Last weekend I went to a workshop run by Mick Cooper, Professor of Counselling Psychology at the University of Roehampton, author, researcher, therapist and Chartered Counselling Psychologist. During the day Prof Cooper told us about his schedule which, apart from university work, included extra academic research, preparing and running workshops and conferences, an arduous commute, family life, physical exercise and writing 2,000 words a day.
The workshop was an introduction to Existential counselling, a form of counselling that I trained in and use a great deal in my own work, and which I see interpreted in ways that I find increasingly concerning. Therapists, not just those actually trained in existentialism, often quote Viktor Frankl the founder of a form of existential analysis, as a way of saying 'Pull yourself together' something I've written about often, especially here.
Strangely, absolutely no one is saying that one must be immersed in rabbinical and Talmudic texts, as Frankl (and so many other therapists) was or that one must establish a kind of monomania about ones spouse, which Frankl did, an obsession he credited for keeping him alive. His work is only used as a way to tell people they're not good enough.
It's always been very popular to tell people they're not good enough and to pull themselves together. When we do it we place ourselves directly opposite losers, people who can't (or more likely, the lazy pigs, just won't) get their act together. The contrast makes us feel successful and positive, consistent, resilient, focused, leaning in - whatever other buzzwords are being thrown around today.
And so my invitation to you is to just get a grip and reproduce Mick Coopers' schedule. He has children so that's no excuse for you not to. Prepare and educate yourself, reject chaos, double down, strive for excellence. Get on with it. What are you waiting for? Why are you procrastinating? What the hell is wrong with you?
I don't know Prof Cooper but I can tell you two things about him:
And whilst energy can be cultivated there is only so much that a person can do. Mick Cooper can do all these things and you can't. I can't. Most people can't. Which is the single best reason why you and I and the huge majority of people aren't a professor and the author of 10 books.
There are some people who are consistently incredibly productive, often for decades. They get cancer and they work through it and fight it and beat it. Their child dies and they produce their magnum opus. They're exiled for 14 years and return to become the leader of a nation and Time's Man of the Year. Good for them.
So because they can do it, people who die from cancer are losers? Selfish, too, for not fighting hard enough and burdening their families? Bereaved parents who can't move on from this catastrophe, they're just workshy or weakminded? I know a number of people who are disabled and who run successful businesses - other disabled people have no excuse? Viktor Frankl survived concentration camps so all those lazy arses who died have only themselves to blame?
All of my clients are, by anyone's standards, very successful. When they feel that they're not doing as well as they have done in the past ask for help. And the ones who excel?
They're competitive but not vicious or scared. They work to their strengths whilst valuing and respecting aspects of their personality that aren't geared towards making money. They know that status within their employment is just another facet of personal success because they know endless numbers of peers who are rich and exhausted, cynical, addicted, burning out, psychopathic and phoney.
Ultimately, they are concerned with what is meaningful for them and don't try to be what they're not. Frankl, like the other Existentialists, understood that meaning gives flavour and satisfaction to life. Here's one of his quotes that is plundered much less often:
“Don't aim at success. The more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success,
like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one's personal
dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one's surrender to a person other than oneself.
Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it.
I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge.
Then you will live to see that in the long-run—in the long-run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had
forgotten to think about it”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
Just by being themselves they're being (not doing) what the Harvard Business Review recognises as resilient. Not fighting anything. Not surviving a terrorist attack. They're taking the time to discover what is important for them and doing just that.
I loathe this kind of Inspirational Quote. The cliché of a Wise Exotic Person, in this case that acme of wisdom, a Native American; the shrewd observation of nature; the comparison between something ordinary and ubiquitous against something noble and clever; and the requirement to change your attitude, you weak, stupid fool.
Clearly, this person has never seen a raptor in the rain. This kind of ‘inspiration’ is too often built on fantasy, ignorance and the desire not to encourage but to load blame on to vulnerable people. It has the added benefit that it makes us feel better about ourselves.
Viktor Frankl and his selectively quoted book, "Man's Search For Meaning" is often used to punish people: "When we are no longer able to change a situation - we are challenged to change ourselves." "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."
Can we be clear? Frankl was writing about his experience in a Nazi concentration camp. Although he hypothesised about what signs individuals gave of despair as a prelude to their death these are not research results, they are the desperate observations of a dying man. Using Frankl’s words in this way suggests that if only those spineless failures in concentration camps who gave up had just changed their attitude a lot more of them would have survived. Frankl turned the memory of his wife into a kind of religious mania, an act he credited with keeping him alive, but I’m not aware of any inspirational quotes suggesting we all do the same.
There’s a great deal to be said about altering our attitude towards events. It’s absolutely true that if we can gather ourselves after a failure, loss or catastrophe and keep moving forward then we are more likely to achieve more and perhaps be happier. This can be very important for people who’ve experienced bereavement, at some point they need to drag themselves away from misery and shock if they’re not to remain out of the world. But some people will remain in that state. Do they have terrible attitude? Are they stupidly refusing to be helped?
Or has no one offered them the kind of help that they can accept?
There’s always a reason for a ‘bad attitude.’ Sometimes it’s a personality habit and it’s no use saying that this can be dealt with by snapping out of it: in every situation people do what they believe is best. When we say they should just try harder or be nicer their perception of the world as a place full of cruel people who have no empathy is compounded.
Happily, an increasing number of people are beginning to speak out about their failures and anxieties, their inability to buzz through the world like a chainsaw, the mental illness that floors them and the shock and humiliation of collapse. Less dramatically, we’re recognising the existence of introverts who make up around half of the population and who are quickly exhausted by having to do things that extroverts are energised by. Like go to meetings. Or talk to people.
By the time that most people come to therapy they’ve moved past the possibility of changing their attitude into miserable paralysis. Thank goodness. That’s the place where change happens, not in denial of reality.
Let’s look at another Viktor Frankl quote – one that’s longer, more complex, requiring more reflection than those chosen by other people who want us to get a grip:
“Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the very essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he could become, he makes these potentialities come true.”
― Viktor E. Frankl, Man's Search for Meaning
When we tell people to change their attitude we shut them down. When we acknowledge the reality of their situation - that they are unique, that they are not us - when we give each other compassionate space, then genuine, individual growth becomes possible. Not growth to satisfy anyone else’s idea of success but growth that leads to their own concept of accomplishment.
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