Meaning-Focused Therapy

Lecture Series on Meaning Centered Counseling

Meaning Centered Counseling Lecture 1

Dr. Paul Wong, Ph. D, C.Psych

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I. An overview

  1. What is Meaning-Centered Counseling (MCC)? Why do we need it at this time of history? What major contributions does MCC make to counseling psychology and society?
  2. This course introduces MCC as an innovative integrative approach that offers the greatest potential to resolve the meaning crisis of the 21st century and move counseling psychology to a new era.
  3. MCC is built on past contributions of existential psychotherapy, logotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy and narrative therapy.
  4. MCC incorporates current developments in positive psychology, cultural psychology, and psychology of religion which provide the empirical basis for MCC.
  5. This course introduces the basic assumptions and propositions of meaning-management theory as the theoretical framework of MCC.

It introduces both the macro and micro skills of MCC. Together, these interventions will produce positive changes in individuals, organizations and society.

II. The contemporary context

The meaning crisis of the 21st century

  • Most major schools of psychology are products of their times and reflect the Zeitgeists in academic psychology. MCC is a response to the unique challenges of the 21st century.
  • The 21st century has turned out to be one of international terrorism, uncertainty and disillusionment.
  • It began with the terrorist attack on 9/11; the aftermath still reverberates around the globe.
  • Terrorism should not be simply viewed in political and military terms; at the deeper level, it reflects a meaning crisis.
  • Terrorism represents a desperate attempt to protect a certain set of worldviews and moral values in the face of perceived American cultural imperialism.
  • The meaning crisis refers to the disintegration of cherished beliefs and values which hold individuals and societies together.

The following problems represent different facets of a deepening crisis of meaning:

  • The clash of civilizations and international terrorism
  • The escalating tensions between the East and West, South and North
  • The increasing need for global understanding and cooperationIncreasing polarization and the cultural war between the left and the right
  • The paradox of success and the grassroots quest for meaning and spirituality
  • The graying of baby-boomers and death anxiety
  • The epidemic of addictions
  • Social injustice and the widening disparity between the haves and have-nots
  • MCC is a direct response to the above macro issues

The converging trends in counseling and psychotherapy

  • Need for an integrative approach
  • Need for multicultural competencies
  • Resurgence of interest in spirituality and religion
  • Need for evidence-based practice
  • Increasing recognition of the healing power of meaning and narratives
  • The positive psychology movement
  • MCC represents a convergence of the above trends
  • MCC is a meaning-centered, spiritually oriented, culturally sensitive, and evidence-based approach that focuses on the human capacity for transcendence and transformation (i.e., the power of the human spirit).

Need for multicultural competencies

  • Live in an increasing multicultural society and global village
  • Culture shapes our values, beliefs, behaviors and thinking
  • Culture influences what matters most to us (i.e. our most cherished values)
  • Culture influences how we interpretive events (i.e. how we construe meanings)
  • Multicultural competencies requires awareness, knowledge, skills and relationships
  • Lack of multicultural competencies limits our effectiveness as counselors
  • MCC emphasizes multicultural competencies because meaning-systems are individually construed and socially constructed.

Meaning and spirituality

  • Baby-boomers are wrestling with existential issues
  • Purpose-driven Life has sold more than 30 millions copies
  • The Alpha course focus on people quest for meaning
  • Both meaning and spirituality address the big questions of life
  • Ultimate meaning and purpose is meaningless without belief in God or Higher Power
  • Both meaning and spirituality recognize a transcendental reality
  • MCC has a double focus – both situational problems and spiritual/existential issues

Need for an integrative approach

  • None of the schools of counseling are adequate by themselves
  • If you only have a hammer, you tend to treat everything as a nail
  • People are bio-psycho-social-spiritual being
  • People from different cultures may have different needs and problems
  • Many counselors adopt an eclectic approach
  • An integrative approach is better, because it has a coherent conceptual framework
  • MCC integrates a variety of treatment approaches with meaning as the central organizing construct
  • MCC integrates elements from both the person-centered approach and a psycho-educational model
  • It is innovative, because it focuses on the most basic and universal phenomenon of meaning

III. What is meaning-centered counseling?

MCC is an integrative approach to facilitate positive change at the behavioral, cognitive, existential, spiritual and social levels through awakening and harnessing people’s potential to “wrest meaning from life by turning suffering into a human triumph” (Frankl, 1997, p.64).

MCC broadens the domain of counseling psychology in several ways:

  1. MCC takes into account the macro forces (e.g., culture, history, spirituality, etc.).
  2. MCC employs macro counseling skills to address the larger issues of human existence and societal problems.
  3. MCC emphasizes the virtues of courage and responsibility in responding to the demands and callings of life.

What is the meaning of meaning in MCC?

The simplest way is to define meaning in terms of PURE:

  • Purpose – Discovering one’s purpose for living, calling, life direction and goals. Future oriented. (What does life demand of me? What should I do with my life? What really matters in life?)
  • Understanding – Making sense of situations and understanding one’s own identity. Present oriented. (What has happened? What does it mean? What am I doing here? Who am I?)
  • Right response – Responsible action and appropriate reaction. Action oriented. (What is my responsibility in this situation? What is the right thing to do? What options do I have? What choices should I make?)
  • Evaluation – Assessing degree of satisfaction and actual success. Past oriented. (Have I achieved what I set out to do? Am I happy with how I have lived my life?)

The PURE represents a self-regulation model designed to realize the will to meaning and the potential for growth.

IV A historical context

There are three different traditions of existent psychology:

  1. European existentialism (e.g., Heidegger, Biswanger, Satre, and Camus) tends to be pessimistic in their emphasis on the negative existential givens.
  2. Viktor Frankl’s Existential Analysis and Logotherary (The 3rd Vienna School of Psychotherapy) emphasizes the human potential for responsibility and positive meanings in the midst of suffering and death.
  3. American humanistic psychologists (e.g., Maslow, Rogers) have a more optimistic outlook, focusing on growth-orientation and self-actualization.

Irwin Yalom’s existential psychotherapy represents a contemporary synthesis of European and American existential traditions.

Wong’s MCC represents a reformulation that integrates all existential approaches with current developments in cognitive, narrative and positive psychologies.

Common assumptions of existential psychotherapy

  • Individuals have the freedom and courage to transcend existential givens and biological/environmental constraints to create their own future.
  • The phenomenological reality of the experiencing person tells us more about the presenting problem than observable behaviors.
  • It is necessary to take a holistic approach in order to understand the lived experience and future aspirations of the whole person in action and in context.
  • Individual narratives reflect different aspects of the same universal drama of human existence – the striving for survival and fulfillment in spite of the human vulnerability to dread and despair.

European existentialism

Jean-Paul Sartre
A reaction to two devastating World Wars
Human existence is devoid of ultimate meaning Individuals can create meaning and live authentically through the choices they make.
Jean-Paul Sartre also affirms the limitless possibilities of individual freedom. Freedom is the fountain of hope, the foundation of all human values. Freedom constitutes us as human beings. Our capacity to choose how we exist determines what kind of people we will become. Thus, “existence precedes essence”.

Ludwig Biswanger
He is able to apply Heidegger’s concept of Being-in-the-world to psychotherapy (Biswanger, 1958).
To understanding of human existence, we need to include three levels of the conscious experience: (a) Umwelt (the biological world): (b) Mitwelt (the social world). (c) Eigenwelt (psychological world).
The psychological world refers to the subjective, phenomenological world of personal meanings, which includes our consciousness and understanding our experiences, and our awareness of the special meaning something holds.
The dread of nothingness may be mitigated by yearning of Being-beyond-the-World through transcending the world in which one lives.
Transcendence refers to the capacity to transcend time and space of the present world by transporting oneself to the future.

Please check back next week for Part Two of the series.

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