Tea or Coffee?

Tea or Coffee? – Making Existential Concepts Accessible

At the Society of Existential Analysis Forum, Clare Mann led a discussion entitled ‘Tea or Coffee? Making Existential Concepts accessible to the Layperson’. The following is the transcript of her presentation, which preceded lively discussion.

This forum offers an opportunity to discuss ways in which we can reach the nonpsychotherapeutic community without diluting our professionalism. But how exactly do we reach the non-psychotherapeutic community without diluting our professionalism?’ Is there not a danger that if we try to capture the interest of layperson in creative or novel ways, we might be accused of being gimmicky or cheap? If we tried to raise the layman’s interest through catchy PR phrases, might this not be seen as cheap salesmanship? However, not to make our message attractive and appropriate to different markets, might mean that the message does not reach them at all. I would like you to listen to the following song with this in mind – this song might be a valuable means of capturing the interest of certain laypeople.

The single ‘Get on with your Short Life ‘ by Brian Kennedy was played to the group. It is popular song which challenges the listener to examine their quality of their current choices. Clare chose it believing it to be a song that would appear to a young audience – an example of a non-psychotherapeutic audience. At the end of the song she continued:

‘So how can we reach the non-psychotherapeutic community without diluting our professionalism? Every day, many of us work with clients dispelling the fundamental concepts of freedom, choice, responsibility and living with anxiety. However, seldom do we discuss with them existential philosophy – through relationship with them, we facilitate exploration of their choices, the implications of those choices and ways in which they can improve their lives. But outside of one to one client work, how can we operationalise existential philosophy for the person in the street in the 21st century?

Could we offer workshops entitled ‘An exploration of existential phenomenological methodology and its role in your life?’ or could we learn to speak their language? Because phenomenology is the premise on which our practice is based – dare we assume that we could ever speak the language of any socially defined group? And if we could do so, are we not in danger of prostituting our wares as we speak the language of pop psychology?

I have spent a lot of time thinking about this in relation to the many markets that do not know of the existence of existential theory. For example, I have a 16-year-old niece who is only too well aware of the choices she currently has – or at least the ones she is aware of. If I was to invite her or young women between 18 and 25 to a workshop on exploring those choices, I might be better equipped if I played the song I have just played you ‘Get on with your short life’ rather than directly providing a diet of existential concepts.

Having worked as an occupational psychologist and management trainer for over 14 years, I have witnessed first-hand the array of life-coaching and individual development practices on offer. Many of these are highly directive and require slavish adherence to a set of jointly developed goals and objectives. Some involve a life coach who rallies the client to arms – calling them on a weekly, daily or even hourly basis imploring them to realise their goals. However, my personal belief is that, on closer inspection, these approaches not only relinquish responsibility to the coach but choices by the client are only made within very narrow socially and culturally acceptable parameters. Personal development options on offer span from those with a religious or spiritual flavour to counselling, therapy and more directive goal-setting approaches. Is there room for personal development workshops for people who don’t want to enter therapy but who wish to explore, in its widest sense, their life choices?

This forum aims to provide us with the opportunity to explore this question for I am sure it is a question you have all asked and have different suggestions and views to put forward. I believe there is room for such workshops where existential philosophy underpins the approach. I would like to tell you about a set of workshops I am currently developing which aim to reach the layperson (and by this I mean the non-psychotherapeutic community) wishing to explore their current life choices – those who have probably never considered one to one counselling or psychotherapy. However, many of the options available are of a religious flavour or too directive in their approach. My workshops are informed by my forthcoming book entitled The Myths of Life & The Choices We Have.

My book attempts to operationalise key existential concepts of choice, freedom, responsibility, anxiety, being with others, creating our reality and death. I have tried to do in a straightforward and accessible manner through the language of myths. Through a series of practical activities, levelled at the individual’s personal everyday choices, the individual can explore their options, the implications of taking different paths and the anxiety that results from choosing.

Questions like ‘Tea or Coffee?’ the title of this talk indicate the simple choices that each of us face on a daily basis. They imply that a choice is to be made. For many people, this choice is not as straightforward as one would think. I remember my mother when she was alive asking my father ‘Would you like tea or coffee Vic?’ to which the reply came ‘I’ll have the same as you dear!’ Presumably my father was ‘choosing not to choose’. His answer, of course, meant that my mother then had to make more choices – to choose for him, to refuse to choose for him, to start an argument. Invariably she chose for him and he invariably replied ‘But you haven’t put sugar in it!’ More choices…we would go on all night.

So how can we expand the exploration of choices for the layperson and make it real in their everyday life?

My book asks the reader ‘Have you ever wondered why you are not happy despite achieving many of the things you set out to accomplish? If you ask yourself that question, many answers will arise, some of which of which are rational and some more philosophically based. The problem with searching for happiness is that the means of acquiring it is often laid out in narrowly defined limits – we never get in touch with the vast array of choices available to us because we only choose within acceptable social and cultural expectations. The assumptions underlying these given choices constitute Myths, which inform our choices and limit our options.

It asks the reader ‘Have you ever said to yourself, ‘I have achieved what I set out to achieve. I have the career, the home, the car, and the salary. Why aren’t I happy?’’ You are the best judge of what is right for you. However, most of us from the outset start on a path we believe will bring us happiness. For many, it might. For most of us, we are influenced by the rules, expectations and pressures of others who have chosen a similar path before. We never get in touch with our freedom – the freedom to choose the life we want to live. It is only by examining the role Myths play in our life, that we can re-evaluate our choices to date and choose more meaningfully who we want to be NOW’

In my book, the concept of myths is offered to the layman not in an allegorical, legendary or fabled manner but as something pervasive and which is fictitious, imaginary, invented, madeup, make-believe or untrue. If I can be presumptuous, these are words that tend to make sense to the layperson. Myths are presented as unquestioned assumptions, which inform our lives – a concept well known to the therapist. After an introduction on embracing the concept of freedom, the following Myths are explored. Whilst existential philosophy is only briefly introduced or labelled as such, the basic concepts are probably easy to identify. In a workshop setting, depending on the audience, I include differing amounts of labelled existential concepts. Some suggestions were made for each of the identified myths, namely:

  • Identity Myth Being someone other than who we want to be/ fitting in with others’ expectations and desires Anxiety & the cost of meaningful living Van Deurzen
  • Selfishness Myth We are selfish if we put our own needs before those of others Sartre & Responsibility
  • Group Myth It is better to be part of a group than be an individual. Sartre & Freedom & Bad Faith
  • Commitment Myth Impossibility of changing things in our lives once committed Choice and Becoming
  • Certainty Myth Belief that things are certain and solid Existential anxiety
  • Morality Myth The necessity of a moral code put down by others Sartre & the concept of Anguish & Abandonment
  • Dishonesty Myth Preference of discretion/modesty in our interactions rather than honesty Meaningful living/Cost of Dishonesty Heidegger & Authenticity
  • Myth that You can’t Change Behaviour is fixed/earlier choices negate future options. ‘We are doomed to be free’. Meaningful living vs choosing not to choose

At the forum, the Identity Myth was discussed further, together with an example of how this would be explored in a workshop. Links with existential theory were made although Clare explained how their inclusion would depend on audience needs. The Myths of Life & The Choices We Have contains 51 self-help exercises and different workshops comprise different combinations of exercises.

In my workshops, activities aimed at people’s everyday experiences, explore more fully the concept of freedom, namely that freedom is not to be found – it is to be acknowledged and enjoyed. It is through cultural and social Myths that we lose touch with the essence of our freedom. Identifying those Myths is the starting point for lasting personal change. Freedom isn’t about travelling to exotic destinations or achieving a glamorous lifestyle – it is about freedom of thought and meaningfully choosing the life we want to live. I hope my presentation has given you some food for thought.

The forum was then opened up to discussion on making existential concepts accessible to the layperson.

Article for Hermeneutic Circular Newsletter of the Society for Existential Analysis May 2003