James Bugental’s lessons for social change agents

Lyndon%20Johnson%20meeting%20with%20civil%20rights%20leaders - James Bugental's lessons for social change agents
Be a change agent

Dr. James Bugental presented a paper at the 1965 meeting of the Psychologists Interested in the Advancement of Psychotherapy in Washington, D.C.

The paper “The Humanistic Ethic – The Individual in Psychotherapy as a Societal Change Agent” presented a perspective on the potential of psychotherapy. Bugental felt that potential could extend beyond helping the individual to overcome their struggles but psychotherapy could have a lasting impact on our society as a whole. His perspective; therapeutic change can lead to societal change, and this is done by persons who do so within what he refers to as the humanistic ethic.

It seems just as crucial today.

The humanistic ethic:

Centered Responsibility for One’s Life

This tenet recognizes that each person is responsible or an agent for their own lives. We have choice and we are responsible for our choices. Individual decisions, social pressures or oppression make require us to make choices we do not want to make but, ultimately we have the power to make a choice in what we do and how in we respond.

Yes, racism, sexism, heterosexism, crime and war are circumstances that we do not choose to experience, but Bugental argues,

“It insists, however, that while we cannot choose all that befalls us, we can choose how we will respond to it — in Frankl’s language, “the attitude we take toward it.”

Social change can be fueled by this idea. We can chose to respond to the injustices in society by pulling together as a collective of individuals who know they have a choice, a choice to fight the injustice.

Mutuality in Relationship

This tenet suggests that the ideal relationship is one where each person is valued as who they are. Dehumanizing or depersonalizing another denies them their humanity. When we do this, we are dehumanizing ourselves.

This means denying others their humanity takes away the most precious aspect of being human, relationship. We cannot relate to another if we do not honor them or see them as being like ourselves.

Here-and-Now Perspective

For Bugental, this tenet reminds us all that we always live in the present moment. This is not to say that the past does not matter.

The meaning we gain from our past is not lost in our lives. But the caution is, dwelling on the past can only deny us the opportunity to see what is here in the present moment.

On a social change level, the violent social and economic crimes that have rocked the world since Bugental’s piece are relevant in that they have shaped who we are as a society. But it is in the present moment that we can create change and begin to heal from the past.

Being in the present moment prevents us from looking so far into the future that we forget that what we are doing now will shape the future.

Acceptance of non-hedonic emotions

We must recognize that emotions such as pain, grief, anger, guilt and conflict are all part of being human.  These emotional experiences usually pave the way for one to realize that there is something in their life that must be addressed, changed or ended.

Personal rage that leads someone to harm another, is valid and must be acknowledged. That rage could be reflection of their individual pain and also a reflection on the unified pain of a community that is angry and suffering. Ignoring it or covering it up with false serenity can only deny us the opportunity to see what needs to be changed at a personal and societal level.

Growth-Oriented Experiences

This is the seeking of “growth-facilitated experiences”. These are moments, relationships and endeavors that help us to do whatever we can in our lives that encourages authenticity. Seeking growth oriented experiences that embody these humanistic ethics can help us reach our full potential and be more authentic in life.

In doing so, one no longer wants to accept dehumanizing relationships, remain stuck in the past thinking, have their emotions invalidated or lose their ability to chose.

One no longer want to live Eric Fromm’s “sick society” that denies each of these ethics. In the end, Bugental offers, one will work to create change that will allow others to rise to their potential and to feel as human as they do.

But we know that there is still so much that needs to be transformed in our society. Activists, individuals, whole communities, and a few politicians are working to create change in our society; change that ensure human rights and dignity for all. This change may be facilitated by those individuals that seek transformation within themselves as well.

There is wonderful quote from the a Grandmother of the 13 Indigenous Grandmothers Council that sums up this piece.

Personal healing is the essential first step toward healing the world.”

— Makenna Berry

Read other posts by Makenna Berry

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