Alfred Adler’s Individual Psychology contends that human beings are not disordered, but discouraged. Discouragement, by definition, suggests a deprivation of courage or confidence (Mish, et. al., 1988, 361). Lack of courage affects one's attitudes, expectations, beliefs, desires, and behaviors. Adler saw courage as the willingness to progress in life despite fear and to take appropriate risks (Corey, 1996, 98). The word courage originates from the French word “Coeur”, which means “heart” (Kidd, 1990, 109).
Indeed, the heart is the center of the mind. It is out of this center that one is able to think, feel and will. The ability to think, feel and will is the bases for spirituality. “Consistent with the teachings of most of the theistic world religions, we theorized that human beings are composed of both a mortal body and an eternal spirit, soul, or energy source that continues to exist beyond the death of the mortal body” (Richards & Bergin, 2003, 13). It would appear then that being human involves more than one’s physical body. At the core of the human person is the eternal spirit or energy source behind everything we seek and aspire to (May, 2004, 48-49).
Thus, when a person experiences discouragement he or she loses the ability to become empowered by the energy source that motivates human strivings and aspirations. Discouragement weakens the human spirit and impacts one's ability to transcend the temporal.
As a result, courage seems to be a fundamental characteristic of what it means to be fully human. Courage enables one to transcend external circumstances by looking inward through the mind. The opening of the mind is the entrance to the spirit. It is the spirit that provides another perspective or reframes for the mind and in so doing offers the freedom in choosing one’s response to life circumstances. In other words, being human is the ability to transcend the physical and this cannot be done without courage. Courage is then an essential characteristic of a thriving spirit.
In the same way, the physical body requires nutrients to build up and maintain the body, so the spirit of man requires encouragement in order to thrive. Encouragement is vital to spirituality. It is the ability to awaken courage in another through encounters, experiences, and events. Adler described it as the process of increasing one’s courage to face life tasks (Corey, 1996, 98). The process of increasing one’s courage is a spiritual one. When one spirit encourages another spirit a transfer of energy occurs between them. Certainly, this process can be compared to what happens when a car becomes disabled due to a dead battery and another car is connected to it through jumper cables to give it a “jump start”. Through the cables, an exchange occurs and the once disabled vehicle is able to run off the energy of the other car. Clearly, the disabled car will eventually need its own energy source as the benefit of the “jump start” is temporary. Nevertheless, a “jump start” helps to facilitate the car’s ability to find its own energy source.
The spiritual process of encouragement occurs whenever one positive spirit connects with a negative spirit through the invisible cables of love, care, and genuine concern. Whenever there is a genuine connection between two spirits, a mode of transfer of spiritual energy is also created.
According to the laws of physics, when a positive charge is brought near to a negative charge a force is created that pulls them together to produce power. The human body itself is a well-known conductor of electric charges and therefore can transfer power when connected to another person. Thus, the positive charge of encouragement when transferred to a discouraged or negatively charged person can facilitate the development of personal power in the discouraged person. Dinkmeyer & Losoncy, (1996) described encouragement as, “the process of facilitating the development of a person’s inner resources and courage toward positive movement” (7). They further stated that the objective of encouragement is to help the individual move from a philosophy that suggests “I can’t” to the more productive “I will” in order to help people find their own “personal power” (Dinkmeyer & Losony, 1996, 7). Therefore, the process of building personal power in others requires the exploration of three important spiritual aspects. These three spiritual aspects have to do with encounter, experience, and events.
Spiritual Aspects of Encouragement
First, the idea of encounter is an important spiritual aspect of encouragement because it is through encounter that spiritual exchange is possible. Encounters then are spiritual meetings that provide opportunities for personal empowerment through dialogue and communion. "The human person comes to be through dialogue with others. Out of this ongoing dialogue, people develop a sense of who they are and where they are going. People speak to each other words of acceptance and love, but they also speak painful words that call for conversion and new lifestyles” (John Shea, 1996, 25).
The encounter then provides a space where the self can be lovingly confronted and challenged toward conversion. Encouragement, on the other hand, provides the courage and freedom to become the true self. Love and acceptance is the core of a person’s freedom and is a gift given to them by others (John Shea, 1996, 26). It is through encouragement, that love and acceptance are communicated to others during an encounter. Thus, it is stated in the Judeo-Christian wisdom book that, “Iron sharpens iron, So one man sharpens another” (Proverbs, 27:17). Encouragement is the sharpening of another person as they sincerely connect through dialogue and communion in a spiritual encounter. It is reported that Jesus himself said, “the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life” (John 6:63b). If Jesus in his humanity spoke words that were spirit and life, then as humans we too are challenged to speak words of spirit and life in our dialogue with others we encounter. “Death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). This implies that words are powerful and have the ability to produce discouragement which is a kind of death or encouragement which gives life.
Experiences are also an important spiritual aspect of encouragement. How one experiences an encounter will ultimately determine one’s perception of the spiritual exchange, whether positive or negative. The broad range of human experiences shapes a person’s future responses. Accordingly, past experiences tend to impact whether a person acts with courage or is discouraged in the present reality. Life experiences have the potential to build or break the human spirit depending on how the experiences are interpreted. In other words, experiences in themselves have no meaning, but the meaning is derived from people’s interpretation of experiences.
This spiritual aspect of encouragement has to do with helping people transcend their experiences. Victor E. Frankl, (1984) concluded as a result of his experience as a prisoner of war that despite one's circumstances, it is one's inner freedom to choose to rise above suffering that makes life meaningful (75-76). He also noted the reactions of fellow prisoners stating that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. . . .They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms-to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way (Frankl, 1984, 75).
Our humanity is threatened whenever we choose to focus on our circumstances and become hopeless instead of hopeful. Whenever the meaning of life experiences is lost, one’s humanness becomes at risk due to the devaluing of his/her existence. Adler believed that individuals create their expectations of how life will treat them and how well they will respond. Basically, people tend to place themselves in one of two broad categories. One group perceives themselves as captains of their ship or masters of their own destiny. By contrast, others deny that they can do much more than avoid a catastrophe from circumstances beyond their control (Sweeney, 1998, 124).
Encouragement, therefore, becomes providing a reframe to what was learned in an experience in order to empower one to choose a new attitude in the midst of the circumstance. It is also the valuing of another human being in an effort to inspire love and appreciation for God's creation, oneself. Furthermore, through the encouraging relationship, one creates new experiences that can awaken the courage asleep within a person.
The third spiritual aspect of encouragement has to do with events. Events like experiences have the potential to encourage or discourage a person. An event is an occasion, happening or occurrence. According to Sweeney (1998) “Lack of control or a feeling of powerlessness is a condition in which the individual perceives the self as having little or no power to influence events or regulate one’s own emotions” (53). Increasing one's sense of control over life events is dependent upon how one thinks, feels and acts. It is also dependent upon one's ability to discern which events are under one’s control and which events are not. This spiritual aspect of encouragement has to do with developing a discerning heart in a person. Namely, expanding one's inner resources in an attempt to change how they think, feel and act in a given event.
In many world religions, the method used to expand the human heart is the ascetical practice of prayer. “In prayer, one discovers one’s deepest self, and comes back to the center of one’s true being. . . . Prayer, however, also affects the body and mind as well. It helps resolve and release tension in the whole person, bringing an inner sense of peace in the midst of turmoil” (Scherrer, 1984, 251). This inner peace builds courage and recreates the core of the person. The idea of casting ones cares upon God or sharing one’s burdens with others can decrease stress in a person’s life. "Prayer really does function on the body and mind as a kind of play, and much more. As play relieves and enables one to return refreshed to one’s work, so also prayer has something of this function. . . . One who prays more, therefore, may even find himself capable of more, not less, work. Prayer sends one back to one’s work renewed, work on the other hand expresses and extends one’s prayer” (Scherrer, 1984, 251).
Prayer, as described by Steven Scherrer (1984), implies Adler’s idea of encouragement, which is to increase courage in order to face life tasks. If prayer releases stress by increasing peace and return one to one’s work renewed, then prayer itself is an encouragement. It is therefore evident that increasing the occurrences of prayer in one's life also increases the probability of finding the courage to face life tasks.
Prayer helps the heart discern between events that are controllable and those that are not. This ability to discern empowers the will to take action instead of helplessly withdrawing from life tasks. Prayer increases faith in God which in turn improves self-efficacy. Prayer then seems to increase one’s sense of control through confidence in God's ultimate power. "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me" (Philippians 4:13, KJV). Also, the well-known serenity prayer of Alcoholics Anonymous provides a feeling of peace to accept the things that are not in one’s power to change, the courage to change those things that are in one's power and the wisdom to discern the difference.
Spiritual Implications for Psychotherapy
The Adlerian concept of encouragement is fundamental to the practice of psychotherapy. It is a universal concept that addresses the core of who we are as human beings. An encourager is a person high in social interest and therefore able to empathize with others in the human condition of discouragement. The spiritual dimensions of encouragement are rudimentary for psychotherapy. This is so because it is essentially the spirit of a person that must be addressed for healing to occur. Holistically speaking, if the spirit of a person is the energy source behind who we are as human beings, then, it cannot be ignored in psychotherapy.
Psychotherapy then can be viewed as a spiritual encounter that provides an opportunity for a new experience to be created through the therapeutic relationship. The new experience is one of hope and loving acceptance of the other conveyed through encouragement. Encouragement can then be used as a therapeutic tool to build up the spirit of a person allowing them to feel a sense of control over life events.
Indeed many contemporary psychotherapists are blinded by the diagnosis of a person and therefore miss opportunities to inspire hope in their clients. The core or heart of clients is overlooked and though they receive praise and reinforcement for external behaviors, who they are inside is often neglected. This neglect of the client’s spirit is reflective of the lack of spiritual awareness in the interior life of psychotherapists.
Therefore, it appears that before psychotherapists can truly encourage others, they must first develop their own interior life through contemplation. Prayer can relieve the stress of burnout which leads to discouragement. A burned out psychotherapist is discouraged and is therefore negatively charged. This negativity will impede the spiritual process of encouragement and further discourage clients. Encouragement is not just an Adlerian term, but it also a spiritual concept that is relevant to both psychotherapists and clients.
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