Saturday, March 29, 2014

Being true to yourself: Alfried Längle on Existential Analysis

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About a month ago I had the opportunity to attend a fascinating talk by the distinguished Austrian psychotherapist Alfried Längle. His practice of logotherapy is founded (and elaborated) upon the work of fellow Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl. The talk itself was titled “On becoming more myself” and was presented by and affiliated with The Existential Analysis Society of Canada

As I constantly muse about how I can be better at being who I think I am I thought it would be useful to perhaps find out more about myself. In fact, this pleasant and good-natured psychologist had mind-blowing ideas on how we see ourselves, others and how both of these can directly affect our mental health and well-being.

The focus of logotherapy is on the existential core being of the individual and its either sound or afflicted relation with the outside world. Our personality, according to Längle, is what we know deep inside about ourselves, a genuine and unflinching but nonetheless caring look at what makes us different from others.

Yet identity is like an intangible candle flame. We know what it looks like, but we fail to grab it; however hard we may try, it will elude our grasp. Not only is the core identity hard to put and define in words, but it is also a continuous process. Every time, our inner core self comes into contact with information, we may change as a result. These types of impression or as he called it “in-formation” are the form and substance, or bread and butter of how we come to know ourselves better.

For example, I may not know of specific skills I have until I try out new things. This contact from the outside with my inner being may bring out what makes me more myself. There are two things at stake here. Number one, how genuine is my expression of myself towards the other. For instance, when I respond to a situation or a person how much of it really comes from who I am? The question we would ask ourselves would be how would “I” (state your name here) react to this given situation. What makes it my own personal response and what is it that makes me be me?

That we often do not respond with honesty is evident in social situations where we are concerned about how others may view us. This can be beneficial or necessary in certain situations, such as controlling our anger or our too honest opinion at work, but it can harm us particularly in our social and romantic relationships where we may not show ourselves the way we are or say what we think out of fear of rejection or disapproval. This may explain why so many people are conformist because they are afraid of showing their true colors and personality. If this dishonest habit occurs on a consistent basis, we may harm ourselves and our psyche.

The second point is how we would integrate this new experience with our old self. If we resist change, then we do not allow life to leave its mark on us. We will become stagnant and not grow as a person. Since identity is fluid, it needs to be affected and stimulated by this new information. These experiences need to be integrated with our core self from which a new and more updated self would emerge.

If the interaction and reflection between the inside and outside world is accurate and genuine, then the person is considered balanced and healthy. We do what we love and say what we think, again within reasonable bounds and limits. 

Yet in reality, our lives often become schizoid due to the person we are and values that we hold dear and the many necessary roles we play or think we ought to play in our society. We become confused, lose touch with who we are as individuals, and we also fail to see others in their unique richness; hence our communication both inward and outward becomes forced, dishonest, and often superficial.

For true communication or interaction to occur both parties need to be responsive. I need to express my own feelings and be able to listen and decode yours. It again does not mean that one has to agree with everything. It simply means that we accept the fact that there are other opinions, yet we still see and interpret the world through our unique lens. 

But this openness may touch us both and perhaps change one or the other or even both. By laying our cards on the table, we may become vulnerable, but if both do so and if they express their genuine being, then this can only have positive and transforming effects for both parties.

Another issue that is of importance is that the core self be grounded in the actual present. We often carry around the baggage of the past, and it may block us to see opportunities of change and growth right in front of our eyes. This could be the person who has been hurt in the past from harmful romantic relationships and sees every person as a reflection or potential threat due to their own previous negative experiences. In this way, we disfigure our present with fixed notions of our past, which is again not healthy nor productive.

Being in the present should be accompanied by a certain confidence in one's own abilities and power of discernment. We are bombarded by a multitude of stimuli but cannot be frayed to and fro without thinking. That would be an automatic response, which is not an expression of individuality. To be oneself one needs to judge and interpret the stimuli instead of blocking oneself.

Each situation is unique and should be seen as an opportunity to develop one's own unique sense of self. It cannot be automatic, rehearsed or enacted, but it ought to be a natural endeavor, a steady work in progress. Hindrances or obstacles should be dealt with quickly, so that we do not let others block us nor should we block our own self-expression.

To sum up, the questions one should ask are how do I feel about this situation and what would be the best way for me to respond to it, which is basically one's moral evaluation of the moment. Längle implies that deep inside we do have the answers to any question and that we should trust our spontaneous feelings in the matter.

This would also present an opportunity to be flexing our self muscles (my words, not his!) by taking a stand and by expressing ourselves. In this way, we would be revealing our real and genuine self to the world. The inner and outer face of our self need to be identical, and only then would we feel at peace with who we are and what we do on a daily basis. 

Problems and issues may shake the boat or the citadel of our identity, but they cannot capsize us because we will come to trust ourselves deeply and fully. This is the ultimate aim of logotherapy, to make us understand ourselves better and to act more in accordance with our unique core identity.

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