Academic journal article Journal of Humanistic Counseling

Psychological Suffering as Message or Malady: Ideological and Cultural Contributions of Humanism

Academic journal article Journal of Humanistic Counseling

Psychological Suffering as Message or Malady: Ideological and Cultural Contributions of Humanism

Article excerpt

The author argues that message and malady perspectives have been vital underlying forces in counseling theories and mental health culture. Counselors may be unaware of these forces, a situation that may cause them to react reflexively rather than intentionally. The article also reveals substantial ideological and cultural benefits of humanism.

Keywords: counseling, humanism, theories, culture

How should counselors regard psychological suffering? The seemingly simple arrangement of one person attempting to help another through conversational means belies an intriguing, kaleidoscopic array of foundational questions about the meaning of change, the consequences of human transformation, and the nature of the good life that counseling ostensibly points us toward. Of all the fundamental issues about counseling that could conceivably be explored, however, questions about suffering are arguably distinguished by their ability to cut to the conceptual heart of the helping encounter. Clients come to counseling because they are in pain; counselors attempt to ease it. Not only does human misery sustain and provide the context in which talk therapy operates, the counseling profession was brought into existence by the suffering that professional pioneers sought to alleviate. Suffering gave birth to, and sustains, the counseling profession.

Given that it provides the central context in which counseling operates, there has been surprisingly little scholarly exploration (at least from within the bounds of the talk therapy professions) about the meaning of mental misery. Of course, various theories have posited reasons for psychological suffering, such as unconscious conflict (Gabbard, 2010), irrational thoughts (Ellis & Grieger, 1977), or anxieties about the existential givens of life (Yalom, 1980). However, larger meta-questions, which are arguably essential to counseling theory and practice, have generally been ignored. In this article, I examine one of these questions: Should counselors regard psychological suffering as a message or a malady? As a practical illustration of this question, imagine that a client seeks counseling to ease the suffering caused by angry outbursts, which the client feels unable to control. One approach would be to conceptualize the anger as a psychological message, which derivatively communicates hidden feelings of hurt, shame, or sadness. Under this message assumption, exploratory treatment with a goal of decoding, validating, and psychologically integrating the hidden messages would be a logical approach to alleviating the client's suffering. Alternatively, the angry outbursts could be regarded purely as a malady that is relatively disconnected from the psychology of the client. Elimination of the symptoms (perhaps through anger management techniques) might be the treatment of choice from this malady perspective.

From the message viewpoint, I mean that psychological suffering represents some deeper aspect of self that is struggling to be heard. Nothing is broken, disordered, ill, or deficient from this message perspective. Alternatively, from the malady viewpoint, suffering is indicative of some type of malfunction, disorder, or psychological deficiency. As I demonstrate below, the message and malady perspectives are a significant component of the theoretical DNA of counseling theories and mental health culture. Because they are part of the DNA, however, these perspectives are often invisible to counselors, who may unreflectively practice in accordance with the dictates of the hidden conceptual code. My aim in this article is to take a high-powered analytical microscope to counseling theories and mental health culture so that their genetic foundations in the message and malady perspectives can be seen more plainly, thereby enabling counselors to make intentional decisions about the implementation of these perspectives, rather than reacting automatically to theoretical or cultural programming. …

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