Tag Archives: Richard Watts

The Psychology of Doing Good

R and J in Field

At this point in history, it seems especially important to contemplate the psychology of doing good things in the world. I could have said this last month; and next month will doubtless be the same. The point is that even in these ostensibly difficult times, people aren’t built to exclusively do harm and be destructive . . . we’re also built to do good and be constructive. If I was into using bad metaphors, I might even say we’re hard-wired to do good.

You might wonder if I’m serious. Absolutely yes.

You might wonder why and how I would decide to write about doing good, when it seems so common right now for everyone to be doing the Dale Carnegie opposite: losing friends and insulting people.

The short answer to this is: Alfred Adler.

Alfred Adler is the short answer to many questions. He was a contemporary of Freud who perpetually saw the glass as half full. When Freud was writing about women having penis envy, Adler was writing about how women just wanted social equality and equal power. When Freud was writing about the death instinct, Adler was writing about the best and most important psychological concept of all time. What was it? Here it is. Get ready.

Gemeinschaftsgefühl

Gemeinschaftsgefühl roughly means social interest or community feeling. Carlson and Englar-Carlson (2017) provided the meaning of this uniquely Adlerian concept.

Gemein is “a community of equals,” shafts means “to create or maintain,” and Gefühl is “social feeling.” Taken together, Gemeinschaftsgefühl means a community of equals creating and maintaining social feelings and interests; that is, people working together as equals to better themselves as individuals and as a community.” (p. 43)

The coolest thing about Gemeinschaftsgefühl is that it’s all natural. We are pulled toward social interest and community feeling. In fact, there’s no other good explanation for why so many people around the world reach out to help their neighbors, friends, family, and strangers—without expecting anything in return.

As my friend and colleague Richard Watts has emphasized, Gemeinschaftsgefühl also makes for a fabulous therapy goal.

Tomorrow (or Thursday), I’ll be posting about Gemeinschaftsgefühl. For today, I just want you all to get to know Alfred Adler a bit better. So here’s a short excerpt about him from our Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories text.

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Alfred Adler (1870-1937) was the second of six children born to a Jewish family outside Vienna. His older brother was brilliant, outgoing, handsome, and also happened to be named Sigmund. In contrast, Alfred was a sickly child. He suffered from rickets, was twice run over in the street, and experienced a spasm of the glottis. When he was 3 years old, his younger brother died in bed next to him (Mosak, 1972). At age 4, he came down with pneumonia. Later Adler recalled the physician telling his father, “Your boy is lost” (Orgler, 1963, p. 16). Another of Adler’s earliest memories has a sickly, dependent theme:

One of my earliest recollections is of sitting on a bench bandaged up on account of rickets, with my healthy, elder brother sitting opposite me. He could run, jump, and move about quite effortlessly, while for me movement of any sort was a strain and an effort. Everyone went to great pains to help me, and my mother and father did all that was in their power to do. At the time of this recollection, I must have been about two years old. (Bottome, 1939, p. 30)

In contrast to Freud’s childhood experience of being his mother’s favorite, Adler was more encouraged by his father. Despite his son’s clumsy, uncoordinated, and sickly condition, Adler’s father Leopold, a Hungarian Jew, firmly believed in his son’s innate worth. When young Alfred was required to repeat a grade at the same middle school Freud had attended 14 years earlier, Leopold was his strongest supporter. Mosak and Maniacci (1999) wrote about Adler’s response to his father’s encouragement:

His mathematics teacher recommended to his father that Adler leave school and apprentice himself as a shoe-maker. Adler’s father objected, and Adler embarked upon bettering his academic skills. Within a relatively short time, he became the best math student in the class. (p. 2)

Adler’s love and aptitude for learning continued to grow; he studied medicine at the University of Vienna. After obtaining his medical degree in ophthalmology in 1895, he met and fell in love with Raissa Timofeyewna Epstein, and married her in 1897. She had the unusual distinction of being an early socialist and feminist.

Historical Context

Freud and Adler met in 1902. According to Mosak and Maniacci (1999), Adler published a strong defense of Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, and consequently Freud invited Adler over “on a Wednesday evening” for a discussion of psychological issues. “The Wednesday Night Meetings, as they became known, led to the development of the Psychoanalytic Society” (p. 3).

Adler was his own man with his own ideas before he met Freud. Prior to their meeting he’d published his first book, Healthbook for the Tailor’s Trade (Adler, 1898). In contrast to Freud, much of Adler’s medical practice was with the working poor. Early in his career, he worked extensively with tailors and circus performers.

In February 1911, Adler did the unthinkable (Bankart, 1997). As president of Vienna’s Psychoanalytic Society, he read a highly controversial paper, “The Masculine Protest,” at the group’s monthly meeting. It was at odds with Freudian theory. Adler claimed that women occupied a less privileged social and political position because of social coercion, not physical inferiority.

The Vienna Psychoanalytic Society members’ response to Adler was dramatic. Bankart (1997) described the scene:

After Adler’s address, the members of the society were in an uproar. There were pointed heckling and shouted abuse. Some were even threatening to come to blows. And then, almost majestically, Freud rose from his seat. He surveyed the room with his penetrating eyes. He told them there was no reason to brawl in the streets like uncivilized hooligans. The choice was simple. Either he or Dr. Adler would remain to guide the future of psychoanalysis. The choice was the members’ to make. He trusted them to do the right thing. (p. 130)

The group voted for Freud to lead them. Adler left the building quietly, joined by the Society’s vice president, William Stekel, and five other members. They moved their meeting to a local café and established the Society for Free Psychoanalytic Research. The Society soon changed its name to the Society for Individual Psychology. This group believed that social, familial, and cultural forces are dominant in shaping human behavior. Bankart (1997) summarized their perspective: “Their response to human problems was characteristically ethical and practical—an orientation that stood in dramatic contrast to the biological and theoretical focus of psychoanalysis” (p. 130).

Adler’s break from Freud gives an initial glimpse into his theoretical approach. Adler identified with common people. He was a feminist. These leanings reflect the influences of his upbringing and marriage. They reveal his compassion for the sick, oppressed, and downtrodden. Adler embraced egalitarianism long before it became anything close to popular.

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Stay tuned. Tomorrow I’ll be posting some content on Gemeinschaftsgefühl. I can hardly wait.

Today, I’ll leave you with some of my favorite Adlerian quotations.

“An incalculable amount of tension and useless effort would be spared in this world if we realized that cooperation and love can never be won by force.” (Adler, 1931, p. 132).

When a doctor once said to Adler: “I do not believe you can make this backward child normal,” Dr. Adler replied: “Why do you say that? One could make any normal child backward; one should only have to discourage it enough!” (Bottome, 1936, p. 37)

“All our institutions, our traditional attitudes, our laws, our morals, our customs, give evidence of the fact that they are determined and maintained by privileged males for the glory of male domination.” (Adler, 1927, p. 123)

“[E]ach partner must be more interested in the other than in himself. This is the only basis on which love and marriage can be successful.” (Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956, p. 432)

This is a photo of Jon Carlson. He was a devoted Adlerian and a great man. He passed away earlier this year. I, and many others, am indebted to him for the amazing work he did to not let Adler’s ideas fade into the past. Thank you Jon.

John and Jon on M

 

 

Secrets of the Miracle Question

This is a re-post from the American Counseling Association Blog.

You might want to sit down because this could take a while.

Developed in the 1970s by Insoo Kim Berg and Steven de Shazer, the miracle question has become a very popular therapy intervention. It’s standard fare for solution-focused therapists and has been written about extensively. In 2004, Linda Metcalf wrote a whole book about it and in 2010 Ryan Howes of Psychology Today declared it the #10 most “cool” intervention in psychotherapy.

To be honest, I have mixed feelings about the miracle question. Although I’ve used it with clients and found it helpful, I’ve never found it the least bit miraculous. It’s a good and clever question that helps clients focus on goals. But it’s no miracle.

My biggest problem with this intervention is the use of the word miracle. Miracles are, by definition, highly improbable, highly desirable, not explained by natural causes, and typically ascribed to divine intervention. Wow. That IS cool…

Using the word miracle to describe a common goal-setting question is excellent marketing. The only thing better might have been to call it the secret miracle question. But as I write this I hear the voice of Rich Watts in the back of my head muttering something about how everybody steals the work of Alfred Adler without giving him credit. Rich is President of the North American Society for Adlerian Psychology. My inner Rich Watts voice is noticing that the miracle question looks a lot like “The Question,” an intervention used and written about by Alfred Adler in the early 1900s. Adler’s version went: “How would your life be different if you no longer had this problem?” Again, good question, but no miracle. And hardly anyone (other than Rich Watts and his Adlerian buddies) ever mention The Question anymore.

If I dig a little deeper, what I find most problematic is that the word miracle leads counseling students and practitioners to adopt one or more of three false beliefs. They begin believing that the miracle question is: (a) a simple procedure, (b) easy to learn and implement, and (c) that it can result in a miracle. Sadly, none of these beliefs are true.

An example from popular literature might help. Think about how long it took Harry Potter to learn the Tarantallegra spell. In case you can’t recall, the Tarantallegra spell forces one’s opponent to dance. I don’t know long it took the fictional Harry Potter to learn the fictional Tarantallegra spell, but I’m certain that even in the fictional world created by J. K. Rowling it wasn’t during his first year at Hogwarts.

The miracle question name erroneously implies something quick and easy and miraculous is happening. Sort of like snapping your fingers and reciting that Tarantallegra incantation. You can try it that way, but it won’t work…because you won’t be manifesting an understanding of the incantation. I’ve seen novice counselors try the miracle question and the most common client response elicited is: “I don’t know.” This is because counseling miracles require sophisticated language and delivery skills, a solution-focused mindset, and education and experience.

The miracle question is all about sophisticated verbal behavior. We should recall that Berg and de Shazer were strongly influenced by the renowned hypnotherapist, Milton Erickson. This is one reason why, when done well, the miracle question resembles a hypnotic induction. Even de Shazer and his colleagues noted that it might take an entire therapy session to ask and explore the miracle question (see the book, More Than Miracles).

Although many published variants of the miracle question exist, below I’m including a detailed version, as described by Insoo Kim Berg and Yvonne Dolan in Tales of Solutions. As you read through this example, remember: The miracle question should be spoken slowly, there should be repeated pauses, and the therapist should deeply believe in the solution-focused principle that all clients already possess the inherent competence to produce positive changes in their lives. Here’s the question:

I am going to ask you a rather strange question [pause]. The strange question is this: [pause] After we talk, you will go back to your work (home, school) and you will do whatever you need to do the rest of today, such as taking care of the children, cooking dinner, watching TV, giving the children a bath, and so on. It will become time to go to bed. Everybody in your household is quiet and you are sleeping in peace. In the middle of the night, a miracle happens and the problem that prompted you to talk to me today is solved! But because this happens while you are sleeping, you have no way of knowing that there was an overnight miracle that solved the problem [pause]. So, when you wake up tomorrow morning, what might be the small change that will make you say to yourself, “Wow, something must have happened—the problem is gone!” (Berg & Dolan, 2001, p. 7, brackets in original)

If you’re by yourself, you might want to go back and read through the miracle question again. This time read it aloud. Think of a small problem of your own and freely insert a few references to it.

Technically, the miracle question is a projective or generative assessment tool and hypnotic induction strategy. This is because it asks clients to project themselves into the future and generate information or scenarios straight from their imaginations. Together, counselor and client create a virtual reality and then try to make it a real reality. This is where I agree with fans of the miracle question: That’s one cool intervention. It makes me want to dance.