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Unnaturalness and Beauty

The reflections I wish to share in this text were born during work on an article I was invited to write for a collection dedicated to Beauty and Ugliness. As I contemplated Beauty and Ugliness, I found myself increasingly questioning whether they could be viewed as polar concepts and became more inclined to explore how a therapist can maintain effective contact with a client when encountering what is consciously or unconsciously identified as Ugliness.

What do we rely on when perceiving something as beautiful or ugly? As D. Zinker aptly writes, we do not critique the style of a work of art; rather, "we focus on the perception of the work as a whole." We find it difficult to express what we like about a painting, dance, or therapy session. We attempt to use various definitions—such as "harmonious," "inspiring," "liberating," "touching," and so forth. In the context of therapy, terms like "connection," "engagement," "trust," "free breathing," "balance," "inclusion," and so forth are applicable. Can these concepts be used as aesthetic criteria? It seems more akin to developing a musical ear. It can certainly be cultivated to some extent in everyone, but it requires a lot of listening and playing music. Similarly, regarding visual art, a unique kind of vision (sight, intuition, taste) is necessary. However, this vision also usually needs to mature, to be cultivated—it doesn't just happen naturally. In one of the epigraphs to her work, Ira Zakaryan quotes Proust:

"So they thought that it was impossible not to perceive the aesthetic quality, and they thought so without understanding that this cannot be done without allowing the equivalent of this quality to mature slowly in one's own soul."

Therapy is very similar. And just like in art, can we determine whether the equivalent has matured in our soul and whether we are using it as a tuning fork for our own work? Is it different for different therapists? Can we use it to discuss the criteria for therapy effectiveness, especially aesthetic ones?

When we talk about Beauty, it often occurs either within the dichotomy of Beautiful-Ugly or within the accepted aesthetic categories of Beautiful-Ugly. In explanatory dictionaries, Ugly and Repulsive are considered synonyms, opposites of Beautiful. Thus, Beauty is seen as an aesthetic value, something that promotes joy, life, something that contains harmony and rhythm. Whereas, Repulsive, on the contrary, is something that causes dissatisfaction, something disharmonious, ultimately leading to a lack of form, death, decay.

At the same time, it is acknowledged that Ugliness and the Deformed are present in life, and their important role as that which accentuates the beautiful is noted. In this sense, it can provide aesthetic pleasure, like the grotesque figures of Bosch or Schiele's self-portraits. Ugliness serves as a crucial mission. It allows us to repel from it and aspire towards the Beautiful ("I will not be like those characters in Bosch," "I do not want to be like those depicted in his works") or confront our own and another's inner disharmony. Existence in this collision can be beautiful, like Schiele's broken lines, like acknowledging the weight, conflict, suffering, as a way to maintain dignity in the face of the reality that contains both death and ugliness.

Moreover, it seems to me that Ugliness is not the antithesis of Beauty. The opposite of Beauty is not Ugliness but Unattractiveness.

We might say, "What a beautiful sunset today" (but we are unlikely to say that yesterday's sunset was ugly, more likely it was just ordinary) or "What a breathtaking view of the city from here," but the view of the same city from another angle is unlikely to seem ugly to us, it simply won't surprise or delight us. Beauty, in an aesthetic sense, is often opposed to the Unattractive (the ordinary, uninteresting, leaving one indifferent, or not inspiring a desire to approach).

On the border between the Beautiful and the Unattractive (rather than the Ugly), freedom sometimes emerges. More precisely, in attempting to overcome this border, to step beyond the familiar. If (in the words of Joseph Zinker) creativity is a celebration of the fact that I exist, the demonstration of the Unattractive can be a statement of the fact that I exist. A declaration—I am here and I am currently like this in this world or this is how I feel here now and I am free to express it. Confronted with life, I am not feeling joy and admiration right now, but something entirely different. And Beauty then lies in not ignoring this, in being whole. I remember when my friend's 16-year-old daughter, after breaking up with her boyfriend, shaved her head. It was simultaneously repulsive and attractive. She was very beautiful in experiencing her loss.

We manifest ourselves, interacting with the world and the people in it, by feeling out beauty through freedom, particularly through the freedom to go beyond the harmonious. It's risky. Because the difference between disharmony and falsity is sometimes very subtle. In this sense, the risk—the "unattractive" behavior of a teenager and the music of Schnittke—are both present. But I'm not sure if it's possible to find a truly beautiful form without this risk.

Ugliness, on the other hand, is not opposed to beauty but belongs to something qualitatively different.

Ugliness (appearance, situation, person, thing) arises when we are confronted with strong emotions, namely the experience of both disgust and fear

It's repulsive, isn't it? Disgusting. And eerie. Hence — Ugly.

Moreover, it seems that the combination of these two emotions resonates within us as Ugliness. Simply fear or disgust alone is not enough. We don't consider a snarling lion ugly. Scary, yes, but not ugly. Or the sight of feces, or vomit. Disgusting, repulsive, but not ugly. But when disgust and fear are experienced simultaneously, what emerges is what we identify as Ugliness. In this regard, aesthetic criteria do not compensate for emotional criteria. Consider, for example, Colonel Landa, the dashing officer from Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds." Ugly, indeed. Because he is repulsive and dangerous. Obviously, an important biological mechanism is at play here. Stay away from what triggers disgust and fear. It's dangerous for both the individual (you can get infected, experience pain, physical or moral, or even perish) and for the species as a whole (mating with the ugly can lead to the birth of deformed, unviable, diseased offspring).

The biological significance of both fear and disgust is understood, and it is practically the same when encountering something tangible (a mutilated body, people with pronounced external genetic disorders) that triggers similar emotions in us, as well as when dealing with something in the realm of ideas (fascism, the intention to use living beings as test subjects in the creation of chemical weapons). According to neurobiologists, despite the fact that both moral (related to ideas and concepts) and tangible (related to repulsive objects) disgust elicit similar physiological reactions and changes in the same parts of the brain (the lateral and medial orbitofrontal cortex), so-called moral disgust is associated with the active stimulation of a more evolutionarily recent part of the cortex, indicating a deeper perception, according to scientists. Speculating a bit, one might assume that ugly ideas are more dangerous for humans than ugly objects.

The ability to experience Ugliness allows us to be human. If we consciously manage to overcome the natural feelings of disgust and fear that arise when confronted with the Ugly, experiencing and acknowledging them, we can be less natural and therefore more human. We are faced with the necessity to react to this encounter differently, unnaturally. How does a person behave in the face of death, experiencing a fatal illness, whether their own or someone else's, or encountering treachery, that is, encountering the Ugly? This can turn out to be beautiful, eliciting admiration, joy, and gratitude. And this beauty can manifest not only in extreme situations but also in completely ordinary ones.

I remember a family I encountered while on vacation. We really liked the place, and my husband and I returned there several years in a row. The people I'm writing about were also there. It was a family of four. The mother, young and beautiful, with delicate facial features, so precise and cheerful. The father, older, with gray hair, fit, with a calm, intelligent, handsome face. The children, probably siblings, a boy, older, and a girl. The boy was lively and cheerful, as beautiful as his parents. But the girl had some genetic disorder, with a huge head, short legs, and arms. All four of them were mostly calm and joyful. The children chatted and interacted with each other almost like any other brother and sister, maybe a bit more tenderly. The parents were open and enjoyed conversing with people. There was nothing resembling shame or fear of being rejected (of course, I'm talking about my own perception of what I saw).

Last year, I met them for the fourth time. Seeing the girl, now a bit older, dressed up (her beautiful blonde hair had grown back), hearing her speak and laugh, I felt immense gratitude. It was pleasant and joyful to look at them (all four of them). I certainly didn't feel like avoiding or shying away. Everything about them (their ability to love the girl, their ability to rejoice, their openness) was very beautiful. Despite the powerful biological mechanisms of identifying Ugliness, as humans, we can choose how to deal with it. In this freedom to be unnatural, beauty evidently emerges.

This strikes me as exceptionally important for a psychotherapist's work. In my view, there's a significant distinction between a therapist's reactions and tasks when encountering the Unpleasant versus when encountering the Ugly during therapy sessions. In both cases, it's crucial to recognise that the therapist's interpretation of what they encounter as beautiful, unpleasant, or ugly is largely intertwined with the therapist themselves.

In this sense, Spinoza's words on the perception of beauty ("Beauty is not so much a quality of the object being observed as it is an effect occurring within the observer") equally apply to the perception of both beauty and ugliness. Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. The reconciliatory saying "to each their own" in this context demands that therapists understand the reasons behind their own reactions to what clients present.

  1. Encountering the Unpleasant

Therapists frequently come face to face with the Unpleasant in their work. It's part and parcel of the job. People seek therapy, risking exposing their own unpleasantness, daring to confront it. Therapists often amplify these aspects, helping the client's unpleasantness to manifest so that the client can somehow deal with it. The therapist's task is to ensure that when faced with the Unpleasant, the client can respond gracefully (in the sense of being whole and genuine). On one hand, the therapist shouldn't be disingenuous, but on the other, they shouldn't be overly natural either.

Natural reactions to the Unpleasant might involve distancing oneself, avoiding contact. In this sense, the therapist behaves unnaturally by remaining with the client and accepting them with their flawed and unpleasant way of living. This unnatural tolerance, along with an unbiased attitude towards the client's deficits and simultaneous honesty from the therapist, forms the basis for the emerging ability to manifest and interact gracefully in our diverse world, using various natural and unnatural means (such as irony, creativity, compassion). The therapy's task, essentially, is to restore or build this foundation and find one's own ways to implement this unnaturalness.

One of the cornerstones of our training as therapists is the ability to recognise what is happening to us, to understand and know when it's beneficial for the client to present our emotions. In this sense, presenting a natural reaction is one of the professional skills. At the same time, an essential professional quality is the ability to be partially authentic. I don't mean to suggest that fear or disgust, or any other emotions during a session, are unnecessary. It's clear that the therapist's awareness of their natural reaction to what the client presents is not only helpful but necessary for successful therapy. One of my clients was a young woman who had been involved in prostitution for many years. It's worth noting that discomfort about her way of earning a living wasn't what brought her to therapy. She came because of a symptom that doctors had diagnosed as psychosomatic. On the one hand, her lifestyle seemed entirely satisfactory to her, but on the other hand, she understood the reactions she could provoke by talking about it. Hence, she was accustomed to lying, though she decided to tell me everything "since I'm a doctor". In general, I found the client likeable. However, the details of her story disgusted me. Understanding this emotion proved very useful for our work because it corresponded to the feelings that the client was unaware of, and understanding them turned out to be crucial for her. But even in this specific case, despite not being frightened and fully understanding what was happening to me, it took finding ways to be supportive for the client, not only acknowledging what was happening at that moment but also allowing her to rely on me as a therapist by finding ways to respect her.

However, while observing myself and my colleagues, I've noticed several phenomena that come up when faced with what is interpreted as the Unpleasant:

  • The natural reaction goes unnoticed. The therapist's emotions or the connection between the therapist's emotions arising in response to the client's story and the therapist's life content are not recognised. In this case, the therapist's reactions are more likely to fall within the realm of countertransference. This is understandable material for supervision.
  • There's confusion between the concepts of natural and unnatural, or rather, there's a peculiar professional distortion when interacting with clients, where a professional reaction appears and manifests itself as natural (not the first, not immediate). This isn't about partial authenticity. This is about the fact that, as one of the participants in the master class my colleague and I conducted at a conference at one of the Gestalt institutes in Moscow aptly put it, sincere reactions "get wrapped up in several layers" and often remain inaccessible not only to the client but also to the therapist themselves. The unnoticed reaction still permeates the session, breaking through in various non-verbal and unnoticed ways. Yet, the therapist remains inaccessible to the client.

  • Conversely, the therapist deems it their duty to be honest (because honesty, after all, is also an important professional value—how can trustful relationships be built without it?) and to immediately present their natural reaction to the client, regardless of how beneficial such self-disclosure may be. The ability to understand one's own emotions and honesty are accepted professional values. However, this alone is not sufficient. The ability to gauge the beneficial level of self-disclosure for the client, as well as the ability to anticipate the consequences of this self-disclosure and take responsibility for it, is one of the therapist's professional skills.

How the therapist can approach the issues brought by the client, whether they can understand and accept their natural reactions, and whether they can choose to place their natural reaction in the space between the client and the therapist depends on the client's ability to progress in therapy. The natural reaction to what the client presents is often problematic or absurd (often perceived as such by the client themselves), and when it emerges in the therapeutic session, it can reinforce the client's perception of themselves as stigmatized or ugly.

As Erving Goffman astutely observes in his work "Stigma," many of an individual's attributes are determined not by the quality itself, but by the attitude towards it. For example, a male psychotherapist's tears during work are likely to be perceived by himself and the therapeutic community as an expression of the ability (entirely fitting within professional competence) to show his emotions. However, a businessman's tears during negotiations or even a friendly coffee are likely to be viewed by the business community as inappropriate behaviour, a sign of professional inadequacy. The client who comes to the therapist typically already feels different and, upon receiving confirmation of their suspicions from the therapist, loses the ability to rely on the therapist and receive their support. Instead, they are more likely to experience despair or shame.

Jean-Marie Robine writes in his work "Being in the Presence of Another" about how simple it is for a therapist or supervisor to make a client feel shame "with the implicit message that it would be better for them not to be who they are." Moreover, the client, therapist, or student comes because they feel inadequate, different, not up to standard. They come because they want to become someone else. The client either assumes that their inadequacy is known, or they think it isn't and hope it won't be noticed. Often, they have both experiences. And frequently, they receive a natural reaction to their way of interacting from other people. The therapist's natural reaction can be retraumatizing.

All three situations described above are understandable material for supervision. In this sense, the task of supervision is to help the therapist recognize their natural reactions and be able to be free in their naturalness and unnaturalness while remaining with the client.

  1. Meeting the Ugly

Another situation occurs when a person encounters what they identify as the Ugly. In my view, this is a more complex situation in which, in addition to the three previously described ways of reacting, others may arise.

  • The natural reaction may be fully acknowledged, but dealing with it can be very challenging.

Because

  • what the therapist encounters strongly contradicts their significant biological or value-based beliefs, eliciting (using the above assumption) fear and disgust.
  • it interferes with non-evaluative perception by the client (another important professional therapeutic value), as well as the idea that to be effective, the therapist should see something in the client that is worthy of respect, love, interest. Irving Polster referred to this as "searching for hidden charm" in the client: "the therapist's interest, curiosity in this hidden charm enlivens the patient's ability to be interested and interesting" [E. Polster. Every Person's Live is Worth a Novel. NY, 1987, quoted by Now for Next Margarite Spaniolo Lobb]. One of the therapist's tasks is to reveal the beauty, charm, and interest of the client, which may be hidden, concealed, or even forgotten by the client, especially if one of the causes of neurosis is considered to be a lack of love or respect from a significant other [Now for Next Margarite Spaniolo Lobb, Polster Irving, Integrated Gestalt Therapy: Outlines of Theory and Practice Class, - 2011].

How can the therapist show respect and love to the client so that they can rely on it when there is an obvious contradiction to their values? When experiencing ugliness, encountering fear and disgust). And yet the therapist needs to maintain honesty and be able to stay in contact with the client.

In most cases, remaining honest and generally sympathetic to the client is achievable. Most often, I find my clients likeable, interesting, and worthy of respect, even if they don't see themselves that way. But what happens when we encounter something in clients or their difficulties that we identify as ugly? And when our natural reactions are so strong that it is difficult to be supportive for the client and find something to love in them. Here are a few phrases from sessions with my clients that were challenging for me. "I sleep with my own sister. She's tired of it, she wants to leave. But I need to know how to keep her." Or "Help me die. I don't need anything else from you." Or "I like it when others cry. I love causing pain." I'm sure many colleagues have encountered similar or different client statements that evoke similar emotions. Or "I'm a committed Stalinist. It's important to me that my son follows in my footsteps."

(Of course, I provide examples with which I struggled, and which may not be perceived by colleagues as Ugly).

Staying connected with the client in such cases is significantly more challenging, as biological responses to identifying the unsightly come into play. It's not just difficult to maintain respect and affection for the client, but also quite tricky to truly see them clearly. So, what's the solution? I propose several points that will enable the therapist to restore the ability to stay in touch with the client and find ways to be supportive in these situations. Setting aside the necessity of acknowledging the emotions stirred up in the therapist by the client's material, I want to focus on several potential mechanisms that, in my opinion, could serve as a model for supervisory work and help the therapist continue to be effective for the client.

  • Awareness of biological or value conflicts identified by the therapist as unsightly. Understanding which values ​​the therapist conflicts with in the client's context.
  • Formulating one's own biological or value postulates that contradict the client's material.
  • Awareness of one's own values ​​and accepting them makes the therapist more open-minded and tolerant of others' values. Understanding the threat on a personal (fear) or biological level (disgust) that the client's values pose to the therapist's values, in my view, significantly reduces the tension of the described experiences.
  • Examining the client's factual material and understanding how relevant the information received from the client really is in contradicting the therapist's values. (For example, the therapist's value is not to be cruel. Options (1. The client said that he kicks his cat every week. And he likes it. The therapist believes the client, observing congruence in his bodily reactions when he talks about his enjoyment. 2. The client said he is a Stalinist. The therapist's assumptions about the client's cruelty are not confirmed by any factual material. Perhaps this statement is related to an introject received from the caring grandmother and does not indicate his cruelty. Or perhaps the client's concept of a "Stalinist" involves something entirely different than what I (specifically, the possibility of mass torture and killings) imagine.)
  • Reflection on the reasons for one's own values. For example, some time ago, a young man came to me with difficulties in relationships with women. One of the central issues of our work was his relationship with his ex-wife, who left because of his "explosiveness." On the second meeting, I learned that he works in law enforcement and hates dissidents (the client mentioned this while discussing his value conflicts with his ex-wife's family). Initially, what helped me maintain an effective therapeutic position in this situation was realizing my personal reasons (for example, values ​​derived from my anti-Soviet upbringing in childhood) for reacting to this information.
  • Working with the client's history. Understanding the ugliness or danger the client had to face.
  • Differentiating the client and the unsightly (as interpreted by the therapist) in the client. It seems very important for the therapist to try to see the client as a whole, not just in terms of what contradicts the therapist's values. To see when the client reacts in accordance with the stated value postulates, and when not. To see other aspects of interaction where the contradiction between the client's or therapist's values ​​will not be important.
  • Searching for polarity for the so-called natural reaction that the client "tempts" the therapist with. This point is based on the assumption that there are situations where the client's adaptation involves provoking fear and disgust (as powerful biological ways to avoid contact). In this case, the client tempts the therapist into a certain reaction, familiar to the client. The client hopes for closeness and sympathy from the therapist and fears not receiving it, to the point that it's easier to tempt the therapist into a familiar rejecting or hurtful reaction.

From the session: A 24-year-old mother of two sons (4 and 2 years old) came with a request to "finally start living her own life." She lives with her children, and does not communicate with their father. The children mostly spend time together. She tried to enroll them in kindergarten but couldn't because there was a waiting list. Over several sessions, the client talked about her genuinely uncaring attitude towards her children and her desire to abandon them.

C: Well, go ahead, tell me, am I a terrible mother?

T: Do you think I'm judging you as a mother?

C: Of course. Everyone judges. I was told since childhood that I wouldn't make a good mother when I kicked my little brother. And I don't care how people judge me. And I don't care about my children either. I didn't even call them once all evening. I just want to live my life. Let their dad deal with all this crap... or let nobody deal with it. I can't take it anymore.

T: How can't you take it anymore?

C: It doesn't matter how. I've never lived up to anything in my life and I continue not to. I hardly had any milk, and I don't have any maternal feelings either. I hardly think about my kids. I'm planning to put them in a foster home. I already found out how to do it properly, found a decent foster home.

In this case, it was important for me to acknowledge both my sharp disapproval of her inability to care for her children and her willingness to "find a decent foster home" and my sympathy and pity for her desperate exhaustion and the habit of being bad (a sister, a mother). And why it's so important for her to be judged as a "terrible mother".

  • Awareness of how some therapist values may be perceived by the client as Unsightly.

In this sense, it seems important to me to understand how the therapist can evoke fear and disgust in the client, validate the client's experiences, understand which values the client conflicts with the therapist, and place these client experiences in context.

  • Presenting one's own values ​​to the client. And jointly with the client, deciding on the possibility of continuing the work.
  • If the therapist understands that neither the above nor any other mechanisms can restore the therapist's ability to experience contact with this client, it is professionally advisable to recommend another therapist to the client.

Perhaps this will give the opportunity for the Beautiful to manifest when encountering what is interpreted as Unsightly. Unfortunately, this is not guaranteed at all. Moreover, when faced with Unsightliness, Unsightliness often appears. But there is hope.

I assume that similar mechanisms of restoring therapist integrity may be useful even if everything in the client seems perfect, and their values ​​seem to coincide with the therapist's values. I think they will help the therapist avoid merging.