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29 Jan 08 – Allport and the Importance (or Detriment) of Avoidance.

29 January 2008

On this day in 1954, Gordon Allport’s book entitled, The Nature of Prejudice, was published.  This book focuses on various factors involved in prejudice.  It addresses everything from the normative nature of prejudice to theories of prejudice to religion and prejudice.   Today, however, I would like to spend a little time with Allport’s main contribution (in the area of personality) and his intellectual influence on a figure in psychology who is not so well known but who had a great influence on me: Richard Bednar. 

Allport noted that there are a surprising number of individuals who experience high levels of anxiety related to feelings of inferiority.  In response to these feelings, we can either shrug them off or make adjustments in our goals.  If the sense of inferiority happens repeatedly, however, a tension arises that amounts to a feeling of personal deficiency. 

What is important, then, for the development of normal or abnormal development, from Allport’s perspective, is how each of us respond to our own feelings of inferiority.  If we take the feelings as a challenge, exerting greater effort and practice toward overcoming the challenge, we can make the problem a perceived strength rather than a perceived weakness.  Alternatively, we can choose to develop different goals.  Finally, we can attempt to recognizing and facing the problem at all.  For Allport, the act of avoidance or confrontation is what differentiates the “normal” from the “abnormal”:

      “…to confront the world and its problems is intrinsically a wholesome thing to do, 
      because it brings about appropriate adjustment and mastery; to escape from the
      world is intrinsically a dangerous and diseased thing to do. Extreme escape is
      found in the most severe forms of mental disorder, the psychoses…The neurotic
      shows much defense, less coping. In the healthy personality coping ordinarily
      predominates.”

This perspective on abnormality (avoidance) versus normality (confrontation/coping) was influential in the formation of Richard Bednar’s theory and practice of psychotherapy.  Before I discuss this theory and practice, let me talk a little bit about Bednar.

Bednar, as I mentioned earlier, is a little known figure in the history of psychology.  He, as one of my main professors and one of my psychotherapy mentors (along with Brent Slife who is also my intellectual mentor), had a tremendous influence on me.  Bednar was a thoroughgoingly bright, uncompromising person.  He was incredibly authentic and would not falsify his own personality for anyone.  He was driven by his own moral convictions and was incredibly gracious.  In fact, as will be apparent after I present his theory and practice of psychotherapy, he very much lived his by his own words.  Dick, as I knew him, was a professor of psychology at Brigham Young University.  Prior to that, he was the director of the Clinical Training Program at the University of Kentucky.  Dick was well published, with a consistent 20 year record of publications that involved chapters in well respected psychology review textbooks (Annual Review of Psychology and Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change) and articles in such professional journals as Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology (for which he was also a consulting editor), Journal of Counseling Psychology, and Journal of Applied Behavior Science.  His knowledge and background in psychotherapy, especially relational approaches and group psychotherapy, was immense.  As such, he was highly sought after as a guest speaker and provided countless psychotherapy workshops.  I am speaking of him in the past tense because he, unfortunately, died in a freak snowmobile accident.  Fortunately, he was doing something that he loved with the person he loved, his wife.  He died shortly after retiring from Brigham Young University.  Even in his retirement, Dick continued to provide supervision to clinical psychology student from BYU. 

Dick’s perspective on the theory and practice of psychotherapy is presented in his book (with Scott Peterson) entitled, Self Esteem: Paradoxes and Innovations in Clinical Theory and Practice.  I, of course, highly recommend this book (which was in its second edition when Dick died and is quite difficult to find now).  A testimony to its functional significance is the fact that the book sold over 35,000 copies!  This is amazing given the fact that most professional resources such as this sell about 700 copies.  He could also conduct a workshop about the theory at any time he wanted to do so (and commanded a quite impressive fee for such workshops).  By the way, his wife, Sandra, informed me that all proceeds from his books went to charity…what a great guy!

There are four underlying assumptions of the Bednar’s model:

     1. People should expect to receive regular amounts of negative feedback from
         their social environment, most of which is probably valid.
     2. Most people receive and enjoy substantial amounts of authentic favorable
         social feedback, but they tend not to believe it.
     3. Self-evaluations are a reality for most people.
     4. Self-evaluative processes can provide a basis for continuous affective
         feedback from the self about the adequacy of the self.

We can, of course, see the obvious connections between Bednar’s model and that of Allport’s theory: feedback from the environment is taken in, with the negative feedback being more apparent, and the feedback is interpreted and emotional responses are developed based on the interpretations.  From Bednar’s perspective, the interpretation that forms the basis of a person’s perspective on himself or herself (which Dick, I think, poorly called “self esteem” – and that I had conversations with him about) is a dynamic attribute.  Furthermore, psychological threat is unavoidable.  The interpretations, however, modify the psychological threat.  Given that the interpretation is now a part of the client’s worldview, then, the psychotherapist must assume that the therapeutic relationship is prototypical of other relationships. 

The psychotherapist’s job is to help the client identify, describe, and experience the self-evaluative intensity of their avoidance patterns (or, what Dick refers to as “image management” – the tendency to pretend to be what we think we are not in order to gain favorable social feedback in the process of which we avoid who we really are).  Finally, the psychotherapist must “catch” the client being authentic (not image managing) and focus on the client’s self-evaluative processes. 

There are four basic steps in dealing with the negative interpretations the client exhibits:

     1. Identifying and clearly labeling the dominant avoidance patterns used in
         anxiety-arousing conflict situations.
     2. Identifying and clearly labeling the self-evaluative thoughts and feelings
         associated with these dominant avoidance patterns.
     3. Learning to realistically face negative self-evaluations and avoidance patterns.
     4. Gradually learning how to cope with personal conflicts.

Essentially, the theory is that people present fake selves because they don’t like who they think they are.  In the process, they live a lie and don’t like themselves for doing so.  So, they are now caught in a place where they don’t like who they thought other people thought they were, based on their own interpretations of themselves, and they don’t like the person that they are being because it is not who they are.  Therefore, the paradox is that they are image managing for the sake of creating more fulfilling relationships but, in the end, have poor relationships because they are not truly involved in them (this “fake self” is).  Therapy, then, is aimed at developing an authenticity in relationships, confronting anxiety provoking interpersonal situations and dynamics in order to develop a more realistic perspective on the self in relationship as well as to truly address and not avoid the shortcomings that we do have in relationships.  In other words, it is focused on taking responsibility for ourselves and our actions!  What a concept!

It is interesting to note, Dick readily admitted how simple this concept is but how difficult it is in practice because of its simplicity.  It is strange that people have such difficulty with just being “real.”  All we really have to do, as Allport noted, is be aware of our limitations and address them…we are, after all human and fallible.  All that is really required of us is to be ourselves.  It’s kind of interesting, given Allport’s theory of personality, that the one prejudice he didn’t write about in The Nature of Prejudice was our prejudice against ourselves!

Fuel for thought, I guess… head to my website GivingPsychologyAway.net for more fuel for thought regarding psychology.

January 29, 2008 Posted by | In Psychology | , , , , , | Leave a comment