Many people come to therapy seeking a way ‘forward’ in the way they manage their own identities, both with others and with themselves. It often becomes clear these people have spent much of their lives defending themselves: defending their image or character against the descriptions others choose to give them. Often people have come to believe these attributions themselves, even though they continue to hold out hope that someone, someday, will see in them who they really are deep inside below the exterior.
Recently I have adopted the terms ‘via negativa’ and ‘via positiva’ to bring this distinction into a sharper focus. I have borrowed the terms from the field of theology, in which the ‘via negativa’ (meaning the negative way) refers to an approach to understanding God by asking who or what God is not, rather than by asking who or what God is, which is called the ‘via positiva’ (positive way).
In theology the ‘via positiva’ is by far the more familiar route, but in the therapy work I have been conducting over decades, the exact opposite is true. Many people have plenty of experience with attempts to understand self through defending themselves against other people’s demands that they be defined in certain ways: against insinuations that they are deficient, incompetent, crazy, immoral, or selfish, for example.
Often these are clients who, in the course of therapy, expect their therapists to see them as deficient, incompetent, crazy, immoral, selfish, or whatever else, too. And if, as therapists, we label these people with psychopathological terms, we may inadvertently be reinforcing the same descriptions our clients are struggling to get free from. One of the reasons I joined Arbour Counselling Centre in 2013 is that here, I find myself interacting with colleagues who generally do not choose to apply psychopathological labels.
For some people, it is earth-shatteringly significant to recognize that defending their character – even to themselves – against attributions that never did define them in the first place can come to an end. These clients are often victims of abuse or violence, and also include people who have acquired an addiction or fallen out-of-favour due to some sort of behavioural issue.
I have found in therapy it can be useful to draw a dramatic distinction between the defensive ‘let me prove to you I am not like that’ lifestyle – the ‘via negativa’ – and the approach of developing the hidden story of who a person really is underneath – the ‘via positiva.’ Using these two terms serves to highlight for clients which approach they are adopting, or even unknowingly falling into, at any given moment.
For some people, it is earth-shatteringly significant to recognize that defending their character – even to themselves – against attributions that never did define them in the first place can come to an end.
I have sometimes found it useful, too, to apply an analogy taken from the very first Chicken Soup for the Soul book compiled by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen. The story is called “The Golden Buddha” and describes a discovery made half a century ago at a Buddhist monastery in Thailand. The monastery showcases a gigantic and stunning golden statue of Buddha and beside it is a plaque that tells its story.
For many centuries it was seen by the world as a gigantic clay statue, until one day someone was cleaning it and accidentally chipped off some of the clay. When he did this, he was surprised to see a glint of something shiny underneath; so he cleaned some more, and as he did so, more clay chipped away, revealing a larger glint. The caretaker was amazed at what he saw, and excitedly kept chipping off more and more clay until the huge golden effigy was finally revealed in all its glory.
Apparently, what had happened was that many centuries ago the monastery came under attack by a marauding tribe – so the monks frantically covered up their precious golden statue with clay in the hope no one would steal it. The monks were all killed and the statue remained covered in clay. So no one knew it had ever been a statue of gold, until one day someone chipped through the clay to reveal the magnificent golden essence underneath. In a strikingly similar way, that it exactly what happens in therapy work: we help people chip away their defensive layers, eventually revealing the beautiful ‘golden essence’ underneath! This process of shaving away the defensive layers and eventually proclaiming to all the world ‘Here I am – see who I am, not who I’m not!” is the essence of ‘via positiva.’
In therapy I contextualize this experience in the world in which we live, which simultaneously demands on one hand that we conform, conform, conform to a zillion norms that don't even match up, and that punishes and labels us for being outliers, while on the other hand also demanding we become unique, self-actualized, distinct and self-defined individuals.
People feel they're failing either way and obviously can't do both: hence we are never at peace and counsellors have jobs. What's needed in part is to be willing to disappoint people along the way: to “disappoint another to be true to yourself,” to quote the famous poem, The Invitation, by the First Nations poet, Oriah. How liberating it can be to proclaim to the world whom we actually are – and yet, many people live their lives gradually losing hope anyone will ever see it.