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PhilosophyCenter | Odysseys

Our Own Worst Enemy

Our Own Worst Enemy

One of the most remarkable things I see as a philosophical counselor is the zeal with which clients sometimes argue for their limitations. The work can run deep, so it’s not surprising that during the course of the philosophical conversation, we hit pockets of turbulence. Change can be challenging, and acknowledging a long-held contradiction or a truth denied can take more than a little courage. As a rule, the client comes to the session with sufficient willingness to move through to resolution, but not always. Sometimes, unexpectedly, a client will start defending some belief, assumption, or construct that is working against him. It can be a startling experience for the counselor, who relies on the client’s willingness to move into and through the dialectical arc to a higher vantage. One of the things that makes this sensitive is that it is the counselor’s primary responsibility to identify, call out, and deconstruct the contradictions and false opinions that lie at the root of the client’s suffering. The process is rarely head-on and always respectful. When a client’s contradiction grabs the mic and takes the session hostage, the philosophical counselor may be at a loss as to how to proceed.

Philosophical counseling is an educational rather than therapeutic process. It seeks not to treat but to illuminate. The assumptions grounding the method are that the client is 1) a free and responsible agent, 2) capable of recognizing the truth even when it is inconvenient if not daunting, and 3) both willing and able to make choices according to his or her own better knowing. It is a proven and effective method, often life-changing, due to the indubitable power of the truth to set us free, even if only through disabusing us of error. The philosophical counselor, through Socratic engagement, helps to unpack elements of the client’s belief system that are rooted either in contradiction or in some misguided belief, assumption, paradigm, conclusion, stance, or story. Almost without exception, clients demonstrate the courage and willingness needed to complete the dialectical transcendence and “break through” to a liberating re-vision of their situation, and centrally, of their participation in it. Such re-visioning implies and facilitates new choices that leave suffering behind. All of this occurs within the framework of a collaboration between counselor and client. Because the work can be deep and highly charged, however, philosophical counseling sessions leave the door ajar to some of the same dynamics that may slip in to more therapeutic models, viz., projection, transference, and projective identification. So, the client may project emotions onto the philosophical counselor, e.g., when a client harboring disowned feelings of anger experiences the counselor as angry; or may transfer feelings onto the counselor, e.g., when a client grieving the loss of a romantic partnership mistakes the counselor’s attention or empathy for romantic interest; or may projectively identify, unwittingly “placing into” the counselor some bit of unfinished business the client does not know how to resolve, e.g., when a client who refuses to call others on irresponsible behavior shows up in in session irresponsibly in order to observe how the counselor deals with it, and by observing this, to learn how to deal with it himself.

It takes a good bit of experience, intuitive alertness, and skill for the philosophical counselor to recognize when such dynamics have entered the dialogue. The best response varies, of course. The counselor whose client is projectively identifying, for example, may accept the projection and role-play a solution, which the client is then free to accept or reject. On the other hand, the more productive direction may be to point out to the client what he or she is doing, refuse the projection, and work directly on the core issue together. Transference usually resolves as the work progresses; projection almost always needs to be called out. In all cases, however, the counselor fails the client if he allows any narrative defending what needs to be deconstructed and transcended to go on for too long. The effect of a protracted client monologue on what “doesn’t work” amounts to a kind of filibustering that can run out the clock, postponing self-work and its immeasurable benefits.

In such cases, it is the philosophical counselor’s duty, at some point, to interrupt the client’s narrative, which may take on a relentless, stream-of-consciousness quality that seems all but designed to keep the counselor from getting a word in. No one likes to be interrupted, of course, least of all clients arguing for a highly charged limitation, but it is not the counselor’s job to give audience to untruth, nor to allow the client’s fear or commitment to a false or contradicted belief to use up the allotted time. It doesn’t seem to me that any counselor worthy of the title will collude with a client who, lost in immersion, seems more committed to being right than being happy.

It is useful, in general terms, to be aware that we may slip into a narrative, inner or outer, that seeks to make a case for ways of being that hold us back, deny our better understanding, and perpetuate our distress. Getting “under” such a narrative requires a profound honesty and teachability. But the fact that we can be our own worst enemy should be sobering for us all.

The first of Aristotle’s three “laws of thought,” the law of identity, tells us that “x equals x.” The second, the law of noncontradiction, tells us that “x never equals not-x.” These equations seem so obvious. one wonders why Aristotle felt the need to state them. And yet, in every philosophical counseling session, it comes down to this—to helping the client sort out “x” from “not-x,” and stop confusing or conflating them. Even when the cost of coming back to the truth is high, it is never as high as the cost of staying immersed in contradiction, false opinion, and suffering.