The question of what constitutes psychological well-being has always fascinated me because it appears so elusive. With the exception of positive psychology, it is most readily defined as an absence of psychopathology and efforts to assert its constituent parts seem under theorized. Yet the notion of psychological well-being plays a significant role in the practice of psychotherapy. It provides, either explicitly or more often implicitly, the benchmark from which a clinician can assess a patient’s level of functioning, determine if the patient is getting better or worse, and ultimately, guide treatment decisions as it serves as the currency upon which therapeutic justifications are grounded.
One way to ascertain some components of psychological well-being is to examine what different theories of psychotherapy aim towards. By viewing the activity of psychotherapy through a phenomenological lens we are able to strip away theory specific jargon and its corresponding techniques to reveal a common component of psychological well-being shared by many divergent schools of psychotherapy. Arguably, this fundamental component is a person’s capacity for experience. This is evident with such diverse clinicians as object relations theorists who emphasize whole object relating, or cognitive-behavioral therapists who focus on increasing more realistic cognitions, or existential-humanistic practitioners’ emphasis on presence, and is particularly in vogue among clinicians who use mindfulness based practices found in such theories as DBT or ACT. In different language and in different techniques, these schools of psychotherapy, among others, aim to bolster and refine patients’ capacity to be present to their experience. But what does it mean to experience something? The word experience derives, in part, from the Latin word peritus, which includes the notion of peril and “to try out” as in to experiment. This suggests there is element of danger or risk involved with experience as the outcome of the experience is unknown. In On Our Way to Language, Heidegger (1959) described experience as “something [that] befalls us, strikes us, comes over us, overwhelms and transforms us” (p. 57). Key to Heidegger’s understanding of undergoing an experience is a sense of surrendering to, embracing, or enduring a process that lies outside our full control. To experience something then means to let go and allow oneself to be swept up, taken over, altered, and finally moved through an unfolding event.
The capacity to give way to an experience suggests that the converse is true; we can also manipulate our reception of it. In the service of self-protection, Freud observed that instead of fully submitting to a potentially painful experience we often employ different psychological maneuvers to delay, distort, or dismiss our experience. However, the degree to which we close down our openness towards experience is the degree to which we become estranged from our experience. This facilitates a feeling of alienation as we lose contact with our self and the world. As we wander away from or more deliberately disavow our experience, the more disoriented we become as we suffer in the psychological distress of being lost.
We find our way again through our experience. In this sense, to come back to our experience is a returning home of sorts, a return back to the ground of our being. To be able to experience something as it is frees us from needing to alter it. Our capacity to be fully engaged with our experience determines a kind of freedom that opens to us. Heidegger (1949) stated, “Freedom…lets beings be the beings they are. Freedom now reveals itself as letting beings be” (p. 125). When our capacity for experience is diminished, we are unable let beings be and therefore become ensnared in our manipulation of experience. As we constantly wrestle with, resist against, and finally release ourselves over to our experience we develop a more robust confidence in our ability to be present with that which is unfolding in our life. From this confidence we are able to relax into our experience and let it be as it is. Accordingly, psychological well-being emerges as a freedom to be with our experience as it is which fosters a sense of being at home in one’s world as oneself.
Heidegger, M. (1949). On the essence of truth. In D.F. Krell (Ed.). Basic Writings: Martin Heidegger (pp. 115-138). London: HaperPerenial.
Heidegger, M. (1959). On the way to language. New York: Harper and Row.
— Mark McKinley