Monday, August 27, 2007
Reductionism and Foundation
I had an interesting session recently that brought up some thoughts. I was talking with a particular
client who had been in a violent relationship. The name will obviously be omitted, however, the
gender will be included for the sake of the situation and the ease of writing. She had been with a
boyfriend for nearly a year when he attacked her. The situation resulted in her contacting the
police and his incarceration (though not for the crime, but rather for probation violation). She
ended out dismissing the charges, but he was still sentenced to a year in jail. She admitted that she
was the kind of person that goes back to their abuser due to insecurities. As we began talking she
opened up and admitted that much of the foundation upon which she built her self-worth had to
do with her looks and social skills (which were not lacking especially in high school years she
said). However, due to an unforeseen health malady she was robbed of those physical
endowments for several years. During said time she experienced a deep depression and a loss of
confidence and who she was. After that time of trial her health returned and she was able to lose
the weight she gained and was feeling "more confident" again. It was soon after, however, that
she met her boyfriend (now incarcerated) and began dating him, though she promised herself to
never date that type of a guy. She still plans on staying with him, though she knows that he will
not help her attain the future she desires. So, I asked her "what happened? What happened for
you to compromise your own standards and values?" She didn't know. Now, that is where we'll
begin this discussion on foundation--a personal foundation of values, character, traits, standards,
beliefs, etc. She didn't have one other than her physical traits. I asked her if it was a firm
foundation and she agreed that it was not. I asked her what it could be built upon--something
unshakeable and firm. She didn't know. I then suggested to her that she think about her purpose
for living as it is a place to start. She said she wasn't sure, but that it must be to learn and to
experience. I asked her why that would be important. She didn't know. After our conversation I
began thinking ab out reducing purpose and meaning to life down to its simplest form, which is
explained as reductionism. This paper is not going to necessarily focus on reductionism as a
principle, but I will describe it for explanation sake. The online Merriam-Webster's dictionary
describes reductionism as follows: 1 : explanation of complex life-science processes and
phenomena in terms of the laws of physics and chemistry; also : a theory or doctrine that complete
reductionism is possible. 2 : a procedure or theory that reduces complex data and phenomena to
simple terms. Simply put, it’s the idea that all things can be broken down into a simpler form. Not
only does it work with the scientific model, but with psychological problems as well–so I
discovered. I began with this client with one of her current problems and we broke it down to a
main problem that could be resolved. With her self-worth being based on looks and beauty we
used reductionism principles to get down to the core problem. It was simple as one only has to
ask “why” for everything until they can’t any longer. For example, if they have anxiety about a
certain subject, they can break it down as follows:
Q: What are you so anxious about?
A: I’m anxious about failing.
Q: What is it about failing that makes you anxious?
A: If I fail, then that would be bad?
Q: Why would it be bad?
A: It would mean that I didn’t know what I was doing?
Q: What’s wrong with that?
A: If I don’t know what I’m doing, then I fail.
Q: How do you know you fail?
A: I fail when I don’t do something completely right or I make a mistake.
Q: Again, how do you know you fail?
A: I just do.
Q: What does failure truly mean? Let’s look it up in the dictionary.
You then look it up in the dictionary and discuss the meanings of failure. Then ask,
Q: Do you fit the criteria of failure?
A: Well, no, not really.
Q: Then, who originally made the description of failure that you held to for so long, that caused
so much unnecessary anxiety?
Then, discuss the source of the description and why it is so important to them. Why they place so
much value on a description that is not complete. At times the client will even base it on a belief,
standard, or value that is shaky, incomplete, and not firm. I then talk to them about their values,
standards, beliefs, and the foundation upon which they place everything they feel is true (including
their definition of failure). We break it down to a foundation, usually, that is based on principles
that are untrue. As a definition, principles must be true which means that they are complete and
are not missing any important aspects. Principles are beliefs and standards that hold unshakeable
value to the individual. Meaning, it does not matter what kind of emotional upheaval or time of
prosperity the client endures, the foundation with true principles remains constant and
unchanging. Too often do many of my clients not have a foundation, therefore, they wander
without direction, purpose, or goals and thus become victims to their misery, helplessness, and
pity. Using reductionism one can arrive at their very foundation principles to address and modify
them as needed.
Many of my clients have a foundation based on religiosity or spirituality. They seem to recover
more quickly. In fact, some research indicates that individuals with strong active religious beliefs
and activities are more resilient to life’s difficulties and stressors. Though, as a counselor I cannot
recommend or pass those values on to one who is atheistic, similar principles can be found if one
digs deep enough through reductionism. Helping a client find their foundation and core values
helps them have something to fall back on during times of emotional upheaval or anxiety.