In our Special Issue of October 1971, REASON published our first interview with Nathaniel Branden—a comprehensive, candid discussion which covered a broad range of topics. The response by our readers was overwhelmingly enthusiastic. We are now pleased to present a second interview, in which we invited Dr. Branden to share with us some of his thinking on aspects of psychology and psychotherapy not covered in his previous writing.
Nathaniel Branden is a name familiar to libertarians. Born in Brampton, Ontario in 1930, he studied psychology at UCLA and NYU. In 1951, he met Ayn Rand and began a long association with her that lasted until 1968, when their friendship ended in a bitter personal conflict. During the 1960's, Dr. Branden founded and directed the Nathaniel Branden Institute (N.B.I.), a lecture organization devoted to the dissemination of Objectivism, the name given by Ms. Rand to her philosophical system.
In addition to his lecture activities at N.B.I., Nathaniel Branden was co-founder and co-editor, with Ayn Rand, of THE OBJECTIVIST NEWSLETTER (later called THE OBJECTIVIST), from 1962 to 1968. It was in this journal that his articles on philosophy and psychology first appeared. Aside from their striking originality, his psychological theories were remarkable for their integration with philosophy. Keenly aware of the importance of philosophy, Dr. Branden continually emphasized the necessity of a sound philosophical basis for any theory of human psychology.
After the dissolution of N.B.I. in 1968, Nathaniel Branden moved from New York City to Los Angeles, where he resumed his practice as a psychotherapist. In addition, he lectured for a year at the USC School of Philosophy on the philosophical foundations of the biological and psychological sciences. In 1969, he published THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SELF-ESTEEM (Nash Publishing Co.), a major theoretical work that is perhaps best described as a treatise on philosophical psychology. With a major emphasis on his biocentric, or life-centered, approach to psychology. Dr. Branden systematically discussed a wide variety of topics—from epistemology, causality and volition, to psychology as a science, the nature of consciousness, romantic love and emotional repression.
As indicated by its title, THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SELF-ESTEEM developed the thesis that self-esteem is a fundamental psychological need of man. A specific application of this theme was presented in Dr. Branden's next book, BREAKING FREE, (Nash 1970), which illustrated, through transcripts of dramatic case histories, how childhood experiences often contribute to a negative self-concept and thereby hinder the development of one's self-esteem.
In his latest book, THE DISOWNED SELF (Nash 1971), Dr. Branden addresses himself to the problem of self-alienation, a condition in which a person "disowns" certain aspects of his personality and thus becomes oblivious to his real needs, desires and emotions. It is in this book that one can observe most clearly how Dr. Branden's abstract theories apply to his day-to-day work as a psychotherapist. THE DISOWNED SELF is a blend of theory and practice, where psychological problems are considered in terms of their practical causes, effects and solutions, as well as in terms of their wider implications for psychological theory.
Although Dr. Branden devotes most of his time to writing and psychotherapy, he takes an active interest in libertarianism. In addition to keeping abreast of libertarian journals, he has been a featured speaker at a number of recent libertarian conferences. And it is not uncommon to find him discussing, in his spare time, such issues as victimless crimes, limited government vs. anarchy, the role of American foreign policy, and the state of the libertarian movement.
REASON's interview with Dr. Branden was conducted by George H. Smith, author of the recent book ATHEISM: THE CASE AGAINST GOD (Nash Publishing Co.). Smith, who is also associate editor of BOOK NEWS (Academic Associates) and co-editor of INVICTUS, was assisted by R.A. Childs, Jr. and REASON associate editor Tibor Machan. The interview was done in two parts, each of which lasted nearly three hours. After reviewing the edited transcript, Dr. Branden gave it his approval.
REASON: In reading THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SELF-ESTEEM, BREAKING FREE and THE DISOWNED SELF, one is struck by how different each of these books is, in abstract level, in approach, and so forth. How do you see their relationship to one another?
BRANDEN: THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SELF-ESTEEM is, of course, the most theoretical and the most comprehensive in the subject it treats. In it, I attempted to lay the foundation of my way of thinking about psychology.
Today, my understanding has gone considerably beyond what I said in that book, but it still functions as my basic frame of reference. I tend to define my more recent identifications in relation to the views expressed there, as extensions of those views, or new applications, or modifications, or corrections.
BREAKING FREE is a different kind of book entirely. I think of it as an exercise, an experiment. As you know, it consists almost entirely of edited transcripts of therapy sessions. So much has been written about child-parent relations, but I wanted in that book to capture the child's perspective and experience in the words of the clients themselves—in effect, to let them tell their own stories—to tell how it was for them—and also to show how this information was elicited—and thereby to disclose how parents contribute to neurosis, to the formation of negative self-concepts, to the undermining of a child's self-esteem. My purpose was not to blame parents, or to deny the individual's responsibility for his own life, but to illuminate what happens in early child-parent transactions. The book is thus intended to be a help to self-understanding, as well as a warning to parents.
REASON: You don't deal with childhood very much in THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SELF-ESTEEM.
BRANDEN: That's right. At the time of writing the book, I recognized that childhood is where almost all neurotic problems begin, but that's not what I focused on. My focus was more on the present, just as it used to be, in earlier years, when doing psychotherapy.
But more recently, several years ago, I found myself compelled to plunge deeper into childhood experiences, in the course of working with clients, and then to work to integrate those experiences with the present. I found I achieved better results that way. And that shift of focus is expressed in BREAKING FREE. During the past several years, I have become far more interested in childhood.
As to THE DISOWNED SELF, I really regard it as a sequel to THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SELF-ESTEEM. The important breakthrough for me in that book was the treatment of the relationship of reason and emotion. I see this as a significant advance over my earlier approach.
Psychologists who emphasize the intellect, cognition, reason, tend to take a disparaging attitude toward emotions, though few of them will admit it. Often their attitude is implicit rather than explicit. Psychologists who emphasize emotions, and specialize in emotional-release types of therapy, tend to be hostile to reason and the intellect—though, again, few of them will admit it. I reached a point where I saw that a new integration was necessary. I wanted, in THE DISOWNED SELF, to provide that integration—to show a better way of thinking about the relationship of reason and emotion.
Now, the desirability of achieving such an integration is not arguable. The question is: How is it to be done? How does one implement it? That is what I wanted to answer in THE DISOWNED SELF.
Explicitly, of course, the theme of the book is the problem of self-alienation—the state that results when an individual represses and disowns certain of his needs, feelings, desires, hurts, frustrations, fears, longings, and so forth. That problem is the vehicle through which the issue of reason and emotion is explored.
REASON: Is there any connecting link that unites the three books?
BRANDEN: The three books are united by their concern with self-esteem. They may all be viewed as variations on the theme of self-esteem. They deal, in different ways and from different perspectives, with the conditions necessary for the attainment of self-esteem, the factors that result in the undermining of self-esteem, and the ways in which the presence or absence of self-esteem affects an individual's personality and life.
REASON: You characterize your approach to psychology as "biocentric." Can you elaborate on the meaning of this?
BRANDEN: "Biocentric" means: life-centered. So a biocentric psychology is one that approaches the study of human beings from a biological or a life-centered perspective.
Man is a living organism. Like all other organisms, his primary task is to exercise his capacities in dealing with his environment so as effectively to satisfy his needs, to preserve and enhance his well-being. The way in which an individual deals with this task is, I believe, the key to his psychology.
An understanding of the nature of man must begin with the study of the nature of life. Man's psychological nature can only be grasped in the context of his nature as a living organism. Man's nature, needs and capacities as a specific kind of organism are the source both of his unique achievements and of his potential problems. This is the view that dictated the general approach in THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SELF-ESTEEM.
On a more concrete level, here are examples that might help to illuminate what I mean:
When I began my studies of self-esteem, it seemed clear that self-esteem was an inherent need of human beings. What is a need, in the basic biological sense? It is a condition of an organism's survival and well-being, a condition of its continued efficacious functioning. So in order to establish that self-esteem was a need, I asked myself: In what way is self-esteem vital to a human being's survival and well-being? What does it have to do with the effectiveness of his functioning? That's the biocentric approach.
Or take my treatment of the question of mental health. By what standard is mental health or illness to be gauged? I answer that question by working from the premise that the mind has a clear survival-function: to keep the human organism in good cognitive contact with internal and external reality, with the self and with the world, and thereby to guide and regulate behavior. This led to the conclusion that a person is mentally healthy to the extent that the functioning of his consciousness is unimpeded by blocks, and that he is mentally unhealthy to the extent that blocks obstruct the functioning of his consciousness. That, again, is the biocentric approach.
To carry this last point a bit further: On a very general level, we can say that a person is neurotic to the extent that his perception of reality is distorted by wishes and fears. On a deeper level, neurosis can be understood as representing an interference with, an obstruction of, the normal integrative and self-regulating functions of mind. "Integration" is the key concept here. It's a key concept both in biology and psychology. Integration is central and basic to all living processes and to all cognitive processes. Neurosis is interference with cognitive integration—and thus interference with the life process.
Another illustration of the biocentric approach may be found in my treatment of the issue of volition or "free will" versus determinism. I attempted there to step outside the traditional philosophical context in which that problem is debated, and to approach volition biologically and to place man's power of choice in a biological context.
But beyond such examples—and I could give you many more—I am enormously interested in studying the parallels that I believe to exist between biological processes and psychological processes.
REASON: Do you plan to write about this?
REASON: Can you relate this approach to your views concerning the development of psychological problems?
BRANDEN: Well, let's consider how psychological problems begin. I am convinced that the root of neurosis—always or almost always—is the process of disowning, or repressing important aspects of one's own experience, repressing needs, emotions and perceptions.
The disowning process begins in childhood. A child may find himself in an environment that is frightening or even terrifying, frustrating, bewildering, perhaps excruciatingly painful. In effect, he feels himself trapped in a nightmare. Intolerable emotions threaten to overwhelm him and to render him incapable of functioning. How is he to protect himself? To preserve his sanity? To preserve his ability to function? That is the problem he confronts. He generates a solution, and within the limits of his knowledge it may be the only solution he can conceive: he learns to disconnect from his own emotions, to block his feelings, to become alienated from his own body.
Naturally, this process does not happen on a fully conscious or verbal level, and it does not happen to the same extent in everyone. Some degree of repression, however, seems to be a universal of childhood.
Later in life, the child's repression may give him no end of trouble; it may be reinforced again and again and may lay the foundation of future neurosis. If he does not learn to reconnect with his feelings, to discover his needs, his functioning will certainly be impaired. But here is the point: as a child, his repression had survival-value. In a special sense, one can say it was adaptive. Or the child felt it was.
Whether I am dealing with a child or an adult, my first question about a symptom is: What purpose does it serve? What is its felt or experienced survival-value? Objectively, neurotic symptoms reflect self-destructive processes; but subjectively, in the context of the individual's own experience and development, they represent an attempt at self-preservation, the protection of sanity or self-esteem, or protection of the person against pain. Symptoms are always goal-directed. They represent attempted solutions to problems.
So, when attempting to understand a symptom, I invite the client to consider: What is or was the problem to which your symptom represents an attempted solution? Is the solution a satisfactory one? Is it constructive? Does it enhance and contribute to your life? If it harms and diminishes your life, are alternative solutions possible?
The characteristic of a neurotic is that he clings to solutions that don't work; he is caught in a rut; he is rigid and inflexible. The essence of the creative approach to life, in contrast to the neurotic approach, lies precisely in the freedom to change, to leap beyond an outmoded context, or rut, to experiment, to improvise, to grasp new connections, to try something one has not done before.
A neurotic, if he doesn't correct his problems, is something like the dinosaur. Early in life, the neurotic develops certain mechanisms that may have been adaptive at the time, given his particular environment. But now he has grown up, his environment has changed, and those old mechanisms are clearly maladaptive: they do not fit his new environment; he is no longer a helpless child dependent on his parents. But he clings to the old mechanisms, and sometimes goes down with them to destruction, like the dinosaur who perished when he found himself in an environment for which his adaptive mechanisms were inadequate.
The dinosaur was incapable of generating new solutions, new adaptive mechanisms. But a human being, by virtue of his intelligence and his conceptual faculty, has an option: he can question the adaptiveness of his responses to life and, in the case of maladaptive responses, can develop better alternatives.
REASON: You speak of symptoms as being "goal directed." Could you give illustrations?
BRANDEN: Let me tell you about two cases that exemplify what I mean—and, at the same time, will show you something of the way I work.
Once, when I was giving an all-day workshop in New York City, a young man presented the following problem. In his attempts to establish relationships with girls, he said, he invariably was unsuccessful; he went to parties, he went to bars, he approached women and tried to talk to them, but nothing ever went right. The women turned away, or else they gave him phone numbers where they did not live. He was twenty-five years old, he did not consider himself bad looking—and he wasn't—but he had never slept with a girl and, he claimed, this was making his desperately unhappy as well as absolutely bewildered as to why he always failed. He wanted to give me more of his life history but I stopped him at that point and said that I thought we had enough to begin.
The workshop group consisted of twenty-three participants, sitting in a circle. I suggested that we try an exercise that might prove productive. I would give him the first part of a sentence; he would go around to each person in the room in turn, look directly at the person, and repeat the first part of my sentence plus any ending he cared to give it; he was not to worry whether or not his endings were true or false, reasonable or ridiculous. When he positioned himself before the first person, I gave him the phrase I wanted him to work with: "I willfully and deliberately turn girls off by—" He turned to me indignantly. How could I give him such a phrase? Didn't I understand his problem? Hadn't I been listening?
I told him this was only an experiment; an experiment means doing something for the purpose of discovering what will happen when you do it. He turned back to the first person, but instead of looking at that person as I had requested, he looked two feet above at the wall, and his first sentence was: "I willfully and deliberately turn girls off by—never looking at them when I speak to them!" He moved to the next person: "I willfully and deliberately turn girls off by—always acting like a clown and a jerk in their presence." He moved to the next person: "I willfully and deliberately turn girls off by—talking and talking and talking and never listening to a word they say and making it perfectly clear I couldn't care less about what they have to say." While the rest of the room looked on with astonishment, this young man went around to each person and announced twenty-two ways in which he willfully and deliberately turned girls off.
When he had finished, he appeared a bit dazed, almost punchy, and I asked him, "By the way, are any of these statements true?" Incredulously he muttered, "They're all true."
"Fine," I said to him. "Now I want you to try something else. I'm going to give you a number of different phrases now and I want you to come right back with the very first completion of the sentence that occurs to you. Never mind whether or not it makes sense." He indicated that he understood and we proceeded as follows.
I said to him, "I willfully and deliberately turn girls off so that—" He replied, "—so that I won't have to sleep with them." I said, "The prospect of sleeping with a girl is frightening, perhaps, because—" He replied, "I'll be overwhelmed, I'll be annihilated. I'll be wiped out. I'll be pulverized."
Hearing that, the next line of inquiry was obvious. I said, "Mother was always—" He replied, "—domineering, trying to control me in everything I did." I said, "Mother never—" He replied, "—would let me do anything my way; everything had to be her way." I said, "Mother always seemed to expect—" He replied, "—that I be subordinate to her in everything." I said, "That made me feel—" He replied, "—weak, helpless, inadequate, annihilated, pulverized." I said, "Women are to me—" He turned to me in astonishment as he completed the sentence: "—all just like Mother!"
I might mention, in passing, that this full exercise took about nine minutes. When I told this story to one physician he commented, "There goes a year of psychoanalytic therapy."
Anyway, the point is that at the same time the young man was complaining about his failure with women, he was in fact engineering his own defeat—to protect himself in a situation in which he felt weak, helpless and inadequate. Within the context of his neurotic perspective, his bungling with women had survival-value—even though, objectively speaking, it stood in the way of his happiness and fulfillment as a man.
Now, of course, we could go deeper into the roots of his problems and discuss their origin; but that's not really essential in this context. If we did, however, we would find that his dependence on his mother was also goal-directed; it served to keep him a child—and thus to avoid the responsibilities of adulthood.
But let me tell you about another case that's far more dramatic.
REASON: Go ahead.
BRANDEN: This was also a man in his middle twenties—highly intelligent, sensitive, but very passive, very timid, very soft-spoken, very withdrawn and very self-pitying. He was holding down a fairly meaningless job—meaningless, that is, relative to his intellectual potential. He couldn't seem to get his life started. He complained of not knowing how to focus his energies. He complained of not having any friends and of not knowing how to relate to other people. He projected a quality of forlorn helplessness and hopelessness.
One day, in group, he said that he wanted to work on the problem of why he wasn't getting anywhere with his life.
I asked him to begin with what I call "the death-bed exercise"—as described in THE DISOWNED SELF—which meant that I asked him to lie on the floor, to close his eyes, and to imagine that he was in a hospital room bed and that he was dying. His life was over; he had only a few more hours to live; all of his chances had been used up. Then I asked him to look up, in imagination, and see his father—who was a Lutheran minister—standing by the side of his bed. "There is so much that you have never said to him," I suggested, "so much that you've kept locked up inside of you. If ever your father would want to hear you, it would be now. If ever it would be possible to reach him, it would be now. Talk to him. Tell him what it was like to be his son."
Slowly and reluctantly he began to talk to his father and to describe various childhood incidents that had been very painful or frightening. He spoke about ways in which he felt his father had been cruel to him—neglecting him in order to be free to do "good works" in the community, and so forth. But his manner was very cerebral, he was obviously disconnected, cut off from his emotions; his words were without feeling. One could see, from looking at him, that he was tensing his body and making himself numb to hold back an immense amount of rage that he felt he dared not express. So I knew we couldn't get anywhere until he could release, express and confront that rage.
I asked him to stop, and shifted into a different exercise. I asked him to remain lying on the floor, to begin shaking his head from side to side, and to say "No!" as he did so. When a person is angry and is holding that anger back, he tenses up the muscles in his back and shoulders—the very muscles that would be mobilized should the anger be released. By having him move his head from side to side, I was making it impossible for his neck muscles to lock completely, and thereby I was hoping to facilitate the release of feeling. Gradually his "Nos" became stronger and angrier—until he was stamping his feet, pounding his fists, and shouting "No!" at the top of his lungs.
Then I asked him to re-enter the hospital fantasy and to talk to his father again. He was emotionally connected now and he began to scream and to cry and to rage and to tell his father about the many hurts and frustrations that he had endured at his father's hands.
When I began the first exercise, I did so on the hypothesis that his relationship with his father was relevant to his problem; but I did not have a firm conviction as to the direction in which the work was going to take us. Now, suddenly, I had a hunch—an idea struck me—and I asked him to stay in contact with his father in fantasy and simply to say to his father, over and over again, "But I'm getting back at you!"
He began shouting this sentence and as he did so his rage kept climbing to higher and higher peaks of intensity. Then I switched to another exercise; I asked him to do sentence-completions beginning with the phrase: "I'm getting back at you by—"
He screamed, "I'm getting back at you by—being unhappy! I'm getting back at you by—sitting in my room all day alone! I'm getting back at you by—crying all the time: I'm getting back at you by—making a mess of my life! I'm getting back at you by—holding stupid, senseless jobs that don't lead anywhere! I'm getting back at you by—not having any friends! I'm getting back at you by—never letting myself be happy! I'm getting back at you by—never for a minute forgetting how much you hurt me! I'm getting back at you by—keeping my anger for you alive! I'm getting back at you by—never giving you anything to be proud of!"
So here you can see that the very symptoms of which he was complaining were serving a specific purpose; they were goal-directed.
REASON: Prior to the exercise, was he conscious of what he was doing?
BRANDEN: Not in the ordinary sense of the word "conscious." Obviously the knowledge was in his brain in some form, or the exercise wouldn't have worked as it did, but the information was blocked from conscious awareness.
Once I walked into the waiting room of my office and there was a very pretty girl of seven or eight years old, whose father was being seen by another therapist in my office. She said to me, "Mister, what do you do in there?" I really felt puzzled for a moment: how was I going to explain to a child the nature of my work? Then I said to her, "Well…what I do is…I teach people that they know all kinds of things they think they don't know." She smiled and thought for a moment and said, "Gee, that's pretty good." "I think so too," I told her.
These two case histories demonstrate what I mean.
REASON: Is it characteristic of your way of working to move very rapidly from one exercise or technique to another, as you did with the second case?
BRANDEN: I call that method "compounding"—riding on a kind of momentum that crashes through walls and defenses. Sometimes I work that way; sometimes not; it's not standard operating policy—it depends upon the particular problem.
REASON: Let's go a little bit deeper into this second case. What was the man really after by acting as he did?
BRANDEN: I would say that his self-defeating behavior had two immediate goals: it was an act of revenge, a way of inflicting pain on his father—and, at the same time, a scream for help, a way of signaling to his father: "See what you've done to me? See how unhappy I am? Now will you be a father to me and satisfy my needs?"
Now why was he unwilling to accept the past and put it behind him? Why was he unwilling to say, in effect, "Okay, I had a rotten, miserable, frustrating childhood. But I'm not a child any longer. So what am I going to make of my life?"
REASON: We were wondering about that.
BRANDEN: Part of the reason is that he had never adequately dealt with his childhood pain, never got it out of his system; he had frozen himself emotionally in order to avoid feeling it—and had paralyzed himself intellectually in the process.
But deeper than that was the longing to remain a child—in the hope that somehow those frustrated childhood needs would be fulfilled by someone. To put the past behind him would mean to accept the fact that those needs were never going to be fulfilled, that it was too late, that there is nothing more to be done, except to get on with his life. He couldn't or wouldn't tolerate that.
In the end, we are dealing here—as always—with the issue of a person's willingness or unwillingness to assume full responsibility for his own existence. This is the real meaning of adulthood and of maturity. It is a state that few people reach—or reach completely.
REASON: Probably many people who are familiar with your earlier work, with its heavy philosophical emphasis, would be surprised at the kind of therapy you are practicing.
BRANDEN: I suppose so. Occasionally a person comes to therapy imagining that our work is going to consist of philosophical discussions. I don't say that philosophical analysis has no place in therapy—sometimes it can be very valuable—but only after a person has begun to confront and re-own the repressed split-off aspects of his own personality.
Clients have to learn to challenge and attack false ideas, true enough. But so long as a person is self-alienated, so long as he is cut-off from his own feelings, intellectual analysis or discussion tends to be rather unproductive. Sometimes, it only serves to strengthen his defenses, to take him farther and farther away from himself.
REASON: What's striking about the cases you cite is that the clients made the discoveries themselves. You didn't act as the interpreter of their reports.
BRANDEN: Precisely. That's essential to the way I work. Interpretation on the part of the therapist must be kept to an absolute minimum, and avoided whenever possible. It's too easy to suggest mistaken interpretations to a vulnerable and susceptible client. But what the client discovers and confronts for himself has the marvelously satisfying stamp of authenticity. And the therapist doesn't fall into the trap of playing the omniscience game.
REASON: What you do is rather different from what one usually thinks of as group therapy.
BRANDEN: Most group therapy consists of the various participants psychologizing on one another. They tell one another what's wrong with them and what to do. I don't believe in that. I have never been convinced of its effectiveness. And sometimes it can be harmful. What I do is really a kind of individual therapy in a group context; however, the presence of the group is necessary and helpful for many of my exercises. And when an individual has finished working, I invite the group to give him feedback in terms of each member's own feelings and experiences while watching the person who is working. The various group members might discuss what they heard in the person's work that is relevant to themselves.
REASON: Does a client ever refuse to try one of your exercises?
BRANDEN: Occasionally. Not often. But everything is voluntary. If he doesn't want to try something, no one is going to insist.
No one even asks the client to work. The initiative for working on a problem is left entirely to the individual. When he feels ready to work, he asks to work. Nobody plays Big Daddy and leads him by the hand. If a client wants to sit in group for two months and never open his mouth, that's his privilege. But when he does open his mouth, it's a big step—and he did it himself.
REASON: Your therapy doesn't consist entirely of exercises?
BRANDEN: No. But I use them a great deal. I try to devise exercises that will allow an individual to discover truths he needs to know, with a minimum of comment or interpretation from me. But when a comment or explanation is necessary, of course I give it.
Also, I like to propose exercises or experiments for a person to do outside of therapy, in normal life situations, that hopefully will contribute to his growth. When a client has been behaving in a self-destructive manner, I encourage him to experiment with alternative ways of acting—and to discover what happens when he abandons his self-defeating maneuvers.
Sometimes in therapy—not too often—I will talk, just talk, about the wider meanings and principles to be found in the work we are doing or in the work of a particular client. Or I will talk about philosophical or religious ideas prevalent in our culture that encourage the development of neurotic symptoms. Or I will talk about principles of clear and effective thinking. But such discussions are generally kept to a minimum. It's too easy to waste time with verbal exchanges that have no therapeutic value. On some days I will simply move from one exercise to another, with virtually no discussion or conversation at all.
REASON: In THE DISOWNED SELF, you speak of three concepts that are central to your work: self-awareness, self-responsibility, self-assertiveness. Could you amplify the meaning of these terms?
BRANDEN: Let me insert a fourth concept: self-acceptance. The pillar of self-esteem and mental health is these four ideas: self-awareness, self-acceptance, self-responsibility, self-assertiveness. Now what do they mean?
Self-awareness. Awareness of what? I would answer: awareness of feelings, needs, desires, emotions, ideas, evaluations and behavior. So therapy begins with teaching clients how to be self-aware, how to know what they are feeling and what they are doing.
Self-acceptance. Acceptance of what? Acceptance of all the items I have just named. Acceptance of the fact that all of these feelings, ideas, behavior and so forth are expressions of the self at the time they occur. Self-acceptance entails the refusal to disown any of these aspects of the self, any of these instances of self-expression. Not necessarily to approve of all of them, but to accept them as real and as one's own. Acceptance of the reality of one's own being, of one's own inner experience and one's own behavior. So, self-acceptance literally means: full realism applied to the realm of inner experience as well as to behavior. You know, people can verbally or intellectually acknowledge their feelings or reactions while denying them emotionally and psychologically, refusing to accept and integrate them. So self-acceptance means more than merely verbal acknowledgement; it means integration.
Self-responsibility. Responsibility for what? Responsibility for being the cause of one's own choices and one's own acts. Not responsibility in the sense of moral blame, but responsibility in the sense of recognizing one's self as the chief causal agent in one's life and behavior. Further, self-responsibility means: acceptance of responsibility for one's own existence. Acceptance of one's basic—metaphysical—aloneness. Acceptance of responsibility for the attainment of one's own goals. This last is extremely important. This is a theme I hit again and again in therapy. No one plays the "helplessness game" on a desert island; we can tell ourselves and others that we are helpless only if we expect someone to pick up the responsibility we have dropped.
Self-assertiveness. Assertiveness of what? Of one's desires and judgments. Of one's needs. Of one's right to exist and to be happy. Sometimes, as an exercise, I will ask a client to face the group and simply say, again and again, "I have a right to exist." For some clients, this is very difficult. It's interesting to observe what happens. First, the statement may be made hesitantly and tearfully; later, it may be made angrily; then, eventually, it is made firmly and with conviction. One can see the whole posture and demeanor of the person has changed: he has released his own power; he experiences his own strength; he asserts his own existence.
On the psychological level, these four concepts are the foundation of morality. A person can lead a moral life only to the extent that he practices self-awareness, self-acceptance, self-responsibility and self-assertiveness. Virtues such as honesty or productiveness or integrity are consequences of these principles and follow naturally from them.
These are principles children should be taught from the start of their life. These are attitudes parents must learn to cultivate, encourage and develop in their children.
The consequence of these principles is self-esteem.
REASON: Coming back to your opposition to what might be described as "didactic therapy," do you never directly argue with a client's ideas if you think those ideas are mistaken and are harming him?
BRANDEN: I never argue. If a client expresses a moral or philosophical notion I think is wrong, I may express my own view, but then I will invite him to explore the roots of his. If he really is mistaken, my job is to devise a means to help him to discover that fact by himself—not because I have talked him into it.
I think that, a great deal of the time, psychotherapists who argue with their client's mistaken ideas are naive. Let me give an example that may help to explain why.
Suppose a married couple comes to therapy for counseling. Their relationship is in trouble because the woman is very inhibited sexually. She claims to believe that there is something bad or sinful about sex.
Now many therapists at this point will decide that the first step of treatment is to get her to revise her thinking about sex, to persuade her that her ideas about sex are wrong. So they begin to work at educating her or propagandizing her about how good and wonderful sex is. That would not be my approach—at least, not generally.
REASON: What would you be likely to do?
BRANDEN: Well, since she is a human being who presumably has normal human needs and feelings and capacities, I assume that the ability and the desire to respond to sex positively already exists in her, only something is blocking it. Sex can be such a profound source of joy to human beings that I find it difficult to believe that a person authentically and all the way down regards sex as evil. Often, a person knows, intellectually, that sex is not evil, but claims for some reason to feel it's evil. So that's what has to be explored.
I might have the woman do a sentence completion exercise, beginning with the phrase, "The bad thing about sex is—" Or I might use the phrase, "Bad to me means—" And do you know what kind of completion I'm very likely to get? "The bad thing about sex is—Mother says it's dirty and rotten and sinful." "Bad to me means—disobeying Mother's wishes."
If this is the way the woman's responses developed—and this is not the only possibility, of course—she is led to reformulate her problem. She no longer says that she is sexually inhibited because she thinks or feels that sex is evil. She says that she inhibits herself sexually because she is frightened to do anything that might invoke her mother's disapproval. That is an altogether different proposition.
Now she is ready to explore the problem of her dependence on her mother. And we have saved ourselves hours and hours of discussions about the merits of sex. And when she is free of dependence on her mother, free to acknowledge and act on her own honest feelings, she is unlikely to need lectures from me on sex.
I want to make one qualification concerning what I have just said. In matters of sex, it is true that people are often dreadfully ignorant and misinformed and that therapists and marriage counselors often do have to educate their clients concerning "the facts of life." But that is a somewhat different matter from arguing philosophically about the meaning of sex. I hope this distinction is clear.
REASON: It is. But are you saying that all philosophically mistaken ideas are psychologically or neurotically motivated?
BRANDEN: Certainly not. That would be an absurd position to maintain. No, I am thinking of certain basic highly irrational and highly self-destructive notions, such as the notion that pleasure is evil, that have no conceivable basis in reality, no even superficial plausibility. In such cases, what has to be explored is why the person feels compelled to cling to such ideas, what purpose such ideas serve for him.
REASON: In working with clients, you are known to sometimes use techniques of Gestalt therapy. How prominently do they figure in your work?
BRANDEN: I do use Gestalt techniques, sometimes, when they seem appropriate to the situation. Or my own modifications of Gestalt techniques. But I am not a Gestalt therapist. Far from it. I have many disagreements with the Gestalt orientation, although some of the individual techniques are very effective.
I lean toward what Arnold Lazarus calls in his book, BEHAVIOR THERAPY AND BEYOND, "technical eclecticism." Not theoretical eclecticism, but technical eclecticism. Ultimately, there can be only one theoretically correct way of understanding human psychology, motivation, neurosis and so forth. But many different techniques, originating in many different schools, may prove useful in attacking particular problems.
A therapist should have as wide a repertoire of techniques at his command as possible, so that he can fit what he does to the specific client and the specific problem, rather than cling rigidly to one particular method whether or not it is the most suitable method in a particular case. So, aside from the techniques I have developed myself, I employ techniques developed by other schools when and as they seem suitable.
I think what probably distinguishes my way of working is my integration of the cognitive and the emotional, my method of constantly moving back and forth between the conceptual and the experiential, which is not a matter of a single technique but rather reflects a basic attitude, a philosophy, that is expressed through a multiplicity of techniques and the way in which they are interrelated practically, when I am working on specific problems.
Coming back to Gestalt therapy for a moment, I think that by itself it is very limited. It is not enough. One of my main objections is that it is so very anti-intellectual. "Thinking" is a bad word in Gestalt therapy. No distinction is made between authentic, rational thinking and phony, defensive intellectualizing. I once attempted to discuss the anti-intellectualism of Gestalt therapy with a prominent leader in the Gestalt movement, and do you know what he said to me? He earnestly assured me that Gestalt therapy couldn't possibly be anti-intellectual since its founder, Fritz Peris, was a highly educated and cultured man.
REASON: Do you see any value in Behavior therapy?
BRANDEN: We have to distinguish between Behaviorism as a psychological theory, to which I am profoundly opposed, and Behavior therapy as a set of techniques, some of which are very useful. "Behavior therapy" is not a unified school, and means different things to different practitioners. But some of the techniques associated with this orientation have demonstrated their effectiveness and have a valid place in a therapist's repertoire. One can agree that a particular technique is effective without necessarily agreeing with someone's theoretical interpretation of why it is effective. So at times I certainly do what can be described as "Behavior therapy." I would venture to guess that in some sense most therapists do.
REASON: Is it correct that you now exclusively do group therapy?
BRANDEN: Yes. For a number of years I did only individual therapy and was enormously skeptical about the value of group therapy. I couldn't imagine how working in a group setting could produce profound results. But a friend of mine, Dr. Roger Callahan, was doing group therapy as well as individual therapy and he invited me to sit in and watch him work. I was very impressed; I saw possibilities that simply hadn't occurred to me. That was in the mid-1960's.
Subsequently, in New York City, I did some experimental work with a few groups and became enormously excited by that way of working. It took me some time after that to develop my own distinctive method of group therapy which, as we mentioned earlier, is rather different that what most people think of as group therapy. In my experience, group therapy is for the majority of clients more effective, not less effective, than individual therapy. Now obviously this depends on the specific kind of therapy practiced and the particular skills of the therapist. There are many different kinds of individual therapy. There are very competent psychotherapists who work only on an individual basis. There is no reason why everyone has to work the same way. The way a therapist chooses to work is in part, of course, an expression of his own personality. The only point is to get results. For myself, I enjoy group therapy enormously and am convinced that I do my best work in that setting.
The range of experience offered to clients in groups is much wider and richer than that offered in individual therapy, and can be used to facilitate growth.
I think of my groups in effect as personal growth seminars. Experiential seminars, as contrasted with didactic seminars. I don't even think so much in terms of therapy, but rather in terms of growth, of helping the individual to discover and release his potential, intellectually, creatively, emotionally, sexually.
Sometimes a person comes to see me who I feel is not right for group therapy or not right for the specific kind of work I do, in which case I refer him to a colleague for individual work.
I have two special groups of clients, who, instead of meeting once a week for two hours, as in my regular groups, meet once a month for two days, on a weekend, for concentrated work. I started this more or less at the request of a number of clients who felt that their growth and development was better facilitated in the context of two-day workshops than in once-a-week regular groups. So I started one weekend group as a trial project, and the results were so satisfying that I began a second weekend group. It's very demanding, but very, very rewarding.
REASON: In addition to which, you give two-day workshops in various cities around the country?
REASON: Are clients ever turned off by your approach to therapy?
BRANDEN: Of course. If they don't mean business, if they don't really want to get into their problems, if they just want to play at therapy, I'm the wrong man to come to. Once, after doing an exercise that was very self-revealing, a client said to me, "You don't leave a person any place to hide." The next day he quit therapy. It's too bad. He was an intelligent person. But he had great resistance to knowing what he was feeling and what purposes were motivating his actions. When the exercise revealed some of this information to him, he had a choice: to deal with it—or to run. In therapy, courage is the name of the game. Courage to feel and confront and know and accept, and to take responsibility.
REASON: I'd like to return to an earlier point in our discussion. When you were talking about self-responsibility, you said that no one plays the "helplessness game" on a desert island. What do you mean by that? Don't you believe that people can genuinely feel and be helpless?
BRANDEN: If an avalanche is falling on you and there is no place to run, you are absolutely helpless; there is nothing to do but die. But that is not the condition of most people most of the time.
Of course we can sometimes feel helpless, in a specific situation, when we don't immediately know what to do or how to cope; but if we struggle to preserve the clarity of our mind, if we take the responsibility of looking for a solution, we are not surrendering to helplessness in a deeper, metaphysical sense, and we are not abandoning our will to efficacy.
The "helplessness game" consists of parading one's feelings of helplessness as a means of manipulating others into taking responsibility for the solution of one's problems or the burden of one's existence.
Sometimes when a client complains of feelings of helplessness, I will have him do a sentence completion exercise, "The good thing about feeling helpless is-" And then we hear such sentences as, "The good thing about feeling helpless is—people will feel sorry for me." "The good thing about feeling helpless is—I won't have to do anything." "The good thing about feeling helpless is—I don't have to get angry." "The good thing about feeling helpless is—someone will do something." "The good thing about feeling helpless is—I won't have to act and risk making a mistake." And so on.
In a similar way, people often produce confusion in themselves. I remember a young woman who complained that, at parties, when people began to discuss politics, she found herself becoming very confused and unable to follow or understand what they were saying. I gave her an exercise and she came out with such sentences as, "The good thing about being confused is—nobody will get mad at me for my political opinions." "The good thing about being confused is—I don't have to take a stand." "The good thing about being confused is—I won't be able to understand what people are saying and so I won't have to challenge them."
REASON: So we're back to the goal-directedness of symptoms again.
BRANDEN: That's right.
REASON: You seem very partial to the sentence completion technique.
BRANDEN: If I could use only one technique, that is the one I would choose. I have many different versions of it. One version is explained at length in THE DISOWNED SELF. But there are many other ways of working with sentence completion that I have developed. This technique is very complex and sophisticated; it may look easy, but it isn't; to use it well, to use it imaginatively and effectively, takes considerable practice and experience.
One of the things I like about the technique, in any of its variations, is that, when a client is properly into the exercise and working well, it becomes simultaneously a cognitive and emotional experience for him—sometimes a very explosive one. In some circumstances this exercise is sufficient, by itself, to produce dramatic changes in a person, to eliminate neurotic symptoms and inspire radical improvements in behavior.
REASON: When people are led to realize the goal-directedness of their symptoms, does that produce feelings of guilt?
BRANDEN: No. Emphatically not. Nor should it. For many clients, the reaction is one of relief and a sense of freedom—as though the client feels that his life's been given back into his own hands or, more precisely, he comes to realize that it always was in his own hands.
The client is encouraged to be, in effect, a good friend to himself and try to understand why he felt that his particular symptoms or neurotic method of behaving was necessary—in other words, why he felt his survival and self-esteem required it. Then he is ready to question the assumption of such necessity and is open to consider alternatives.
Speaking of guilt, you know, that's an emotion I tend to be suspicious of. I'm suspicious of self-condemnation in general. It, too, can be goal directed.
REASON: What possible purpose can it serve?
BRANDEN: "I'm no good—so expect nothing of me." "I'm no good—I said it first, so I don't have to wait in terror for you to say it." "I'm no good—so I don't have to try, I don't have to struggle, there's no point in struggling, since I'm worthless, anyway."
REASON: Is all guilt motivated by such considerations?
BRANDEN: No. But it's a possibility one has to be aware of.
Sometimes, a person wants to believe he's worthless in order to justify his parents' cruel treatment. By taking the blame on himself, he absolves his parents.
REASON: Why does he do that?
BRANDEN: Because, as a child, it feels too terrifying to regard himself as innocent, in view of how his parents treat him. That would mean, from his point of view, that they must be monsters. And he can't live with that idea—it's too frightening. So, paradoxically, out of self-protection, he takes the blame on himself—and may go on doing so for the rest of his life.
REASON: Can you relate your theory of self-esteem to the goal-directedness of symptoms?
BRANDEN: On the biological level, the ultimate goal and standard of the organism's activity—metabolic activity, self-repairing activity, and so forth—is the life of the organism itself, the preservation of its ability to function.
On the psychological level, the ultimate goal and standard is preservation of self-esteem, by which I mean: of a person's confidence in the efficacy of his mind, in his sense of control, and in his worth as a person.
If, for instance, a person disowns and represses various feelings, emotions, desires, he does so because he experiences them as threatening, threatening to his mental equilibrium, to his sense of control, to his effective functioning, or to his sense of personal worth. If a person retreats into fantasy rather than deal with the challenges of life, if he avoids testing his capabilities in action, he does so to preserve the illusion of a self-esteem he does not in fact possess.
The fear of aloneness, of self-responsibility, of loss of love, of rejection, all are related to fear of a basic feeling of powerlessness, ineffectiveness, helplessness in the face of reality. As I said in THE PSYCHOLOGY OF SELF-ESTEEM, man's deepest fear is not in dying but of feeling unfit to live, inadequate to the challenges of life, unworthy of existence.
REASON: In all three of your books you stress the fact that the teachings of religion are inimical to self-esteem and mental health. Do you plan to write on this subject at greater length in the future?
BRANDEN: I don't plan a specific book on the subject, but I do have more I would like to say and I rather think I will create some opportunity, at some point, to say it.
Many people are readily able to recognize the psychologically harmful effects of religion's antagonism to sex. That has been written about. But that is far from the whole story. Religion is much more than antisex. It is antimind, antiself-esteem, anti-intellectual self-confidence, antiself-assertiveness, antipleasure, antiself-interest. Which means, basically, that religion is antilife.
Philosophers have expressed themselves on the destructiveness of religion. Disgracefully, psychologists and psychiatrists have not, with very rare exceptions. Almost invariably they have chosen to remain silent on a subject of life-and-death importance to their profession.
Imagine a noxious agent in the environment that is infecting and killing millions of people, and the medical profession knows about it, but remains silent. What would you think? That is the state of psychology and psychiatry today—with religion, of course, being the noxious agent.
REASON: Is it possible that psychologists and psychiatrists are unaware of the harmful effects of religion?
BRANDEN: No, it is not possible. Anyone who engages in the practice of psychotherapy confronts every day the devastation wrought by the teachings of religion.
REASON: Then how do you explain the fact that you are one of the very few writers, in your field, who has chosen to deal with this issue in print?
BRANDEN: I can suggest two reasons. The first is that most psychologists and psychiatrists are—at least, such is my impression—very unphilosophical, very unaccustomed to thinking philosophically or dealing with philosophical issues. So I suspect that many therapists feel "over their heads" in this territory.
But I don't think that is the major reason. I believe the chief reason is moral cowardice. I remember my astonishment, many years ago, when I heard the head of a department of psychology say, "Imagine having the courage to announce over television that you are an atheist!" On another occasion, trying to discuss the subject with a prominent psychiatrist, I was told, "If you try to challenge people on religion, they'll kill you."
Most of the time, what I have encountered when I try to discuss this subject is some of the most incredible rationalizing and double-talk I have ever heard.
In my view, psychologists and psychiatrists who know the truth on this subject and who have access to public communication, but remain silent, are traitors to their profession. If preventive therapy is every psychologist's and psychiatrist's professed dream, then an expose of the harmful consequences of childhood exposure to the teachings of religion is a pretty good place to begin.
REASON: One final question. Are there any political implications to the work you do as a psychotherapist? Or to express the question differently, is there any connection between your psychological theories and your political convictions?
BRANDEN: All political theories rest, explicitly or implicitly, on a view of human nature, a concept of what man is, as well as a view of the values and code of conduct appropriate to him. My political convictions are a consequence and expression of my psychological and ethical convictions.
If, as a psychotherapist and as a human being, I value autonomy, individuality, self-responsibility, then it is not surprising that, in the sphere of politics, I am an advocate of political freedom—of libertarianism—of a social system based on the inviolability of individual rights.
Since you ask about the relationship between psychology and politics, I would like to make this observation. There is an interesting situation in psychology and psychiatry today. On the one hand, there is a growing endorsement of the ideals of autonomy and self-responsibility, which, naturally, I think is a very healthy and desirable trend. But, on the other hand, most psychologists and psychiatrists are, according to available studies, predominantly inclined to collectivism and statism. Here, then, is a very radical contradiction.
In their offices, these psychotherapists maintain that the individual must learn to be responsible for his own existence. But in political discussions they support the notion that no one should have to bear the burden of his own existence and that it is the task of "society" or "the state" to assume that responsibility. In their capacity as psychotherapists, they recognize the phoniness and warn of the destructiveness of self-sacrifice. But in their capacity as social commentators, they do not hesitate to advocate the sacrifice of the individual for "the good of society."
It is therapists of the so-called "third force" or "humanistic" orientation that talk most about autonomy and self-responsibility, and it is among this group that the contradiction is most apparent.
It is remarkable how they manage to avoid confronting it. But sooner or later they will have to confront it; the contradiction will explode in their faces. Then it will be interesting to see which half of their contradiction they retain and which half they discard.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "On Self Discovery and Self Responsibility".