The Welts

Coronelli celestial globe - The Welts

Rollo May, in explicating the old-world existentialists that inspired him, wrote about the three worlds in which we find ourselves. When we encounter clients in therapy, we can encounter them in any of these three worlds.

The first is the Umwelt. This is the world of objects, the physical space full of labels and concrete. This is where we find traffic and cigarettes, stress, work, cars, sofas, and the family dog. When we encounter a person in the Umwelt, these are their concerns and ours. Our interventions might be about advice, such as to obtain medical care. They might be about stress management. And they might be about helping the person encounter their environment with increasing honesty or mindfulness.

Second is the Mitwelt. This is the intersubjective space between people, our nets of relationships. Here, we encounter our family, friends, co-workers, therapists, and clients. Whether present or not, our people are always with us, influencing our actions and internal space. Much of therapy happens mostly in the Mitwelt. It is the subject of our study—relationships past and present are most of the grist in our particular sort of mill. Here, our interventions might range from making relationships explicit to experiencing a corrective relationship to just being with one another in mutual warmth.

These are relatively easy to understand. The final realm is the Eigenwelt, complicated enough a concept that even Rollo May was not that explicit about it in the chapter where he tried to describe these concepts explicitly.

The Eigenwelt is the mental realm in which we know ourselves. It is not about the concrete space where we live or the people that come in and out of our lives. Nor is it about just the reflective space between our ears that is not a Being-in-the-World. Nor is it, strictly speaking, the person in totality. This is the person’s state of being and being in relationship to their self.

Interventions here are unlikely to be very concrete or easily manualized. We might help the person with introspection or encounter. We might indeed use any of the techniques we know and we might not respond much differently than if we were concerned with the Umwelt or Mitwelt. But our intent will be, rather than addressing relationships or pathology, helping the person find a place to stand. Notice statements of choice, decision, freedom. A person making a decision is a person who exists, who is not merely buffeted about by deterministic influences, chance, or fate. It is a person who exists and knows they exist, and thus has the chance to carve out more freedom, own more responsibility.

Imagine your client talks about a teapot. It is shattered, and he describes the time he spends gluing back together. There are tweezers, superglue, shards of pottery in abundance. Reading spectacles perched on the end of the man’s nose, perhaps, eyes watering from fumes and concentration. You can see it all in your mind. Ultimately the story is boring—he drones on tediously about the details of this repetitive practice. Pick out a piece, turn it, touch it, see if it fits. Repeat until you have the piece that fits the gap. Glue it, hold it carefully in place without grinding the edges. Wait. Wait. Wait.

What are we doing here? How is this helping him get better?

So you interject, ask a question. You sense instinctively that this Umwelt is not the place where healing happens. Perhaps it is where we live and die, certainly it is where all our stuff is, but perhaps it is where we are least helpful.

So we ask, why? Why are you gluing this pot back together? Or, why are you telling me about this now? What is the significance of the story?

Here is where the magic can happen.

He works on this pot every day because it belonged to someone important to him. His wife or his mother. And she died or left him in a more mundane manner, and he broke it in rage or grief or by accident. But this object, this artifact of the Umwelt, really lives for him in the Mitwelt. It signifies his relationship to this other person. They shared tea from it, loved one another over it. It was the only way he knew how to say I love you—to make the tea.

Now we are firmly in the Mitwelt. We are relating to this dead or missing person, relating to each other. What is it like to tell me about all this? How does it deepen our trust?

We could stay here. Or we could take it deeper. What do you feel when you talk about this? What feeling drive these hours, this seemingly compulsive behavior? What is it like to stick to this project week after week, with no hope of a usable product at the end?

Do you see that you have made a decision to start this and another to see it through?

Now we are living. The Umwelt is covered. The Mitwelt is taking care of itself. And now we are operating where the healing can happen. Our client has the chance to see into himself, past the compulsive behavior and the inane chatter, into what drives him. And he can choose whether to engage it or run from it. In any case, he has decided something, and he is therefore alive.

— Jason Dias

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