The Obstacle is the Way: Finding Satisfaction in Dissatisfaction
In my latest Therapy For Guys podcast, I interviewed Dr. Todd McGowan about his book, Emancipation After Hegel: Achieving a Contradictory Revolution. The main idea in the conversation is that contradiction is an intractable existential reality. As much as we fantasize about a life without struggle, the truth is we cannot escape a confrontation with contradiction at the heart of existence. This is not just speculative philosophy. Wrestling with contradiction is what psychotherapy is all about. While this is a sobering reality, it is not without hope. As the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, once wrote,"the impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way." The obstacle is the way. It's possible to reconcile ourselves to contradiction in a way that honors the struggle without collapsing into hopelessness. Let's explore this further...
Anstoss: Obstacle & Impetus
In the podcast, McGowan introduced the German philosopher Johann Gottlieb Fichte. McGowan pointed out that for Fichte, the German word Anstoss can mean both obstacle and impetus. This is a great insight! So much in life is riddled with contradiction, strife and tension. Our inner conflicts, annoying people at work and even our frail bodies. It's a huge temptation to get overwhelmed with an obstacle and just throw in the towel. Understanding Fichte's point that the Anstoss is not simply obstacle but also impetus helps open a path forward. The things that are most irritating for us can be opportunities to reflect on our subjectivity and even take action to make things better. The obstacle is the way to finding meaning and depth in life.
Sigmund Freud & The Unconscious
In our conversation, McGowan linked Hegel's notion of fundamental contradiction with Freud's concept of the unconscious. McGowan is clear the unconscious is more than just what modern neuroscientists refer to as subconscious processes of the brain. The unconscious is an autonomous agency in its own right. McGowan thinks of the unconscious as a force that impels us. He writes
Freud’s most important insight is that subjects do not seek their own good, despite their conscious intentions. By conceiving of an unconscious that impels the subject to act against its own conscious wishes, Freud defines subjectivity through a contradiction that the subject cannot eliminate.
The unconscious defines subjectivity through a contradiction that we cannot get rid of. We are divided. The notion that we can be free of inner conflict or division is a fantasy.
Freud believed the unconscious made itself known through slips of the tongue, dreams and certain patterns of behavior. This last one is one that I see everyday in my therapy office.
Let me give a quick example. A man and woman come to me for couple's therapy. The wife is frustrated with the husband for his lack of motivation and failure to follow through on agreed upon tasks. When asked why he's struggled to follow through, the husband responds that he had every intention to follow through and that his "true self" wants to do what they agreed upon. This is a great illustration of the unconscious at work. The husband's conscious intentions are to help out and follow through on their mutual agreement. His actual actions (or lack therof) are in line with his unconscious desire to not help out and continue to remain stagnant. As Freud noticed, the unconscious often impels the person to act against his conscious intentions.
When someone asks me why therapy is so important, I respond by saying it's one of the places to come into direct confrontation with your unconscious. Whether it's through a slip of the tongue, analyzing dreams or exploring behavioral patterns, the therapist can see what you cannot.
Masculinity & Contradiction
In my work as a therapist and on my podcast, I am interested in exploring modern masculinity. In my conversation with Todd McGowan, we discussed masculinity as a construction that seeks to evade contradiction. Masculinity is structured by what it is not. It is not weak. It is not feminine. It is not emotional. It is not dependent. The truth of the matter is that men have all of these traits within their psyche. The idea that of a man who is strong, handsome, stoic and independent is a laughable fantasy.
Every man is a divided subject, structured around contradiction. If he is physically strong, he also contains weakness. As much as he wants to avow anything feminine, he must reckon with the feminine dimension within himself. The more stoic he comes across, the more he's disturbed by an emotional storm within. Independent? That's the most ludicrous fantasy of all! Every man, from his mother to the workers he relates to, is intimately connected and dependent.
Reconciliation with Contradiction
What is the goal of human existence? Is it happiness? Is it a state of blissful noncontradiction? No! For Hegel and McGowan, the goal is to reconcile oneself to contradiction. What does this mean? First, it means that we accept the intractability of contradiction in our life. There are no future utopias with zero strife or tension. During my first therapy session with a new client, I tell them that I don't believe in happiness. I also inform them the best I can do is to help them move from hysterical misery to ordinary human unhappiness. This statement is a bit tongue and cheek. But it contains an important kernel of truth. To quote Kate Bowler, there is no cure for being human.
The first step is a recognition and acceptance of the human predicament. The second step is learning to find satisfaction in the dissatisfaction. Instead of trying to change our life so we achieve greater happiness, we learn to find enjoyment in the difficult aspects of existence.
Without wanting to romanticize pain or suffering, this reconciliation to contradiction is about bearing difficulty in a way that enriches life rather than diminishing it. Dr. McGowan shared two common examples. The first is the frustration of teaching a course with students who don't speak very much. As upsetting as this is, McGowan tries to see this experience as an opportunity for him to grow and develop as a teacher. The second example is one that rings true for me and many of my clients.
Very few of us find conscious enjoyment in an exercise routine. Waking up early, pushing our body and stretching our limits are all unenjoyable experiences. At the same time, the discipline, structure and benefits of physical exercise can be a positive experience that enriches life.
Reconciliation to contradiction is not the erasure of our problems. It is a reappraisal of our struggles and a shift in how we relate to them.
Therapy For Men Can Help
Therapy for Men can help you as a guy reconcile to contradiction. One of the ways to help you identify your obstacles is by signing up for therapy for men. A male therapist is someone your son can trust and develop a relationship with.
A male therapist can also work with you to develop goals and healthy coping strategies. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy(CBT) is one of the most effective ways to work with men. CBT is a short-term, problem focused approach. CBT is effective at treating a variety of problems.
Start Your Therapy For Men Journey with Quique Autrey: Katy, Tx & Houston
You do not have to do this alone. If you don't know what to do next, please contact me and set up your first appointment. I am here to help. I can work with you to bring healing and hope. I'm just off of I-10 and 99. I am centrally located for those living in Katy and Houston. To start your therapy for men, follow these simple steps: 1. Contact Katy Counseling For Men. 2. Schedule your first appointment with Quique Autrey. 3. Begin your therapy for men journey and start healing. You are not defined by your struggles. I want you to realize your true worth and potential. I want you to embrace a bright future. Imagine what life will look like for you free of struggles. The mission at Katy Counseling For Men is building stronger futures together. I look forward to starting this process of hope and healing with you!