Success and Failure Identity

Posted in: ARTICLES
By Dr Geariod O Donnochadh
Jun 21, 2010 - 6:51:53 AM

The title reflects the work and thought of William Glasser who gave us the terms in his book The Identity Society ( New York, Harper-Collins, 1975). William Glasser is an American psychiatrist who has departed from the conventional psycho-analytic approach and adopted a behaviorist approach in his professional work and is deeply influenced in his thinking by the symbolic-interactionist approach of phenomenologists like George Herbert Mead. He has named his approach 'Reality Therapy', the title of one of his most important works. This Reality Therapy, in turn, is based on Choice Theory, Glasser's theory of personal freedom.

In his professional work Glasser has worked with an entire spectrum of clients, from teen-age delinquent girls to incapacitated veterans in a Veterans Administration hospital in Chicago. His work has been hugely successful; his success rates in rehabilitating the various people he deals with are unmatched. Our interest, in this paper, is to explore the basis of his thinking, the philosophical basis of his work.

In George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion, more famously known as My Fair Lady, Alfie, the father of Eliza Doolittle, is nonplussed to find out that he, an uneducated man, has been using prose all his life, and a unique prose at that. Similarly, many of us are surprised to find we have a basic philosophical approach in our understanding of life and of all concerned with life; we are inclined to think that the culturally based understanding we have of reality is the only possible one. This is the reason there are so many misunderstanding and impasses in everything from interpersonal relationships to international negotiations; people talk past one another on different tracks without realizing they have very different preconceptions which don't allow them to meet and share and understand one another.

Briefly, for we do not wish to bore hopeful readers to death with deep philosophy, there are three basic approaches to understanding reality. These are found in the works of Plato, Aristotle and Immanuel Kant. Plato, amongst other things, provides the basis for fundamentalist religions and sees everything as a reflection of some ideal reality, to be judged in relation to that reality. Plato will not concern us further. Aristotle, at first sight, seems to give a very common-sense approach; things are things in themselves and can be known only by being observed, counted, measured and analyzed. Aristotle's lead has given us most of our modern scientific advances. Why criticize his approach then?

The ultimate statement of Aristotelianism may be John Locke's concept of the human being as tabula rasa. This shows the basic materialistic bias in the approach - the human being is subservient to the material world, is, ultimately, completely a product of that material world.. In the work of Sigmund Freud and others this materialistic bias is brought to a head. Psychoanalysis is predicated on the assumption that the human personality is an id, a thing, a material thing, its dynamics subject to the laws of matter.

The Kantian approach, and the neo-Kantian approach of phenomenologists like Mead even more so, sees all knowledge as human. All we ever know about anything is what it means to us as humans, a meaning we establish by interaction and communication in a cultural context. More particularly, the personality is something that emerges in human interaction, interaction using symbols. The interaction of the young child does not involve a person, for a person calls for individual responsibility, a concept we never apply to the very young. It is easy to establish when the young child becomes a person. In the early months of speech the child refers to itself in the third person as 'baby' or 'Johnny'. Then, about the age of eighteen months to two years, suddenly two words enter the child's vocabulary at the same time, 'you' and 'I'. Self-consciousness, a consciousness of independent existence and the beginning of individual responsibility, has emerged from interaction with others. As the child grows, so does the personality grow in its ability to communicate symbolically and to determine its own meaning in relation to others. It is the symbolic meaning of things that are important, not the things themselves. Symbols are the human way of assimilating and dealing with material reality.

William Glasser is aware of this approach to reality and to the development of the human personality. While his professional approach is basically behavioristic, so was that of Mead and others of the phenomenologists. The behaviorist approach works admirably in human interaction and its implications must be understood. Just as the personality emerges as a dynamic entity from human interaction, so is the personality affected by two things, the nature of the identity communicated to the growing child and the ability of the growing person to manage its own identity. Glasser gives us the two possible outcomes at age eleven or so, a success identity or a failure identity.

Those who, with the help of those around them, effect a success identity, are able to see the world as a friendly, if challenging, place and are usually able to deal successfully with it. They look for ways to solve problems as they arise and, above all, maintain 'connectedness' with significant others in their lives. Those who develop a failure identity see no good reason to attempt much positive as they have learned that their role is that of failure. Their ability to cope with life is negatived and they are prone to developing inappropriate and damaging coping mechanisms. Specifically, they lose the ability to relate to significant others, to the ones they need in their lives.

No personality is set in stone. What is needed is an understanding of personality and its problems. Some problems, undoubtedly, are physically based and call for psychotropic drug intervention. The vast majority of problems are due to unhappy interactions and must be corrected by devising schemes that allow the individual to succeed in some way that is important to them in life. In particular, one's success will involve 'connectedness' to the people one needs. Only thus will individuals develop success identities and learn to cope fruitfully with the challenges and stresses of life.

Glasser's basic rule is that, in dealing with (young) people, one remain non-judgmental and non-coercive but encourage people to judge all they are doing by the Choice Theory axiom: Is what I am doing getting me closer to the people I need ? Other axiomata of Glasser are:

- focus on the present and avoid discussing the past as all human problems are caused by unsatisfying present relationships

- avoid discussing symptoms and complaints since these are the ways clients choose to deal with unsatisfying relationships

- avoid criticizing, blaming or complaining and help clients to do the same. By doing this they learn to avoid the extremely harmful external control behaviours that destroy relationships

- understand the concept of total behaviour, which means focus on what clients can do directly - act and think. Spend less time on what they cannot do directly, that is, change their feelings and physiology. Feelings and physiology can be changed but only if there is a change in the acting and thinking

- focus on specifics. Find out whom clients are disconnected from and help them choose reconnecting behaviours
- teach clients that, legitimate or not, excuses stand directly in the way of their making needed connections

Among the more important of Glasser's works are:
Reality Therapy: A New Approach to Psychiatry (1975)
Choice Theory: A New Psychology of Personal Freedom (1998)
Counseling with Choice Theory: The New Reality Therapy (2001)
Unhappy Teenagers: A Way for Parents and Teachers to Reach Them (2002)
Warning: Psychiatry Can Be Hazardous to Your Mental Health (2003)
Choice Theory in the Classroom (1998)
The Identity Society (1975)


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