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Interview with Michael Seabaugh, PhD

With Ann T. Brode, CST
"You mentioned that you were drawn to study for your doctorate at USC because of its emphasis on "humanistic existentialism". I never thought of existentialism as being very in sync with the human need for relationship. How did existentialism become humanistic?"
I understand how a philosophy generally associated with despair and the stark realities of death-- existentialism-- could seem almost antithetical to the softer sentiments of humanism. Yet, what I learned in graduate school so many years ago, and have come to know empirically in my life and my psychotherapy practice, is that existentialism is starkly humanistic because it so directly deals with what it is to be nakedly human. Existentialism, at least the French existentialists that influenced my graduate studies, is about the real human condition, the one that is bereft of any non-empirical promises, (such as what some religions will put forth). As I understand it anyway, H-E is not a refutation of religion, but it does require us to understand what we are solely by the actions that we take. Without anything (like God or even a troubled history) determining what we chose to do, with the stark freedom that we have as humans, then what we choose to do (freely) is utterly and totally our responsibility. One of the goals of good psychotherapy (as I see it) is to help us to realize this freedom, and, as a benefit of this freedom, make choices and take responsibility for them. In this model, human beings are not "reified", reduced to a category, a diagnostic label, an inevitability of their history. They are taken and understood on their own terms, for the choices they make and the intentions that these reveal.
"When you speak of how we are shaped by our personal history, is it correllative to speculate that our"shape" determines our future if nothing intervenes?"
A beautifully put question! And one that would indicate some contradiction to the answer I just gave you on "humanistic existentialism". Let me try to answer it in an experiential way. My exposure to humanisitc-existentialism was perfect for me at that point in my life. I was in my late twenties. I had been living what I came to understand as an inauthentic life, living a lie in terms of my romantic life and my professional life. Learning to make authentic choices and taking responsibility for them (instead of living someone else's imposed reality for me) was liberating! But as I passed my exams and hung my shingle, I was still troubled in terms of my romantic life. I wasn't making good choices in that regard. I went into my own therapy which was more depth oriented. My studies took me in a direction of Psychodynamic psychology. I revisited my childhood, gained better understanding and perspective on those influences, and saw how my first flush of liberation was limited. I had to see what childhood dramas I was reliving over and over again. Life is like that if you stay present to it. It can take you where you need to go, one step forward, two or three backward, and then back on the yellow brick road. It is quite a journey and yes, we need interventions along the way to keep us on the path. Usually the interventions are all in the realm of consciousness, and when we are really fortunate, they come in the form of a human intervention. A healer, a mentor, a child to care for and learn from.... a true love. Without consciousness and a healing love, yes, our shape will determine our future. In humanistic-existential terms, we will live an inauthentic, unfree life.
"I have encouraged my clients to think of their therapists also as mentors...shifting emphasis from being wounded to being curious. Would you speak about the role of psychotherapists as mentors?"
First of all, I absolutely agree with the idea of shifting one's emphasis from being wounded to being curious. Curiosity is one of the hallmark's of mental health! That shift sometimes takes some repair work and preparation, but it is absolutely an essential shift to ultimately make if psychotherapy is to be effective. The part of your question about psychotherapists as mentors is a bit more complicated for me. Mentors are incredibly important in our lives. It was a critically important relationship in my life, that is for certain. Mentors are most often effective, in large part, by their example, as role models. One of the things that I have a big problem with in my profession is the amount of self disclosure some of my colleagues indulge in. I realize that this already is sounding very judgmental. So let me be quick to clarify. Self-disclosure in psychotherapy can be very helpful, but it must always be thoughtful and very discerning to be effective. As psychotherapists, we work in the shadows, as it were. Our spotlight must remain firmly on the "narcissism" of our clients, while ours must remain firmly in check. This is a big challenge for many psychotherapists (it certainly has been for me at times), and opening the door to "look at me, I am a great role model, and if you see how great I am, you will follow my example" as a way of getting our narcissistic goodies is not a therapeutic situation in my estimation. However, we do have to realize that the business we engage in is extremely intimate, and who we are, how we dress, even who we vote for, will impact our clients. It is a great burden, really, and we need to be very cognizant of its weight.

Dr. Michael O.L. Seabaugh is a licensed clinical psychologist with a psychotherapy practice in Santa Barbara and Santa Monica.To learn more about Dr. Seabaugh and his work he welcomes comments at :

Dr. Michael Seabaugh

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