Existential Psychology


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When people talk about difficult past experiences you might notice that they laugh or smile even though what they’re recounting was and still is very painful to them. This is a defense mechanism, a way to try to dampen down or even transform the pain around what happened by making it seem funny or ironic.

If the discrepancy between internal experience and external manifestation of this experience is brought to their attention, they’ll respond with some variation of “What am I supposed to do instead, just start crying?” The short answer is, well, yes.

What keeps us from congruence? Congruence could be defined as where unconscious experience, conscious experience, and the expression of experience all point in the same direction. Unless we’re masochistic, most of us naturally want to protect ourselves from pain. We rewrite a past narrative in the hopes of erasing it. We repress an unpleasant experience in the hopes that the experience will disappear. We laugh when we should be crying in the hopes that our laughter will make the sadness go away. But nothing in human life goes away on its own, it just gets buried, still there to exert a powerful influence without us being consciously aware of it.

The paradox is that it’s not the unpleasant emotions that make us feel bad at the deeper level of existence, it’s inauthenticity. When we feel good but can’t or won’t show it we end up feeling bad and when we feel bad but can and do show it we end up feeling good. Mental health from the existential point of view is not pleasant emotions all the time. As Carl Rogers, the champion of congruence, would have put it, it’s when what we’re experiencing is available to awareness and able to be communicated.