Understanding psychological distress an insight from phenomenology

Continuing looking at psychological distress and well-being from different perspectives, I would like to introduce a short description of just one of the contributions from Phenomenological Psychology. Phenomenology is essentially the study of our experience, how things appear to us, how we perceive our reality. Just as my last post on Character Analytic theory, Phenomenology adds a great perspective to understanding what is going on within ourselves and provides us with another way of looking at psychological distress and well-being.

Firstly, I would like to break down human experiencing into 2 main categories: 1) pre-reflective experiencing and 2) reflective experiencing. Pre-reflective experiencing is our constant flow of experience, it is always changing. It is our initial encounter with the world around us: the taste of a drink, the smell in the air, the feeling of my fingers on my keyboard, our immediate response to the immediate situation. Reflective experiencing, on the other hand, is our thoughts about our pre-reflective experience, these thoughts are heavily influenced by our view of ourselves and the world around us. For example, I am someone who does not like any kind of sea food (I know, call me strange), and I believe that I will not like to eat anything that has a hint of sea food in it. It is possible however, that I may taste a dish which has a few prawns mixed in it, and I may enjoy it on a pre-reflective level. However, my reflective experience (influenced by my strong belief that I hate any type of sea food) can distort my experience and I believe that the food is not nice to eat. This is a very simple, somewhat crude explanation of how our beliefs can influence our experiences.

Now obviously, this is no big deal; who cares whether I like sea food or not? But what could happen when this type of denial or distortion happens in our lives with more important matters? And why can our beliefs influence our reflective experience enough to deny our primary, and constant flow of experience? Additionally, I think this is one of the reasons why mindfulness can be beneficial, because you are trying to experience raw experience without pre-judging or describing the experience, the aim is to feel it more with curiosity rather than to describe it with what you already know. 

Using this way of thinking, psychological well-being can be described as a closeness between our pre-reflective and reflective experiencing (an exact match between the two is impossible according to phenomenology). Phenomenology holds that there is an objective reality out there but we can never know it fully, we perceive it with our unique, individual interpretations of the world, and therefore, the only true reality is our own unique reality. Psychological distress, can now be seen as a distance between pre-reflective and reflective experiencing, i.e. our unique, individual reality, is far away from the objective reality of the experience. Let me briefly put this into context with a more concrete, relevant and fictional (although not uncommon) example:

Steve (aged 4) grew up with his parents who were very strict, very unaccepting of people with differing views, and believed that everything in life has a specific order; everything else was wrong or unworthy of thought or praise. Steve, had difficulties meeting his parent’s expectations and was heavily criticised from a young age. It was not uncommon for Steve to hear the words “you should be better than that”, “why can’t you do things properly”, “you are not a good example to your younger sister”. Very quickly, Steve introjected these words into his self-concept and became part of his belief system. That is, Steve grew up believing he should be a better person, who could never do anything right and that he is a failure to his parents and younger sister.

Later in life, Steve acted according to his beliefs. That is, he didn’t try hard at school- why would he? He would only get it wrong. Everything he tried to do in life, he only put in half the effort- after all, he was someone who never done things properly. He also felt awkward socially, he did not feel worthy of his friends and it felt more comfortable for him to spend most of his time alone- after all, if he wasn’t good enough for his parents, and was a let-down for his younger sister, why would he be good enough to be around anyone else? Over time, the words of his parents shaped his beliefs about himself. Through repeatedly acting in accordance to those beliefs, Steve’s negative beliefs and negative self-concept became confirmed with each repeated act and became sedimented. As with all human beings, Steve sees and interprets the world, himself, what he does, and what others do, through the lenses of his belief system. There where times, however, when Steve had received praise from school teachers, he wanted the praise and on a pre-reflective level, this was welcoming. However, his secondary process was to deny this experience, rejecting the praise and believed that the teachers were trying to make him feel better- because after all, his introjected beliefs (secondary experience) had distorted the primary experience.

This is a process which happens to everyone, although, not every person has negative belief systems of this kind. However, one way to overcome this type of difficulty is to put aside the belief system, and focus on primary experience and then aim to create new meanings based on a more accurate view of realty. Not an easy task, especially when beliefs run deep. However it is possible and a skilled therapist can help you through this process.