Institute for Integrative Psychotherapy

Integrative Psychotherapy Articles



By Richard G Erskine, Ph.D.

The purpose of this talk is to re-emphasise the inter-personal dynamics of social psychology and apply the theme of this conference diversity, unity, and relationship to family relations, social systems, and organisations; to education, psychotherapy, and counselling.

"I'm OK, you're OK" is a basic tenet of Transactional Analysis. But, how can I be OK with you if I'm so different from you?  What if I speak differently?  What if I act unpredictably for you?  What if I have different values? Can I still be OK with you? And can you still be OK with me, because of this diversity?

Much of the political conflict in this world indicates that people have a great deal of difficulty with diversity. Diversity is disturbing. People who are different may seem inconsistent, unreliable, and untrustable. Other people's strange ways may be interpreted by us to mean that they are lazy, crazy, stupid, bad or wrong. These misperceptions occur because of incomplete perceptions! We don't really know the experience of that other person so we complete the Gestalt with some aspect of our past experience; we fill in how we understand the other person with our own fear; we interpret their behaviour with our own unconscious projection.  And hence, we make an image of the other person's differences.  According to Martin Buber, we sometimes create other people as an "it" instead of seeing the sacred or the "thou" inherent in their being.  Such incomplete and misinformed perceptions always lack empathy.  We fail to place the other person's behaviour within a realm of his or her unique sensitivities or relational needs and therefore become both inter-personally and intra-personally alienated.

Because of a human hunger for relationship we seek unity.  How do we become united in relationships if we are so unique, different and diverse?  The integration of a relational perspective of psychotherapy and social psychology concepts may provide challenging answers to these questions.

Unity requires a genuine interest in the other person, an interest that leads us to an inquiry; an inquiry of his or her phenomenological experience; that is, the subjective way each and every one of us processes interpersonal transactions and makes different meanings often of the same experience.  We emerge with different values about the same event.  A genuine inquiry, if it is going to be effective in knowing the other, always begins with the assumption, "I know nothing about the other's experience: my perceptions, my interpretation, my meanings are incomplete."

Therefore, I must know you by inquiry: who you are, what you value, how you understand what is happening, what you feel.  If I don't inquire, I know nothing except my interpretation of you.  We just stay separate.  One of us must bridge that gap of separateness.  Inquiry is part of the process.  But it's difficult to withstand the uncertainty, the anxiety of getting to know each other, crossing that barrier of our own interpretation, history and fears. Because if we really inquire and attempt to know others in some fundamental way, if we learn their perspectives, their uniqueness and their differences, their diversity will challenge and perhaps change us. To be changed by knowing the other may be anxiety making.  So a genuine interest in diversity requires a willingness to tolerate anxiety, to be disturbed, be impacted by the other, to be moved, to be changed. When open to diversity and valuing the other's uniqueness, even brief transactions may have a growth-enhancing effect.

I'll illustrate with an experience that Rebecca and I had in Lao. We were in the airport in Vientiane, which consisted of a little two-story concrete building.  We were in the closed waiting room on the top floor with a flat roof, and no windows that opened.  The lack of air circulation was stifling.  The Laotians sat patiently; the Westerners got agitated and complained.  It was a long, hot day.  After yet another announcement that the flight would be delayed, an old Laotian man, sitting next to Rebecca, shrugged and said, "Life is long."  What?  I was astonished.  I thought, "life is short."  "Life is long," says a man who lived in underground tunnels for nine years of relentless bombing.  The story of this old man, who had lived through revolution, starvation, and war, had a profound impact on us.  Since that encounter I've continually wondered what would happen if I adopted the idea that "life is long?"  To see this world through the perspective of another is a challenging and sometimes difficult task, a disruption of our psychological homeostasis.  Our sense of predictability gets shaken.  Our identity is under fire.  Our sense of being special, our ego-centred perspective is challenged.  When we allow the other person to impact us, it changes our mental structures.  To view life as long rather than short profoundly changes one's perspective events take on a new meaning.

The appreciation of diversity, then, is based on a willingness to be open to the other and an inquiry into the other's subjective experience and how he or she constructs meaning.  The appreciation of diversity is our respecting the integrity of the other person: respecting his or her integrity even if we don't understand them.  When we don't understand the other person, it is hard to appreciate their integrity, to discover their uniqueness, to inquire about their meaning and their purpose.  Respecting the integrity of the other is emphasised in the Hindi greeting "Namaste" which loosely translated means, "the God in me greets the God in you". 

I have tried, not always with ease, to put into practice a story which influenced me when I was twelve or thirteen years old.  We used to have a Sunday evening radio program called "The Inner Sanctum".  It was a half-hour show consisting of two fifteen-minute stories.  These were intriguing and sometimes scary short stories about the supernatural.  But since this was just before Christmas the program had a more Christmas-oriented, less scary tone.  On this particular December evening the story was about a twelve-year-old boy who had gone shopping to buy his mother a Christmas present.  He had found just what he was looking for.  It hadn't cost quite as much as he expected.  He had some money left over and was planning to buy something for himself.  He was standing at the bus stop in the snow with many other people.  An old homeless man was asking if somebody would buy him a bus ticket.  Evening was falling, the snow was coming down, it was getting colder and the old homeless man wanted to get on the bus so that he could be warm and sleep on the bus all night.  All of the grown-ups turned away.  They ignored him.  The little boy had a dilemma: to buy himself a toy or to buy the old street person a ticket.  All the people filed onto the bus.  He bought the old man a ticket.  The little boy got on the bus and went to the back.  The old homeless man got on.  As he walked down the corridor of the bus, he looked at each person, greeted him or her, and blessed each one.  As he got to the little boy he said, "God is with you" and proceeded to walk to the back of the bus, faded right through the superstructure of the bus, and disappeared.  The boy was awe-struck.  As the bus passed a church, he saw a manger scene where the boy's image of the old homeless man merged with the statue of the baby Jesus.  When he arrived home he asked his mother, "Mom, I have a question: is Christ a baby at Christmas, or can he be an old man on the bus?"   

Who is your client?  Who is your student?  Who is your colleague?  Can they be as sacred as the story of the old man implies?  This story speaks of a sense of "You're OK with me no matter what your diversity."

What if we encounter our diversity, our differences, and even our adversary with the same sense of sacredness that that little boy learned from the old man on the night before Christmas?  Unity and relationship require honouring the uniqueness and diversity of the other person.  We must work at knowing them.  That takes time.  It takes suspending our judgement.  Metaphorically it's like we've got to get into another's skin, to vicariously experience her world the way she hears and sees it.  The psychological task of relatedness includes knowing and valuing the other's perspective and at the same time not wholly surrendering our own uniqueness, both staying with our own perspective while allowing it to be changed. By opening ourselves to knowing the other we create a new synthesis of our self through relationship.

Unity requires presence.  That sense of de-centring from myself, making my own wishes, needs, even my theories, unimportant and, for the time being, focusing entirely on the other's experience. Presence also includes the capacity to shuttle back to our own experience childhood memories, our parental influences, our training, things that enrich our lives--and to use those experiences as a vast resource library to the interchange.  To be both de-centred and yet stimulated, to bring the richness of our life history to the other is the personal presence that facilitates relationship.

Richard G Erskine, Ph.D.

Institute for Integrative Psychotherapy, New York, NY

University of Derby, UK


This article was originally published in ITA News, Number 54, Summer 1999, pp. 17-18.

The Institute for Integrative Psychotherapy is approved by the American Psychological Association to sponsor continuing education for psychologists, by the National Board of Certified Counselors for counselors and by the American Board of Examiners in Pastoral Counseling for pastoral counselors. The Institute for Integrative Psychotherapy maintains responsibility for this program and its content.