I agreed to run for president of APA's Div. 32 (Society for Humanistic Psychology) in late 2018, well over a year before the coronavirus pandemic altered the trajectory of our lives. Suffice to say, being a “pandemic president” was not on my radar when I ran. However, it has permeated every aspect of my tenure—from conducting division business via email and Zoom to adapting our APA and divisional conference programs for online delivery. It's been a bit surreal, to say the least, but I have learned a lot. As my presidential year winds down, permit me to share some humanistic concepts that might help us navigate the post-pandemic world.
Mind and self
Jay Efran's context-centered therapy (Efran & Soler-Baillo, 2008; Raskin & Efran, 2020) emphasizes two powerful contexts, “mind” and “self,” that shape our understanding and experience. When operating from the context of mind, we adopt a strictly defensive posture. We see danger lurking around every corner and fret about getting the short end of the stick. The mind is selfish and defensive, emphasizing safety and winning ahead of everything else.
There is nothing like a pandemic to push us into a mind-based point of view (Raskin & Efran, 2021). When our physical and psychological well-being is threatened, we attempt to avoid perceived perils and defeat presumed adversaries. This view perhaps explains the toilet paper hoarding at the start of the pandemic and more ominously, the “us versus them” thinking that has recently contributed to so many terrible acts of violence toward Asian Americans. Sadly, the mind perceives life as a zero-sum game in which someone else is always to blame for our troubles; scapegoating yields acts of hatred directly attributable to the mind's narrow and selfish point of view. When people get stuck in a mind-based orientation, bad things happen.
Humanistic psychology invites us to shift from mind to self. Becoming mindful of the mind (by observing it in action) is what permits this mind-to-self shift. The self, in Efran's conception, is guided by empathy, acceptance, and an appreciation of our shared humanity. When we operate from self, we are generous, accepting, and loving. This results in acts of selflessness, in which we put the welfare of others ahead of our own narrow self-interest. The health care workers and first responders who have risked their lives during the pandemic exemplify the self in action. Going forward, engaging with vaccine-resisters and mask-refusers from the context of self, in which we listen to and empathize with their hesitance rather than castigating and shaming them, is more likely to produce changed behavior. Yes, it seems counterintuitive, but it ties in with the next concept I wish to discuss—empathy.
Empathy is central to a humanistic worldview. As Carl Rogers (1951, 1959, 1961) taught us long ago, viewing the world through another's eyes is critically important—and much more difficult than it seems. Unfortunately, we have all been taught that actions speak louder than words, which is why taking action is usually prioritized over listening. Talking to others and understanding what they are going through is often undervalued; the bias toward “doing” something is strong indeed.
Too often during the pandemic, we have failed to listen and empathize. Rather than engaging one another in dialogue, we have been quick to blame and criticize (consistent with the “mind”-based orientation discussed previously). In trying to cope with pandemic's challenges, we have tended to demonize one another while adopting a “my way or the highway” approach. It's much easier to maintain ideological purity than to listen and appreciate contrasting points of view, even though it is the latter that encourages growth and openness to change.
Although providing empathy requires substantial effort, there is ample evidence that it works. One recent research study found that recidivism rates decreased when parole officers received empathy training intended to “reduce collective blame against and promote empathy for the perspectives of adults on probation or parole” (Okonofua et al., 2021, p. 1).
Politics is an area in which lack of empathy is painfully evident. Importantly, we should remember that empathy is a way of relating, not a psychological commodity that people either “have” or “lack.” This latter viewpoint has been all-too evident lately in Australian politics following Coalition MP Andrew Laming being ordered by Prime Minister Scott Morrison to undergo empathy training after news reports of Laming's disrespectful behavior toward women. Other Australian politicians and even many psychologists expressed skepticism that empathy training will have any effect, and it may not if Laming isn't open to it, something more likely so long as we denounce his case as hopeless. Assuming that lack of empathy is an immutable characteristic of a person instead of a way of relating perpetuates a self-fulfilling prophecy. Rather than seeing empathy in such all-or-none terms, perhaps the best way to elicit it is by “walking the walk” and engaging others empathically despite the obstacles. Harking back once again to Efran's context-centered therapy, when we provide care and acceptance to people, we invite them to contextually shift from a defensive mind-based viewpoint to a more open and empathic posture.
Recall the story of documentary filmmaker Deeya Khan, who encountered KKK member Ken Parker during the 2017 racial unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia. Rather than condemning Parker, Khan empathized with him and tried to understand his experience. This provided Parker room to become more open and to change, as he touchingly explained, “She was completely respectful to me. . . . And so that kind of got me thinking: She's a really nice lady. Just because she's got darker skin and believes in a different god than the god I believe in, why am I hating these people?”
Offering empathy from the context of self can lead to change and, as the above example makes clear, can promote the final topic I wish to discuss—equality and social justice
Equality and social justice
If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that there is a great deal of injustice in the world. COVID-19 did not strike equally. Race, gender, and socioeconomic status played important roles in who was vulnerable, who got sick, who got care, and who is getting the vaccine. The path towards remedying inequality in these areas requires shifting from mind to self and using the power of empathy to understand the needs of others.
As I write this, the trial of the police officer who killed George Floyd is receiving extensive news coverage. Like the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer, the trial constitutes the latest in a series of “consciousness-raising” events for white Americans. Long oblivious to the plight of their fellow Black citizens, many are at last empathizing in a manner they had avoided until now. It's a painful but necessary process.
Humanistic psychology can contribute to these difficult discussions through its emphasis on context and experience in understanding others. Too often, professional psychology has located problems within individuals; their distress has been seen as emanating primarily from within them rather than from the social circumstances in which they find themselves. Humanistic psychology has long criticized this sort of reductionism. It has discouraged pathologizing individuals while redirecting attention to the surrounding social context.
In my work as president this year, I am especially proud of Div. 32's ongoing work fostering dialogue about problems with and alternatives to the DSM-5 diagnostic manual. Rooting such dialogue in mutual empathy while trying to avoid ideological purity has resulted in the division spearheading two rather remarkable symposia for the 2021 American Psychological Association Convention. The first brings together developers of various alternatives to the DSM-5 to share their approaches and dialogue with one another about the future of mental health diagnosis. The second convenes a prestigious and diverse group of mental health professionals to explore the history of structural racism in our diagnostic frameworks, in an effort to raise awareness and move forward collaboratively. These are just two examples of ways in which humanistic psychology can play a critical role in advancing equality and justice.
It has been an honor serving as Div. 32 president. Although it has been a difficult year (and certainly not the presidential year I anticipated), I am proud of how we have risen to the challenges posed by the pandemic. Here's to generatively (and humanistically) venturing forth into a post-pandemic world.