningful to them, and they in turn give us meaning.  When you ask "what is the meaning of my life?"  you should rephrase it "what do I mean to others?"  In a speech to English college students (quoted in Frankl 1975, p. 85),  the great humanitarian Albert Schweitzer once said, "The only ones among you who will be really happy are those who have sought and found how to serve."