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The awe and the horror of existence, with existential-humanistic psychologist Kirk Schneider

An interview of psychologist Kirk Schneider (kirkjschneider.com). We talk about existential psychology and the power of being able to better understand and recognize the core anxieties we all have about existence, such as our fear of death, meaninglessness, isolation, and freedom. A transcript is below.

Other things we talk about: the awe and mystery of existence and, relatedly, its terrifying nature; what “existential psychology” and “humanistic psychology” are and how those forms of psychology/therapy differ from more well known and traditional forms of therapy (e.g., psychotherapy); the psychology behind political polarization and narcissism.

Links to this episode:

Related resources:

Books I recommend about understanding political polarization psychology:

TRANSCRIPT

Zach Elwood: Welcome to the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. This is a podcast about understanding others and understanding ourselves. You can learn more about it at behavior-podcast.com, and send me messages there. If you enjoy the podcast, please consider leaving me a rating on iTunes or another platform, or share it with your friends; that’d be hugely appreciated. 

Today’s talk was recorded January 26, 2022. It’s a talk with psychologist Kirk Schneider, who’s written or co-written several psychology books, one of which I read recently called Existential-Humanistic Therapy. We talk about what existential psychology is and what humanistic psychology is, and what makes those schools of thought different from more well known and traditional forms of therapy. Kirk is also interested in polarization; one of his books is called The Polarized Mind, which deals not just with political polarization but more generally with how people can become very fixated on a single point of view, to the exclusion of all other points of view. Another book of his is The Depolarizing of America, which is about an approach to heal political polarization. 

I myself am very interested in existential psychology, and I’m also interested in political polarization and the psychology that drives that, so I thought Kirk and I would have a lot to talk about. 

Regarding existential psychology, the most meaningful and wise book I’ve ever read is a book called Existential Psychotherapy; by Irvin Yalom. It was published in 1980 and is considered a classic text in psychology. I read it several years ago, and I thought reading it was like getting several months or years of therapy. My wife, Molly, read it and she also found it meaningful and life-changing. I’ve since bought it for many of my friends and family. It’s an awesome book and I highly recommend it. And if you’re curious what it is that makes those ideas so meaningful to me, we discuss that in our talk. We also talk about why our culture shies away from thinking about and talking about such existential fears. We talk about narcissism and the possible drivers of that from an existential psychology point of view. We talk about how modern life, in letting us see so many different points of view and different philosophies, can be stressful to us due to our desire for certainty and groundedness. We talk about the stress and the wisdom one might gain from social media. 

Kirk’s website is at kirkjschneider.com. I’ll read some information about him from his site:

Kirk Schneider, Ph.D., is a leading spokesperson for contemporary existential-humanistic and existential-integrative psychology. He’s a cofounder and current president of the Existential-Humanistic Institute, a two-term Council Member of the American Psychological Association (APA), and a two-time Candidate for President of the APA. He is also past president of the Society for Humanistic Psychology (Division 32) of the APA, recent past editor of the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, a trained moderator for the conflict mediation group Braver Angels, and an adjunct faculty member at Saybrook University and Teachers College, Columbia University. He’s published over 200 articles, interviews and chapters and has authored or edited 13 books including The Spirituality of Awe, The Polarized Mind, Awakening to Awe, The Handbook of Humanistic Psychology, and Existential-Humanistic therapy.

Okay, here’s the interview with Kirk. 

Zach Elwood: Hi Kirk, welcome to the show.

Kirk: Hi Zach. Thanks so much for inviting me.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, thanks for coming on with me. So I’ve seen the type of therapy that you practice described as existential humanistic, and maybe you could briefly break down how you see those two aspects. What makes it existential and what makes it humanistic?

Kirk: Well, in a nutshell, which is not easy to do with these terms, obviously, by existential I’m talking about basically our relationship to existence and what that implies for living our lives. By humanistic, I’m talking about specifically, the human experience of existence. So I’m talking about more of our embodied experience of relating to these various themes that are often described in existential literature like death and isolation, meaning meaninglessness, freedom, constriction, expansion. So the existential literature can be a little bit abstract at times in identifying various aspects of what it means to exist, but the humanistic part really comes more directly out of humanistic psychology, which is very much grounded in our whole body experience of what it means to be free, to deal with our finitude, to wrestle with meaning, wrestle with our smallness, our capacity to transcend. I don’t know if that’s clear for you, but when we talk about the humanistic side, we’re bringing in more of our feelings about those states relating to those states, our body sensations, as well as our thoughts and our imaginings.

Zach Elwood: How do you see that compared to traditional say, Freudian-influenced psychotherapy? Is it that it’s less system and ideologically oriented and more focused on what is going on in this person’s life? Is that one way to look at it?

Kirk: Yeah, it’s really more about, again, one’s whole body experience of living as distinct from certain categories that the Freudians have tended to focus on. For example, in classical drive theory, the main issues that human beings are purported to confront are sexual aggressive drives versus our moral conscience, if you will, societal standards, that’s the basic conflict. In more recent psychoanalytic thinking, it has to do with the human beings relationship to often their caretakers, to early childhood and how that relates to their current state of functioning, if you will. But in existential humanistic psychology, again, we’re really talking about our whole bodied experience of life, our relationship to, again, to all there is, if you will. So certainly the sexual aggressive dispositions that we deal with is part of that, our relationship to our parents, our cultural systems are a part of that, but even more fundamentally, we see our relationship to existence, to being, as underlying those other dispositions. I guess, one example might be the whole drama, I mean, Otto Rank calls it the trauma around birth. So there’s clearly separation anxiety from the mother. And this relates to attachment theory, which is very prominent in psychoanalytic circles these days, but it also relates, and this is something I believe not talked about enough in psychoanalytic circles and hopefully through bridge building with existential perspectives, we can open to this broader and I believe deeper view, which is that there’s a separation from our relative unity with the cosmos with the mysterious origin of our being, which goes beyond the mother, if you will. Not to discount that powerful connection, intrauterine connection, but there’s also an intracosmic connection, if you will. So one is moving from a state of relative non-existence, could say quiescence unity with the all, again, analysts would say with the mother, to then sudden abrupt existence, the chaos and confusion of separating from this state of melding and some might call it paradise-like. I’m not sure… I wouldn’t necessarily give it that description, but some like Erich Fromm have equated it with the Garden of Eden’s story, Adam and Eve, or a break from paradise. It’s certainly a break from something radically different. So this is where we come into the whole psychology of difference as Otto Rank puts it. This is where we begin to understand or not understand, I should say we confront a sense of radical otherness that what we thought was or what we felt was unified and harmonious and familiar is suddenly now disunified in many ways, unfamiliar, and radically foreign. And that seems to be an underlying factor in, I would say, much if not all of our subsequent anxiety and even traumas, this sense of helplessness and groundlessness as I would put it. And I know you have written eloquently about the weirdness of being, and I see that as a sort of a synonym or a parallel to the problem that I’m describing, that the basic conflict of severing from existence to this radical life that we’ve been granted, which is I don’t want to discount the wondrous aspects of it too, but I think it’s a blend of the terrifying and the wonderous, which I would call a sense of all.

Note: A little note here: Kirk is referring to a piece I recently wrote about the strangeness of life. You can find that on my blog on Medium.

Zach Elwood: Right, exactly. And you’ve written about awe a good amount. I think you even have a specific book on that. But yeah, the concept that there’s a fine line or it’s two signs of the same coin, that something is both awe inspiring and wondrous and also terrifying. I mean, you could view those things as being almost synonymous in some way.

Kirk: Well, a flip side of a coin, in a sense. And I think that the more we’re able to develop a capacity to be present to and work with that which is radically other and foreign, that primal fear we experience at birth, some would say it even begins to happen when we’re jarred in the womb. The more we are supported by our parents, by culture to work with that, to live with that, stay present to it, the more capable we are of beginning to become intrigued by the radically other, the groundless, if you will, rather than just terrified and paralysed. And eventually, hopefully, not only intrigued, but fascinated, creative, become a creative participant in that maelstrom that we’re born into.

Zach Elwood: Yeah. And you said something about how existential philosophy can be a bit dry or abstract for people who haven’t really delved into it. And I think that is true. When I was young and I was reading about existential philosophy, or maybe just philosophy in general, I guess when you’re younger or haven’t delved into it, there can be this sense of like, “Oh, this doesn’t seem related to my life.” But I think the thing I’ve realized is that the existentialism or existential psychology is about these things, these real stresses that we’re dealing with, and these real… It’s about what life is like. We often avoid these things or we view these fundamental questions or stresses about life as very threatening or even mysterious or even just something that distracts us from our everyday practical life. But I think the more I’ve thought about them, the more these are the things that really matter. And I think that’s what… And far from being something that’s abstract or distant, these things once you wrap your head around what they’re really about and how they relate to your life, I think most people will see the real practical value and application to these things and see the benefit. I don’t know if you agree with all those things.

Kirk: No, absolutely. I mean, and that’s where I believe the humanistic element comes in, to really ground this stuff in, as you say, the real, what many of us experience in our early childhoods growing up, but I think every day in various ways, especially when we are jarred out of the routine and familiar. We begin to see and feel how real these things are. So, again, I don’t want to discount the philosophical aspects either. I think it’s very useful to be able to talk about these themes, but it’s more than talking about from my standpoint as a existential integrative humanistic therapist, it’s also about experiencing. And I’ve experienced it very directly in my own life. And that’s where I think we have some parallels as well. I’ve gone through my own sort of dark night of the soul, which is a lot of where my own foundations in this field come from.

Zach Elwood: Maybe that’s a good segue into one idea that I’ve seen discussed by Yalom and yourself, is the idea that the relationship between the therapist and the client, those in the moment interactions are potentially much more important than any specific psychological strategy or specific school of thought. In other words, that a therapist might have all the best theory in the world, but if they’re fundamentally not attempting a real human connection with their client, they may not succeed in helping that person. And in your book with Orah Krug, there was a observation by someone that said something like being too much aligned with or adhering to a specific ideology might prevent a therapist from being flexible and spontaneous enough and having those authentic connections. And maybe you can talk a little bit about how you see the role of that connection in therapy.

Kirk: Yeah, well, it’s like co-creating a field or a soup, if you will, whereby people feel more free to roam within if you will, more free to be in touch with areas that they formerly blocked off. I call it a reoccupation project, where you’re both literally and figuratively reoccupying the parts of yourself that you’ve blocked off for a whole variety of reasons, often having to do with how one’s traumas in the past were handled either by parental systems or the culture or by one’s self. But I think the more or less optimal relationship between client and therapist is one where the, the therapist has some familiarity with that freedom within him or herself, because he or she has been through something of what they’re holding, they’re working with in the client. Certainly doesn’t have to be the same thing by any means, but to have a profound sense of what anxiety is about, I think is very, very critical in helping co-create that disarming soup or context, where the client is enabled to, well, to live with and make the best of the depth and mystery of life. And that’s actually my definition of life enhancing anxiety, which I’ve been looking into more and more. I feel like this is a really fundamental concept to existential humanistic therapy and for our lives. So often we block off anxiety, we have so many ways of doing that today, and that’s where we get into these rigidities and we become polarized. What I call the polarized mind is the fixation on single points of view to the utter exclusion of competing points of view. And how do we become polarized? Out of terror, fear, it’s fear-driven. But what we’re hoping to co-create in these existentially oriented depth therapies is a place where one can in some sense revisit or restore the terrifying places that one has experienced, right from that primal fear, birth fear, such that one feels more capable of participating in or even experimenting with exploring, playing with, being intrigued by, or even fascinated by the rumblings within, if you will. The sadnesses, the fears, the angers, so much of this work is about helping people to begin to come more from a place of curiosity about these places, rather than abject terror and reactivity. I’d also call that a shift from a reactive place to a more responsive place through the therapy. Just to give you a quick concrete example. I feel I moved very gradually from a place of abject terror when I was a kid, this was partly based on the loss of my brother when I was very young and how that not only impacted me, but my family system, my family. But I then thanks to the great wisdom of my parents, went into psychotherapy as a young child. And I believe gradually through that therapy and then a later one when I was in graduate school, I was able to move from terrifying places incrementally to intrigue, and eventually wonder and fascination with these bigger themes about life that came up through that break in my being, in the routine and familiar way of being. Is that making sense?

Zach Elwood: Yeah, it made me… I was going to say, it seems like, I mean, for me, and I think for many people, the value of the existential philosophy and existential psychology, the value of some of that can be even in just being able to put names to recognizing and realizing that these are existential, that these are problems and stresses that come with existence, that you’ll never fully escape that these stresses that these are always with us. And I think the value is in recognizing that being able to put words to it, and also there’s sort of like you were saying, there’s that value in accepting that. And by accepting it, you immunize yourself in some sense to those fears and stresses. They become less daunting because you have wrapped your mind more around how they are always with us and how they are just a fundamental fact of human life.

Kirk: Well, yes, I would say accepting it, but also for those who can take the fuller trip, re-experiencing those places. So going beyond having a kind of intellectual understanding of them, but actually being able to stay with the impacts of those experiences with one’s whole bodily being so that those parts of one’s body that are activated by the anxieties tend to be less and less frightening, less and less foreign. They become more of the water you swim in, if you will. It is something like being in a dark basement. At first, it’s shocking, it’s jarring, you bump into this pointy object or something crashes, you’re on tenterhooks. But if you can stay with your experience and especially if you have a mentor, a loving guide, support with you, you begin to see things in a different light. And actually, more light often is accessible to you. And what you thought was some horrifying monster was actually maybe a rocking chair that you might want to sit in.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, I think we do have that. I think about that a good amount, how you have to be willing to face those fears and anxieties, which is easier said than done in a lot of cases.

Kirk: Absolutely, and it’s not for everyone.

Zach Elwood: Yeah. But there is that, we have that desire to… Some of these existential stresses of various sorts, these things that bother so much, I think we all have that desire to shy away from them and not examine them and say, “I’m going to avoid going with the flow with this anxiety to see where it leads me.” We have these mental blockers up, and you can kind of build up fears that are greater than, that’s how you can build up some pretty extreme fears around like, “Oh, I can’t let myself experience this anxiety. I must find a way to avoid experiencing.” You build those things up in your mind so much. But yeah, I think… This comes up in conversations with my wife when we’re talking about her anxiety, and sort of like you were saying, it’s like, “Well, see where those thoughts take you and don’t be afraid to really delve into them if you can.” Of course, it’s always hard to make blanket statements like that, but there is something to that for sure.

Kirk: Yeah, I would call it finding ground within groundlessness. I mean, there’s a whole spectrum, there’s a range within which we’re able to do that. Some people are able to acclimate fairly well to very broad and deep ranges of human experience, others less broad and deep. But I think the point is for each person to kind of soul search that and go as far as they feel they can go. I just think it’s wonderful if we have mediators or healers who can help us to take those journeys. Because too often, especially in today’s world, there’s an emphasis on the quick fix and the instant results, either through our devices or through very short-term formulaic kinds of medicines or therapies, which, again, I think they can all be useful depending on circumstance and a person’s situation, but to make them be all and end all is one of the great tragedies of our time.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, and I’ve already said this once, but I think for anybody listening, that the value of these ideas, this kind of therapy, again, I would say is being able to put words to these concepts and by doing that, they become less daunting. So some of these things can seem so daunting, the fear of death and how that can manifest through the fear of isolation, which, for me, I think the isolation part was my main thing that I struggled with when I was young. And so being able to put words in conceptual, to view these things more conceptually is in itself healing and allows you to delve into them more than… When you’re young, these things can seem so daunting and so powerful. And I think there’s something about being able to tame the ideas that that helps.

Kirk: That’s a great point, Zach. Just having somebody who can relate to you, who can have a conversation with you about these things and who’s not scared out of their mind to talk about them, just that can help. Gives you some understanding, some sense that others have been down through this road before.

Zach Elwood: And that actually, I just thought of it, but one of the benefits of therapy when I talk to people about therapy, sometimes there’s that sense that people have of, what does this person really know about me or how much do they really know? And I think even taking away those kinds of thoughts completely, even if the person you’re going to see isn’t very not even that good, I think there’s value just to getting different points of view. And that’s what I tell people about therapy when I’m trying to describe the benefits. It’s like just getting a different point of view alone and seeing your problem from a different point of view. And you’re always the one who can pick and choose from those ideas at the end of the day and see what appeals to you. But just that value of getting new ideas and new perspectives alone is sometimes just so valuable in itself.

Kirk: Totally agree.

Zach Elwood: Oh, one interesting thing that I’ve read in Yalom’s book, which I have seen in my life is that he talks about, and I’m talking about his book, Existential Psychotherapy. He talks about how many therapists who are more traditional psychotherapy and other therapies, more traditional therapists, they seem to want to avoid these more existential topics for various reasons. And I’ve had that experience talking to therapists. It’s almost as if they don’t want to open up such existential kinds of questions due to those questions being so unanswerable and deep and theoretically troublesome to resolve. And I even had therapist basically tell me directly once when I was seeing him for anxiety and I had asked him about existential psychology, because I was reading about it at the time. And he basically said in so many words, “Yeah, we don’t really like to get into those deep questions,” and didn’t give me much detail about why that was, but I’m curious if Yalom’s observation rings true for you, and do you think that these kinds of topics are avoided by many therapists? And if so, do you think that should change?

Kirk: Yes, yes, and yes. I think it’s a major problem, but I don’t think it’s just therapists. I think it’s our culture, our whole culture, maybe Western culture, industrialized culture, is oriented around efficiency, again, speed, instant results, appearance and packaging of things, that’s our socioeconomic system. It drives so many, many levels of our functioning and society. So it’s not surprising that it’s impacted psychology and psychiatry as well. No, that said, I don’t want to say that the only reasons that therapists be they behavioral, cognitive, what have you, stay away from some of those questions is because they’re not able to go there themselves very well or they’re scared of going there. I think they may have some good clinical reasons for doing it too. I do think that for certain people and under certain circumstances delving into very sort of ungrounded inquiries could be destabilizing, could be too much if somebody is particularly fragile or at an early stage of therapy, let’s say. There could be other reasons for not delving into that. I think this is where being in good communication with your client and really trying to sense what is the client’s desire and capacity for deeper change in their lives is so important. That’s why I call myself an existential integrative therapist, because I do believe that there are many tools in the toolbox of healing, if you will. And that there are times where more programmatic approaches or medical approaches, somatic, meditative approaches can be helpful, like simple breathing exercises, relaxation, etc, supportive work, and deeper exploration is not for everyone again. But I believe strongly our profession should make much more available the chance for clients to go more deeply into these questions. And that therapists as a whole should be more prepared both within themselves personally and professionally to deal with the wider and deeper ranges of human experience, because otherwise it short changes what could happen there, and it also could be mystifying to the client in the sense of how seductive more structured or simplistic formulations can be, they can be very seductive. They give people answers in a sense. I think we all, especially when we’re in pain, we want something quick and simple that we can work on and…

Zach Elwood: Then you’ve got the whole issue of medical costs and how many therapists there are and that whole realm of things too.

Kirk: Well, yeah, but it could cut that person off from even knowing what it might be like to stay more present to that particular quandary that they have, let’s say, about feeling like there’s a bottomless pit under them or they’re in a black hole or they’re in a free fall. I mean, we hear these kinds of themes, these are existential themes that are behind so much anxiety, but they’re so often not really explored.

Zach Elwood: That’s an interesting angle of inquiry, is talking about the words and phrases that people use to describe how they feel and how those phrases tie to these core existential fears. That’s interesting. I don’t know if you’ve written about that or…

Kirk: Well, I have. I have some, and what I find is that the deeper people go into their anxieties, often the more these metaphors come up around free fall or fearing that they’re drowning or disappearing. And I believe that that’s because we have a harder and harder time wrapping our words around the experience. Experience is much more powerful than any word can contain. So that’s where I think it’s… If you’re just coming at that person from a standpoint of talking about it or trying to give an explanation, you’re not really reaching that person where they need to be reached, which is again, in terms of more of their whole body experience of the problem and giving space to that, which is sometimes wordless, it’s more attending to what they’re feeling, sensing, imaging.

Zach Elwood: Being willing to really feel that feeling in the moment as opposed to pushing it away.

Kirk: That’s right. That’s right.

Zach Elwood: So to your points, it’s talking about some therapists not wanting to deal with these kinds of topics. It has surprised me since I’ve learned more about these ideas and how powerful I consider them. It’s really surprising to me how rarely people seem to talk about these issues. And I think it gets to that, like you said, the cultural thing of like, “We don’t like to talk about death.” We put that aside and nobody talks about it, even though it’s such a fundamental existential part of our existence. And I think it’s the same thing for the other these core stressors, we’d rather just set them aside and only deal with them in these moments at three in the morning when we wake up and for a few moments…

Kirk: When we’re forced to.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, when we’re forced to or when they culminate in some thing quite bad or whatever. But yeah, these ideas just seem so powerful to me. And I agree with you. The more we can get these ideas out there, I think the better it is for humanity. And maybe this is a good segue actually too, because I see this related to political polarization. And so maybe this is a good segue to talk about… You’ve worked on polarization, political polarization topics. You wrote a book on polarization, and I’m curious if you could give your view on how you see existential humanistic therapy and psychology relating to polarization topics.

Kirk: Yes. Well, in The Polarized Mind, I go into detail about an area that drives polarization that I don’t think is nearly addressed enough in our mainstream way of thinking about how people become extremists or polarized. And that is the existential humanistic fear of insignificance, of not mattering, which again, I believe goes back to this primal fear that we all experience in some way at birth. That sense of overwhelming helplessness, the sense of not having any direction or, excuse me, identity, structure to hold the floundering, the confusion of that abrupt shift from relative non-existence to existence. So I think what happens in trauma, both personal and collective, is that that primal terror begins to break through, because what happens in trauma, again, personal and collective, it’s like a rip in the fabric of the routine and familiar. And if you think about that on a collective scale, let’s say, just looking at the 20th century, I point to I think some glaring examples of Mao’s China, Stalinist Russia, Hitler’s Germany, each of those countries went through some horrifying experiences of insignificance and a feeling like they didn’t count, whether you take the treaty at Versailles with the Germans after World War II and how screwed over they felt as a people, as a culture by the rest of the world, the depression that they went into, and already having insecurities about their nationality, if you will, because they were very late in becoming a nation relative to other European nations. So deep, what we would call ontological insecurities about one’s identity, and also falling from such a great height, that crash because in Germany there was such a marvelous tradition of art and literature and science, philosophy, so many areas. And to come crashing down after the war, profoundly brings these existential themes. Then you have Russia coming from the tsarist rule and the experience of many of the people, the proletariat, if you will, of being so put down and such distinctions between classes, the royalty versus the regular folks. And of course, you had this in the French revolution as well. And you had this in China too, as far as I understand. The extreme oppression the Chinese people felt, especially from nations like England and the United States, the colonial powers, colonial west, exploiting them and making them feel basically like serfs and slaves. And some cases being treated that way. It was ripe for a strong arm to arise and for a people to arise with the feeling that I will do everything I can, including becoming tyrannical myself to avoid any hint of that former feeling of insignificance and smallness and helplessness. So I believe that this is what drives a lot of our tendencies toward authoritarianism, toward tyranny, fascism, but not just in the political realm, we see it within family systems, whether that’s narcissistic, patriarchal, abusive, domestic abuse can certainly be driven by that. We see it in business, monopolistic, hegemonic, businesses, corporations, professions, we’ve seen it as well. I think of the Nazi doctors, but that’s an extreme example. I mean, God knows my own profession has had its arrogance and its ideological rigidity, so many areas of life, the classes.

Zach Elwood: It really seems like when it comes to arrogance and narcissistic traits, I mean, that to me is a very existential related phenomenon too, because there’s something, as humans, we do crave certainty and we do crave a feeling of groundedness and one way to achieve that is with narcissistic behavior to not let in any other philosophies or thoughts and to say this is the way it is. And that can be a solution of some sort to feelings of existential terror, even if that terror has like been pushed aside long ago and buried deep beneath. I think that accounts for a lot of narcissistic behavior, I’m not sure if you…

Kirk: Absolutely, absolutely, and it’s a craving for certainty, especially when one feels so terribly uncertain and ungrounded. And that often happens again because one has experienced some kind of break, some kind of trauma, some kind of devaluation in their lives, humiliation is often related that they can’t deal with. And so that’s the other side of the polarized mind is how to depolarize you, how do we address this problem? And that’s the sort of the lead to my follow up book, which is The Depolarizing of America: A Guidebook for Social Healing. So I think we got to get to those deeper fears, to those more primal fears if we’re going to substantively address polarization politically, culturally, racially, personally, otherwise you’re rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, I totally agree. And I mean, for me, that is what connects these two things too, how I see the existential psychology ideas and polarization. And for me, it’s recognizing that we’re all human and we’re all just a bunch of individuals. And that’s why I kind of aim for avoiding these… I think one of the fundamental mechanisms behind political polarization in the US, but any place this is happening, it’s happened obviously many places, the fundamental mechanism is in thinking in these group terms, where like this group is all this way and this other group is, they’re all as bad as the worst person in that group. And when you start to think that way and when you start to act that way, when you start to see this group as a monolith and not as a bunch of just individuals who may change or some of them come over to your side if you speak persuasively or whatever, if you start viewing them as this monolithic group that can’t change, that changes how you behave, that changes how you speak to them, and the insults that people make about that group then in turn amplify the other group, who’s doing similar things. And so I see this as connected too, because to me, it’s about seeing people as people, as humans like ourselves, they have understandable reasons for what they do. And it may be that we find it hard to find common ground or build bridges with them, but I feel like the first step in the solution is seeing other people as people like yourselves and seeing their humanity.

Kirk: Well, that yes. I mean, we scapegoat others because they remind us of the primal terror. Somehow those others trip off, trigger the feelings of helplessness and groundlessness that we can’t handle because of whatever context, whatever particular context we went through. I also just want to emphasize that I don’t intend to pick out just certain groups or parties as the perpetrators of the polarized mind. I think we’re all susceptible to it, and we all need to be vigilant. And I believe, and I point out in my book, that America has committed some horrible crimes in the context of these fears of insecurity, insignificance, and not having really dealt with profound insecurities. I mean, some of those may have to do with being immigrants for a number of us, escaping profound oppression in other countries. But even though we found “freedom” in some ways, we also carried with us these insecurity mentalities that led to horrible scapegoating of others. Be they Africans or Indian, Native Americans, etc. So anyway, we’re all susceptible. And I think the larger point here is finding ways of addressing these fears so that we’re not coming so much from a place of such deficits toward each other, but coming more from a place like you say, of being able to see the humanity, the wholeness of the person, rather than just a part. And that’s what a lot of The Depolarizing of America’s about, and my recent work with Braver Angels and these dialogue groups, experiential democracy dialogue. I see that in particular as a notable way to change the atmosphere of our relating to others. They’re really about helping people to humanize the encounter with the other, rather than coming from place of kneejerk, stereotyping, and labeling, but it presents a series of ways to help people be more centered and more okay with the other within themselves, which is really fundamental, so that they can be more okay with the otherness and in the other, if you will, and have a dialogue.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, that’s a really good point. I think the sad thing about these polarization dynamics is that how you view other people is how you view yourself and vice versa. These are all just views about humanity, and as polarization dynamics progress, it leads to this really people start having a really negative view of humanity, of the other including themselves in the same way you’re saying. It’s like these are two sides of the same coin. We are a form of humanity in the same way others are a form of humanity. So the more pessimistic things get, it leads to worse and worse situations unfortunately and a lot of cases where people just start having a really negative view of humanity in general, which leads to the worst things.

Kirk: Yeah. It’s a road toward becoming more whole human beings.

Zach Elwood: So are you good for a few more minutes? Can I ask maybe one more question?

Kirk: Sure, sure. Yeah.

Zach Elwood: Okay. So one thing I think about sometimes with the polarization dynamics is that there can be something about the modern age that’s a bit destabilizing in a sense that we’re more easily able to learn about other philosophies and other points of view than ever before, and I include like the last couple hundred years or so when people can more easily learn about what’s going on in other places. And I think in the sense that related to what we’ve been talking about, there can be something kind of destabilizing in the sense that we crave certainty, we crave these philosophies of this is the way life should be or the way the world is. And the more we learn that, “Hey, there’s all these other philosophies out there and all these other perspectives of seeing the world,” that alone, even apart from like directly impacting one’s life but just at a philosophical or intellectual level, I feel like that alone can be a bit destabilizing, because we do like we’ve been saying, we do crave certainty, and I’m wondering if that’s something you’ve seen talked about or you yourself have talked about.

Kirk: Very much so, but I guess I see it as double-edged because on the one hand, I strongly agree that the ready access to various cultures and ways of thinking can be overwhelming and destabilizing, vertigo inducing, it puts us into our silos, our dogmas, our ideological orthodoxies because it’s too much. And I think the sixties also in America had something to do with that. It pushed a lot of people to become more narrow and more linear in their behaving and thinking simply because it felt safer. It’s too scary to entertain all these different ideas and lifestyles etc. But on the other hand, I also think an interesting phenomenon of, let’s say, the Zoom calls that we have now, reliance on our devices, it opens us up to many more cultures, ways of thinking, that we never had access to before. And that’s potentially a silver lining depending on how we handle that. I certainly have felt very enriched by a number of the Zoom conferences and presentations I’ve been a part of from people all over the world, you just never have that or very rarely in a more live, I mean, person to person kind of settings. So if you can use those opportunities to, again, be more present, to stay with each other and explore each other’s ideas and work with your own reactivity around that, it could really enrich and advance, I think, our capacity to innovate, our capacities to discover more about ourselves and each other, and could lead to just more vital ways of living.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, it reminds me of saying something about social media recently, where in a similar way, there’s all these stresses that come with social media and the internet age, where you’re more on display, you’re having to say things publicly and have to interact with people in different frames of reference, which leads to all sorts of stresses and distortion and misunderstandings. But within that, even with those stresses related to existential psychology, I would say by confronting those stresses, all the stresses that we experience in life have the capacity to lead us to a greater wisdom about what life is. So in the case of social media, with all those stresses, there’s also the path to recognizing, for example, that we are not defined by the presentation we make to other people, even though it can seem that way at times that we feel judged or we feel angry, it’s like reaching this realization that we are more than the perceptions that other people have of us as one step to one sort of wisdom in that area. And that just reminded me of all these stresses that we experience are potential paths to greater wisdom. And I think that’s what getting back to the existential psychology is being willing to examine those stresses and what they tell you about life and making peace with them, and saying, “Well, this is just how the world is. People are going to think things of me, but that is not who I am.” It’s not the full definition of meetings like that.

Kirk: That’s why we talk about the paradoxical self, being able to live with and even be enriched by the various contrasts and contradictions that we experience in life, within ourselves and with others, that can yes, be a wonderful ground for discovery, for growth, or it could be overwhelming. But again, the key is presence or at least a key is cultivating presence. And I think that really is our biggest challenge today, because there are so many forces that go against being able to cultivate presence. Our attention spans are being, I think, severely compromised.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, destroyed.

Kirk: Yeah, because it would be wonderful to do what you were saying, to be able to explore and play within the sea of social media. The problem is that’s not how a lot of people experience, I think they experience it more as fleeting back and forth and getting excited and getting mad and then getting stuck and getting depressed because this image or that image

Zach Elwood: A lot of anger going on, yeah.

Kirk: A lot of anger, reactivity. So I believe we need more people to help us slow down to process a lot of this. This is where I believe psychology can play a great role. It has challenged itself in doing that, but there are certainly many areas where people can step up in these ways, in the ways of mentoring and just reminding us, certainly our artists often and some of the great literary works can remind us of our fuller humanity and of the value of being in great conversations with people and with ourselves, the value of pausing, of taking time to find one’s way through all this. And meditation therapy can help, yeah.

Zach Elwood: Yeah, this has been great. I appreciate your time. Is there anything you want to say about how people can keep in touch with your work?

Kirk: Well, I would refer people to my website if they’re interested in my work. They could also contact me through the website, it’s kirkjschneider.com, and I’ll do my best to respond. And I just wish that people would take a closer look at the offerings of literature, the arts, and of existential psychology and philosophy, very timely. And your work is good too. Okay.

Zach Elwood: Thank you.

That was an interview with Kirk Schneider. You can learn more about him at his site kirkjschneider.com. He’s on twitter at @kschneider56. You can find his books on Amazon or wherever you buy your books at. Just to give you a few titles of his books to pique your interest: Awakening To Awe, The Spirituality of Awe, The Polarized Mind, Horror and the Holy, The Paradoxical Self. Just a few of his books there. 

If you enjoy learning about psychology and therapy-related topics, I have some earlier episodes on the subject of anxiety and on schizophrenia and psychosis. In a couple of those I talk about my own mental struggles as a young man, which led to me having to drop out of college suddenly mid-year. You might also enjoy checking out the piece I wrote about existential psychology and the strangeness of life, which you can find by searching for ‘zach elwood medium’. 

If the subject of the psychology behind people’s political polarization interests you, I’ve got quite a few books I’d recommend on that topic. I’ll put that on the page for this episode at my site behavior-podcast.com. 

This is the People Who Read People podcast, with me, Zach Elwood. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, would you be willing to do me a huge favor and leave me a review on iTunes or another podcast platform? Might you be willing to share this podcast with your acquaintances? It would mean a lot to me. 

Thanks for listening. Music by Small Skies.