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1, Spring/Summer 1981
Martin Buber and Psychotherapy
ANDREW P. MUSETTO, Ph.D.
ABSTRACT: This paper is intended to make the ideas of Martin Buber more directly available to psychotherapists. Buber's influence on therapy is mostly indirect and the author believes that his impact could be considerable if his writings were better known and more often discussed. Several important ideas of Buber are summarized. These include dialogue, I-Thou relationships, existential guilt, and confirmation. irectly, but more often indirectly, the ideas of Martin Buber have
D influenced therapists and schools of therapy. Boszormenyi-Nagy and
Spark (1973), for example, refer directly to Buber's influence. "Dialogue," "confirmation," "I," " T h o u , " "guilt," are familiar words to psychotherapists. T h e y are also basic concepts in the writings of Martin Buber. T h e purpose of this paper is to make the ideas of Martin Buber more directly available to therapists. It is not intended to provide new insights into his thinking, but only to make explicit what is mostly implicit.
BUBER'S LIFE Buber lived from 1878 until 1965. His life and works span m a n y continents and cultures, m a n y ideas and interests. He was born in Vienna and died in Israel. H e was b r o u g h t up in the Jewish tradition of Central Europe, endured the violence of Nazi Germany, and lived the last 27 years of his life in Palestine which, in 1948, became the state of Israel. H e was educated in classical Hebrew, written and spoken. H e was a student of the Scriptures and translated the Jewish Bible into m o d e r n German. H e wrote about and studied Hasidism and Hasidic texts. A scholar, h u m a n i tarian, professor, philosopher, and religious thinker, Buber was considered a m a n of peace, integrity, and dialogue. About few m e n could it be said that their person does not belie their writings, but it could be said about Buber (Friedman, 1955, p. 5). H a v i n g lived through almost 90 years of history which was marked by
9 1981HumanSciences Press
Journal o[ Contemporary Psychotherapy
violent and frequent cultural change and upheaval, Buber was no stranger to conflict. Nor was he fond of easy solutions. He f o u n d a way to cope with world conflict, personal sorrow, and such p r o f o u n d philosophical and religious questions as the existence of evil and the nature of man. He called his position a "narrow ridge," not a h a p p y middle of the road view that ignores conflict, but an active dialogue with o p p o s i n g and conflicting sides. Like the clinician w h o daily faces paradox, contradiction and conflict, Buber advocated living in the midst of such turmoil. His teaching and his life was a walking between love and justice, dependence and freedom, passion and self-restraint, a u t o n o m y and conformity, individuation and loyalty. For Martin Buber it was not an inability to take sides but an unwillingness to disregard whatever was legitimate about any side.
DIALOGUE It w o u l d be hard to find a school or approach to psychotherapy which does not underscore the importance of c o m m u n i c a t i o n . Basic to c o m m u nication is dialogue. T o dialogue with another person is to let the reality of the other person emerge, not to impose your truth on him or her. Dialogu e demands listening and confirmation. One hears the address of the other person, confirms it by taking it seriously, and responds to it sincerely and personally, even if you may disagree with what is said. In a dialogue each person is willing to express what he or she believes and feels, and encourages the other person to do the same. It is not that we say everything, but only that whatever is said is truthful and appropriate. Dialogue excludes semblance, deceit, or misrepresentation. It does not allow for coercion or m a n i p u l a t i o n . Essential to dialogue is not words but actions, i.e., "experiencing of the other side" or "seeing the other." Conversation can be about personal matters. It can be intimate and revealing. But it is not dialogue unless it is truthful and unless each person experiences the situation from the other person's side. E m p a t h y is a similar concept, except that by dialogue Buber means something more. H e means to actively see, feel, and experience a situation from the other person's vantage point w i t h o u t losing one's own identity or p o i n t of view. Dialogue means to make the other present to you while still h o l d i n g o n t o your own feelings or opinions. Dialogue is not an observing, diagnosing or analyzing of the other, but an experiencing of another person's reality. In dialogue people are not tied to familiar patterns or old ways of
Andrew P. Musetto
acting. D i a l o g u e allows for growth, change, and newness, or as Buber said, "the m o m e n t of surprise," where the other person can say s o m e t h i n g unexpected or behave in a new way. Buber's concept of being versus seeming applies here. A l t h o u g h usually m i x e d together, two different types of h u m a n existence can be distinguished. One is being and the other seeming. At one time or another, we are all troubled by the impression we m a k e on others. More or less, we m a y hide o u r true feelings or o p i n i o n s or try to a p p e a r to be a certain way to another person. Seeming is the extent to w h i c h we present ourselves falsely, influenced by the impression or i m a g e we wish to create with another. Being, w h i c h is similar to Bowen's (1976) concept of the relatively well differentiated person, is the extent to w h i c h we speak the truth a b o u t ourselves, w i t h o u t reserve. In a life characterized by being, a person will not perjure oneself; not because that person needs to reveal the entire self, but because whatever is revealed is done so honestly and genuinely.
I and T h o u (Buber, 1958), Buber's m o s t influencial and best k n o w n work, was first p u b l i s h e d in G e r m a n in 1923. According to Buber, m e n and w o m e n have two p r i m a r y attitudes a n d relationships: I-Thou and lIt. T h e way a person relates to a n o t h e r h u m a n being determines whether it is an I-Thou or I-It relationship. "All real living is m e e t i n g , " wrote Buber. In an 1-Thou relationship, one person, an "I," meets a n o t h e r individual as a person or a " T h o u . " A personal r e l a t i o n s h i p is formed, one characterized by m u t u a l i t y , directness, presentness, intensity. Spoken from the heart and with the w h o l e person, an I-Thou r e l a t i o n s h i p takes place between people, in a m u t u a l and recriprocal exchange. In contrast, an I-It r e l a t i o n s h i p lacks m u t u a l i t y . It takes place within one person, w h o a p p r o a c h e s the other as an object to be e x a m i n e d or studied, used or m a n i p u l a t e d . It is not, wrote Buber, that every relationship needs to be an I-Thou one or that every m o m e n t in any r e l a t i o n s h i p should be an I-Thou encounter, but w i t h o u t any I-Thou relationships we do not fully become h u m a n beings. H u m a n lives can be lived and experienced in m a n y ways, but h u m a n i t y comes into existence only t h r o u g h the g e n u i n e m e e t i n g of persons. T h e clinician well knows the i m p o r t a n c e of both polarities, an I and a T h o u or We in relationships. Buber's ideas can be c o m p a r e d with the thoughts of m a n y theorists, especially certain family system theorists such
Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy
as Bowen (1976), Boszormenyi-Nagy and Spark (1973), and Minuchin (1974). The I in a relationship stands for individuation, autonomy, selfdirection. If absent, there is enmeshment, fusion, a person who is more an extension of another rather than a self-directed individual. Without a sufficient definition of the I polarity in relationships, we find individuals who confuse their own reality, feelings, or beliefs with another person's. In Stierlin's (1977) terms, these individuals may be ego-bound, their parents having substituted their own fragile egos in place of the burgeoning egos of their children, leaving the children without an adequate deliniation of self. The relationship-oriented person described by Bowen, one who is poorly individuated, applies here. The T h o u or We polarity represents togetherness in a relationship. It allows for intimacy and identification. People unable to articulate this polarity in their lives are loners; they can respond to others only as objects for self-gratification or as distorted, projected and unacknowledged aspects of themselves. In an excellent essay, Mark Karpel (1976) explicates four modes of relationships based on the presence and extent of the I and We polarities, i.e., distance and relation. It is, according to Karpel, a developmental sequence from immature forms of relationships to more mature forms. The most immature forms are complete unrelatedness or complete fusion. Complete unrelatedness means an absence of the We aspect of a relationship. It is graphically illustrated by the loneliness and isolation of a schizoid personality, where an individual denies unmet dependency needs on others. Pure We without any I is the fused, boundaryless world of schizophrenia or folie-fi-deux. This is the second mode of relationship. Little if any I, self, or independence is present, only identification and fusion with another. A variation of pure fusion, but not as intense, is found in couples where there is an excessive amount of identification and weakly defined egoboundaries. Relationship-oriented and poorly differentiated, in this type of couple each individual is highly dependent on one another. Energy is devoted primarily to seeking and gaining approval, not towards selfdirected goals or activity. Repressed concepts of the self are projected onto the other person, who is then responded to not as a real person or unique individual, but as the personification of unacceptable parts of the self. Fusion falsely promises security, while change forebodes anxiety. Separation is considered disloyal, and blame and guilt are used to discourage it. Couples in highly fused relationships have only a vague idea about self-responsibility. Vicious cycles and chronic conflict, codetermined by both parties, keep these couples locked into fused relatedness.
Andrew P. Musetto
T h e third and most c o m m o n m o d e of relationship is ambivalent fusion (Karpel, 1976). Here there is a conflict between being different from one,s partner and identifying with h i m or her, between responsibility and selfs u p p o r t and m a n i p u l a t i o n for emotional support, and between a fear of being alone and a fear of being swallowed up. In ambivalent fusion, there is too m u c h I to have complete fusion but not e n o u g h to attempt intimacy w i t h o u t losing one's self. T h e r e is not e n o u g h W e for empathy, dialogue, and confirmation, but too m u c h to withdraw into isolation or complete unrelatedness and aloneness. Ambivalent fusion often means frequent conflict, with some moments of happiness and security. Whereas complete fusion is an endless cycle of d e m a n d i n g and demanding, ambivalent fusion allows for some c o m p r o m i s e despite reoccurring cycles of conflict. In these cycles couples draw closer together when they feel the other slipping away, but step back when they sense the other getting u n c o m fortably close. Dialogue is the fourth and most mature mode of relatedness. In a dialogue the relationship fosters the individuation of both persons. T h e other is affirmed as other, not as a projection of self. Each party accepts responsibility for oneself and refuses to assume the other's legitimate responsibilities. Accountability means fulfilling genuine obligations, not archaic or excessive loyalty ties. Neither person tries to place the other in a fixed role, whether it be the "sick" or "strong," "crazy" or "well" position, and neither accepts rigid, unchangeable roles for oneself. Gratification of emotional needs comes t h r o u g h intimacy, the authentic meeting of persons. T r u s t resides here. G i v i n g emotionally does not mean giving up. Both I and T h o u are present in m u t u a l confirmation and openness. One gives to the other in the belief that at some future time the other will be emotionally available in return.
CONFIRMATION In April, 1957, a dialogue took place between Martin Buber and Carl Rogers. In that exchange, Buber clarified his ideas about confirmation and distinguished confirmation from Rogers' concept of u n c o n d i t i o n a l positive regard or, "the acceptance of this person as he is" (Buber, 1965, p. 182). By confirmation Buber also meant acceptance, but he went beyond that to mean h e l p i n g the other in the struggle against oneself for the sake of what a person is able and meant to be. It is not unconditional since it calls the other to be more, to be better, to be the person one aspires to be but fails. Confirmation takes place by accepting the other as a partner in dialogue, as a person to w h o m I am willing to be present to. Differences
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need not be settled. Approval of the other's action may not be possible. But confirmation is my acceptance of the other as a person w o r t h y of my time and also as capable of changing.
EXISTENTIAL GUILT Perhaps Buber's most controversial idea for the psychotherapist is that of existential guilt. Buber believed that existential guilt was necessary and constructive; necessary because it is intrinsic to h u m a n relationships, which are always imperfect; constructive because it could lead people to restore the h u m a n order of justice and to u n d o the harmful effects of failed responsibilities or greivous omissions. Relatedness between people is a fundamental fact of h u m a n existence. T h e totality of one's relationships with others and the possibility of such relationships enables a person to not only exist in an e n v i r o n m e n t but also to participate in c o m m u n i t y . Each individual bears personal responsibility for his or her part in the building u p or tearing down of h u m a n relationships. One's relationships with others can be merely tolerated, or they can be neglected. T h e y can also be injured, and then the h u m a n order of justice is impaired. "Existential guilt occurs when someone injures an order of the h u m a n world whose foundations he knows and recognizes as those of his own existence and of all c o m m o n h u m a n existence," wrote Buber (1965, p. 127). Just as a relationship can be injured, it can also be healed, and the harmful effects of that injury lessened. Existential guilt is the guilt a person incurs because of i n j u r i n g a relationship with a fellow h u m a n . Existential guilt is present whether or not a person explicitly acknowledges it, because it is not equivalent to guilt feelings; rather, it is an intrinsic part of h u m a n relatedness, woven into the fabric of h u m a n existence. Buber, then, clearly distinguished existential guilt from neurotic guilt feelings, the consequence of transgressing cultural and family taboos and the resultant dread of p u n i s h m e n t and censure that follow. Buber said that a psychotherapist should not encroach u p o n the guilt a person m a y have for failures of faith and before one's God. T h i s is the expertise of the clergy. Nor should a psychotherapist judge a person guilty or innocent according to society and its laws. T h e legal system is responsible for that and for determining what if any p u n i s h m e n t or restitution is required. Conscience helps make a person come to terms with existential guilt, and Buber believed that every person has a conscience. Conscience is the
Andrew P. Musetto
capacity to put oneself at a distance, to reflect on one's actions or failures to act, and then to posit approval or disapproval accordingly. Conscience acts in three ways. One is to illuminate guilt, i.e., to bring it to our awareness and acknowledgement. In a second way conscience acts to help an individual preserve in that self-illumination, not in a torturous way, but with calm persistence. In this second way conscience helps to prevent someone from falling prey to rationalization or denial, repression or avoidance of one's guilt. Finally, conscience calls for reconciliation. Having injured another, a person is summoned to restore the human order of justice in that relationship, to help the injured party overcome the consequences of existential guilt. In bringing about a restoration of justice one promotes trust, and upon trust relationships are built and maintained. In a dialogue an individual can renew a relationship with another person or heal a damaged one. Reconciliation constructively fulfills the loyalties that bind and pervade families and societies. Through healing, we help bridge whatever chasms separate one person from another, parents from children, one generation from the next. Buber urged the psychotherapist to reach out beyond familiar methods and established theories in order to be able to help people with existential guilt, not only with neurotic guilt feelings. While relieving neurotic guilt feelings is helpful, working with a person's existential guilt is an attempt to try to bring about a further, more profound healing than would otherwise be possible.
CONCLUSION The psychotherapist may be put off by Buber's writing style, which is complex, poetical, and abstract. The psychotherapist may avoid Buber's ideas because they are philosophically oriented or because they clash with traditional theories and approaches to therapy. This may be true especially regarding existential guilt. The therapist may find Buber's thinking too demanding or too idealistic. The pragmatic clinician will not find practical, step-by-step solutions to therapeutic problems in Buber's writings. In a sense, all of these criticisms are true. Buber was concerned with concrete human living, and he appreciated the ambiguity, mystery, and uniqueness of people. His esoteric manner of expression reflects this. Buber's ideas are certainly philosophical and unorthodox, but then he was concerned not with reaffirming established and common wisdom, but with achieving basic insights into the human condition, even if they
Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy
contradict what most of us think or w o u l d like to believe. Buber's writing does not offer a specific guide to therapy or life, but that is because Buber was not p r o n e to accept facile solutions to chronic and vexing h u m a n problems. Buber believed in healing. H e believed that healing can take place between people, if they are willing to endure the personal presence, c o m m i t m e n t , and at times self-sacrifice that is required. Buber, too, was idealistic, in the sense that he believed that " m a n as m a n can be redeemed" (Buber, 1965, p. 78), that people could go beyond their apparent limitations or worn out ways of acting. But this too requires m u c h effort. Finally, I believe that Buber as a person has something to say to psychotherapists. People often come to therapy with vague complaints. Frequently, these individuals are out of touch or in conflict with themselves; their words and actions contradict each other. T h e y say one thing with their words; another, with their actions. T h e y d o n ' t stand behind what they say they believe in, and they act in ways that they protest is out of their control. Whatever the u n d e r l y i n g reasons for this, the fact of incongruity and contradiction is painful and self-defeating for them and confusing to their therapists. In contrast, Buber stands as an example of congruity; his life matched his words. As such, as a personal model, if not as a theoretician, Buber has considerable relevance for psychotherapy.
Buber, M. I and thou. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1958. Buber, M. The knowledge of man. New York: Harper and Row, 1965. Boszormenyi-Nagy, I. 8c Spark, G. M. Invisible loyalties. New York: Harper and Row, 1973. Bowen, M. "Principles and techniques of multiple family therapy." In P. Guerin, (Ed.), Family therapy: theory and practice. New York: Gardner Press, 1976. Friedman, M. S. Martin Buber, the life of dialogue. New York; Harper and Row, 1955. Karpel, M. "Individuation: from fusion to dialogue." Family Process, 1976, 15, 65-82. Minuchin, S. Families and family therapy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1974. Stierlin, H. Psychoanalysis and family therapy. New York: Jason Aronson, 1977.
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