Skip to content

Archive for

The givens of existence


In 1989 Irwin Yalom’s book, ‘Love’s executioner – and other tales of psychotherapy’ was published. It’s an excellent book and essential reading for people working in the helping professions. In this brief note I shall focus simply upon some of the content of Yalom’s ‘prologue’, a prologue which sets the scene for the ten fascinating psychotherapeutic case studies that he subsequently presents.

In the prologue he outlines the basis of his theory and practice of psychotherapy. He does this by focusing on a contemporary reality of the human condition: he reflects on the fact that if people are asked, over and over again, ‘what do you want?’ they may be stirred to their depths – and strong emotions may be unleashed – as they come to call out to those who are forever lost. He notes that beneath the surface – beneath ‘the membrane of life’ – lies the pain associated with deep but ‘unattainable’ wants. He points out that:

Many things – a simple group exercise, a few minutes of deep reflection, a work of art, a sermon, a personal crisis, a loss – remind us that our deepest wants can never be fulfilled.

Amongst the unattainable wants, the wants that can never be fulfilled are ‘our wants for youth, for a halt to ageing, for the return of vanished ones, for eternal love, protection, significance, for immortality itself.’ As a result it is difficult to imagine any human life that can be immune to the experience of existential pain, the pain that is inevitably generated by unattainable wants.

Yalom observes that it is when these unattainable wants have come to dominate our life that we turn for help to whatever may alleviate the pain – and perhaps, therefore, to psychotherapy or counselling. Sometimes people turned to Yalom, himself, for psychotherapy. But when they did he found that ‘somehow’ therapy uncovered the deep roots of his patients’ problems – ‘roots stretching down to the bedrock of existence’. He tells us that all his patients suffered from ‘existence pain’ – and ‘existence pain’ derives from the harsh facts of life, the ‘givens’ of existence.’ But what are the harsh facts or life? What are the givens of existence that we all have to experience and face? In a nutshell, Yalom provides us with an answer:

I have found that four givens [of existence] are particularly relevant to psychotherapy:

the inevitability of death for each and all of us and for those we love

the freedom to make our lives as we will

our ultimate aloneness 

the absence of any obvious meaning or sense to life.

But, he recognises that, however grim these ‘givens’ may seem, they contain the seeds of wisdom and redemption.

He continues:

I hope [in this book] to demonstrate … that it is possible to confront the truths of existence and harness their power in the service of personal at change and growth’ and, after briefly and brilliantly discussing how we confront the four givens of existence, he concludes with the telling statement that since none of us can avoid the harsh facts of life ‘we are all, all of us, in this together.’ We are all, in effect, fellow travellers; and so, in a paradoxical sense, we are not alone.

This is an important book that repays careful study. Yalom’s analysis of the ways we may deny the reality of – or delude ourselves in the face of – the givens of existence is sensitive, informed and masterly.  His text may well help its reader to come to terms with some of the main challenges of our contemporary (and often rather crazy) existence.

The art of insight


A peacock butterfly settles on the sunlit trunk of an oak tree; the white lilac is in flower; it’s Spring – and everywhere, the bright leaves are shining; it’s been warm enough to sit outside; to sit outside, read and think. I’ve been thinking about a book, a very good book …

And so I want to commend Stephen Grosz’s ‘The examined life’; it’s an excellent example of practical and accessible psychoanalysis. It’s also a delightful illustration of the art of insight. Grosz presents 31 case studies or vignettes that are based on his professional experience with a range of clients who had come to see him for psychotherapy. The account he gives is riveting for several reasons; of those, I shall mention three:

First, he describes many of the fascinating modes of conduct and the psychological idiosyncrasies of his clients. I was unexpectedly re-assured by his reminder that there is nothing so strange as people; we come across, for example, Philip, who turns out to be a pathological and spectacular liar. We learn that, from an early age, Philip told lies: at the age of eleven or twelve he claimed to haver been recruited by MI5 as one of its agents; even in his workplace he told far-fetched lies – although rarely would anyone challenge him. Insouciantly, he told Stephen Grosz that, in his line of work (TV production), ‘everyone in the industry lies’ and that it is ‘part of the skill set.’ (I couldn’t help laughing when I read this; I’m told that nowadays a high proportion of people fake their curriculum vitae and that a part of the business of becoming famous entails creating myths or half-truths about the ‘self’.) But why is Philip wedded to lying? Grosz shows us that his lying is a substitute for the way in which he carried on a tacit and private conversation with his late mother. Philip tells lies in order to create a mess. In fact, each of the people we meet in Grosz’s case studies is charming and intriguing, in large part because they either do bizarre and seemingly irrational things or think in highly original ways.

Second, Grosz helps his reader to learn more about some of the most fundamental features of the human condition. He does this by moving from the specific case to propose a more general truth. One example is the case of Matt. Matt is a young man who leads an alarmingly dangerous existence and who has been incautious enough to point a gun at a police officer. Grosz uses his own felt reactions to help unpack the deep psychological character of his patient. After a while we learn that Matt has ‘never acquired a skill that we all need: the ability to make a person worry about us.’ For me, it is this kind of remark that consistently elevates the quality of Grosz’s writing into something profound. We discover that Matt is a character who does not seem to register his emotions. He has silenced them. He remains oblivious to (or heavily defended against) his feelings. In consequence he cannot feel pain – and this is potentially devastating. Grosz tells us that:

The truth of the matter is this: there is a little bit of Matt in each of us. At one time or another we all try to silence painful emotions. But when we succeed in feeling nothing we lose the only means we have of knowing what hurts and why.

Third, parts of the text challenge some of the conventional beliefs widely shared in western culture. He rejects the idea that we can (or should) achieve ‘closure’ on things that have deeply upset us. He thinks that whereas for the person who dies there is an end, ‘the person who mourns goes on living and for so long as she or she lives there is always the possibility of feeling grief.’ He concludes his inquiry with the observation that:

Closure is … delusive – it is the false hope that we can deaden our living grief.’

He also examines a cultural tendency to heap praise on youngsters which may end up having negative consequences for their psychological well-being and behavioural habits. Youngsters benefit from praise for effort – and for demonstrating those types of conduct that may help them to do well in life (such as patience) but they do not necessarily do well if they are praised and labelled ‘clever.’ In fact, Grosz underlines the importance of good quality attention. To this extent he restates a central principle of humanistic psychology: the foundation of helping others to do well, to fare well, lies in our ability to be ‘present’ for whomsoever we encounter.

Overall, Stephen Grosz’s book is a terrific source for learning more about one’s self as well as the sensitivities and complexities of others.

But, on a personal note, it (the experience of engaging with the book) also left me feeling angry because I was reminded of the courses that we used to run and of the fact that they were gradually destroyed by people who knew nothing about the height, breadth and depth of the human condition and the enormous value of allowing people the ‘space’ in which to conduct a personal psychological inquiry. We had, for example, spent something like fifteen years learning about how to implement the findings of humanistic psychology. But then a new institutional regime came into being that cared not one jot for our achievements, nor for our learning, nor our values.

So, I can’t help feeling that we have lost something – or that whatever it was that we used to do and value now lies submerged and scarcely animate – in the shadowlands of history.


Telling Stories


Sometime ago my colleagues and I used to run those wonderful courses on self-development. Overall, in addition to helping people gain self-awareness and insights concerning their personal being, we also focussed the content of the courses on group dynamics and all the accompanying emotional realities. In our own way we were trying to enable adults to experience the ‘examined life.’ It wasn’t that we felt that the unexamined life ‘wasn’t worth living;’ it was more that we thought an examined life might help to enhance personal and professional effectiveness.

Most of the time we worked with whatever it was that surfaced within the group. And, usually, a great deal did surface – especially the full range of emotions. Most people liked the courses; most emerged with a far better grasp of the processes involved in social interaction: for example, it came as a great surprise to a majority that ‘simple’ interpersonal communication was anything but ‘simple’. Our clients had to learn the basics of active listening – as well as all the other interpersonal skills – such as conflict management. They also acquired a far deeper sense of how they were seen by others.

After working in this way (as a group facilitator) for several years I became more and more exhausted. And life was made infinitely worse by the fact that both the culture of the UK and the institution in which I was working were overtaken by a ‘performance measurement’ and ‘tick box’ ethos – an ethos that had little sympathy for the unpredictable outcomes of self-development …

So, finally, I stopped practising altogether.

I paused and reflected on my work and confronted some big questions about my own values. As I reflected on my past successes and failures I often wished that I had done things differently. (And, I still don’t know whether I was a decent enough person to do the kind of work that I had been doing.)

During that lengthy period of reflection I also came across two remarkable resources – two books – that would have served as terrific supports to the courses that we offered: The first was by the french educationalist and philosopher Luc Ferry and is entitled ‘Learning to live’. Although I did not really like the title of his book, his framework for thinking about how we come to terms with the meaning of life and our attitudes to death seems invaluable. But more specifically I think that all our clients would have benefited from working their way through the case studies described and discussed by Stephen Grosz in his brilliant work, ‘The examined life.’ I was alerted to this book by a young lady who is studying for a diploma in psychotherapy. By chance she had heard me mentioning that one of my aunts (now in her nineties) is suffering from paranoia. The trainee psychotherapist had read Grosz’s remarkable account concerning how feelings of paranoia can ‘avert an even greater crisis’ – in which a person comes to feel that the world is indifferent to them. Paranoid feelings maintain the idea that we are still being noticed – that we still have some significance, that we are still of consequence, that we are not invisible bits of nothingness.

She suggested I read the book.

This I did.

I bought Grosz’s book and studied each of the 31 learning stories.

His very first chapter sets the scene; it has the title, ‘How we can be possessed by a story that cannot be told’. He tells us of a patient, Peter, who did the most extraordinary and sometimes terrible and hurtful things because he, Peter, did not have the words, concepts and narratives with which to make sense of himself. Grosz writes:

I believe that all of us try to make sense of our lives by telling our stories, but Peter was possessed by a story that he couldn’t tell. Not having the words he expressed himself by other means. Over time I learned that Peter’s behaviour was the language he used to speak to me. Peter told his story by making me feel what it was like to be him, of the anger confusion and shock that he must have felt as a child.’

And then Stephen Grosz goes on to tell us that:

The author Karen Blixen said, ‘All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story and tell a story about them.’ But what if a person can’t tell a story about his sorrows? What if his story tells him? Experience has taught me that our childhoods leave in us stories like this – stories we never found a way to voice, because no one helped us to find the words.

And he concludes:

When we cannot find a way of telling our story, our story tells us – we dream these stories, we develop symptoms, or we find ourselves acting in ways we don’t understand.

His opening account beautifully illustrates the importance of finding the right words and having the right milieu in which to tell our stories. That’s why it would have been so helpful to have Grosz’s work as a companion text to draw from on our original courses.

I’m not surprised that ‘The examined life‘ is a best-seller. I think it would serve as a powerful resource for any course on self-development. I think, too, that one way we ‘tell our stories’ – one way that we communicate to others and to ourselves – is through any manifestations emerging from creative processes. That’s partly why I paint; in a certain way, the portraits I paint, even though they are not of me, are one way of telling my story.

Footnote: The photograph at the top shows two happy people – with stories to tell.