Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Man's Search for Meaning

Man's Search for Meaning, by Victor Frankl, is one the great books of the past century. 

Frankl (1905-1997) was an Austrian psychiatrist who developed a style of therapy which he called "logotherapy," a style which focuses upon the identification and nurturance of meaning as a primary therapeutic goal.  While this style affirms the importance of symptom relief, it focuses on the idea that meaning is available even in the context of extreme unremitting symptoms or suffering.

The gravity of his ideas must be taken very seriously, because of Frankl's own personal experience between 1942-1945:  he survived almost three horrific years in Nazi concentration camps including Auschwitz and Dachau.  His parents and wife were killed in the concentration camps, and his only surviving immediate relative was one sister.  So Frankl approaches these questions with the perspective of one who understands the extremity of suffering, profound loss, and domination by oppressive forces outside of one's control.   In this way, Frankl has a deep empathic understanding of what it can be like to experience severe, torturously unremitting psychological illness. 

The first half of Man's Search for Meaning is a description of life in the concentration camps.  The second half is a brief description of the author's meaning-based psychotherapy style.

As a style issue, I do wish there was more attention to gender-inclusive language, as humans are always referred to as "man," and the pronoun "his" is always used instead of "her."    But this is a very small complaint, given the profoundly moving, inclusive, and life-affirming nature of this writing. 

This is another of the books I've read recently, which I really ought to have read 20 years ago...


GK said...

I should add that Frankl's book is by no means an exhaustive description of a psychotherapy technique.

One could debate the merits or propriety of specific therapeutic dialogs mentioned in the book. In such a debate, I think it is important to keep in mind that the "therapeutic value" of a specific statement may depend substantially on the individuals involved, in their particular cultural milieu (in this case, perhaps Austria in the 1950's). The same statements made to a different individual, in 2010, may seem quite off-base or overly simplistic. Yet, it is really the individual's personal experience at the time which determines the value of the exchange.

A reason I like this book very much is because it addresses the problem of how to live in the setting of profound, and potentially unchangeable, suffering. Such settings are common in mental illnesses. I do not believe the text, or the author, presumed to impose an answer to this problem, or to "impose meaning," but rather I believe the spirit of it is to invite an emphasis on meaningfulness as an important subject in therapeutic dialogs, and to show that meaningful living is possible despite any circumstance.

I can think of many in psychiatry--including those oriented towards biological psychiatry or even psychodynamic psychiatry-- who would practically be embarrassed to even discuss "meaning" in a visit with a patient, or in a discussion with colleagues.

I do not find the text to be "religious,"though the author does allude to his Jewish faith. I don't see how he couldn't do this, given his experience.

I find these ideas compatible with cognitive-behavioural therapy, mindfulness approaches, psychodynamic approaches, and biological psychiatry; Frankl mentions this compatibility in the text. Many cognitive-behavioural exercises, having to do with symptom resolution, can lead to a sequence of cognitive-therapy-style questions ultimately leading to issues having to do with "meaning." The "logotherapy" style might encourage the questions about meaning to be engaged earlier in the therapeutic process, not as the only thing to address, but as a thing not to be ignored or neglected.

BP said...

this could be the book i have always looked for. thank you for the recommendation!