Often psychotherapy embraces philosophical questions. The two practices of inquiry rely on thinking about fundamental questions of human existence. And while I do not profess to be a philosopher or to do the work of philosophy, I am familiar with one philosophical question which often arises in < a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychotherapy">psychotherapeutic treatment: what is the impact of a person’s subjectivity? Is there really something like objective experience or do we experience reality and the world in predominantly subjective ways?
There are some well-known psychological experiments involving an unpredictable incident: a man runs into a classroom unexpectedly and then leaves. The accounts of that incident from those present in the classroom tend to vary greatly. What the man did, said, what he looked like, etc. vary according to the teller. Is there a way to say that there is an objective experience? Or rather, is each person’s experience of that incident what had indeed happened? Of course, there are facts in life – usually these are either verifiable or commonly accepted. But if 5 people experience the same event in 5 different ways, there is a subjective truth as well.
The theme of human subjectivity is the focus of the well-known Japanese short story Rashomon by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (made into a movie by Akira Kurosawa). The film depicts the rape of a woman and the murder of her samurai husband through the widely differing accounts of four witnesses, including the bandit/rapist, the wife, the dead man (speaking through a medium), and lastly the woodcutter, the one witness that seems the most objective and least biased. The stories are mutually contradictory and not even the final version can be seen as unmotivated by factors of ego and saving face. One is left to wonder what the truth is, what is objective fact.
A primary focus in psychotherapy is to examine the client’s subjectivity. This is in no way to say that an examination of subjectivity implies that the person has “made it up” or that it is simply “in your head.” The subjective experience is indeed what that person experienced. When someone talks about a critical or intrusive parent, a self-centered spouse or significant other, our work isn’t to question that experience. I take it as fact, the subjective fact, that that is the person’s experience.
What we may question in terms of subjective experience is how one’s past may create the expectation or the lens for experiencing the present and future. If one has, for example, had a critical parent, might that person be more prone to feel criticized by teachers and other authority figures? If one has been primarily alone and responsible for oneself, might that person generally view others as not available or interested in helping? If that is the case, that one’s experience is shaped by previous experience, we may be able to change those expectations, that lens, so that the client may have a different experience in the present.
We strive in psychotherapy to discover more options, greater possibilities. Rather than, as in the example above, that person sees other authority figures in the guise of the critical father, our goal is that that person has a fuller range of experience with people in authority. And sometimes we strive for at least some degree of ambiguity. The person in our example might ask himself if that teacher really did intend to criticize him, if his boss really doesn’t like him. In this space of ambiguity, there are other possibilities and the past – in the form of the critical parent – isn’t necessarily being replicated.
To some extent, not entirely but to some degree, the world is what you make it. It is, of course, true that tragic and unfortunate events do occur. One is not in complete control of one’s life, and reality is not entirely subjective. But how one sees events, what one’s underlying beliefs are, can influence one’s life a great deal. Past experiences and the underlying beliefs that are associated with those experiences may limit the range of one’s creativity to shape his or her world. Psychotherapy is about opening and expanding that range and creativity. It is fundamentally about allowing for newer experiences and possibilities.