The question of what constitutes psychological well-being has always fascinated me because it appears so elusive.  It is most readily defined as an absence of psychopathology, and efforts to assert its constituent parts seem under-theorized.  Yet the notion of psychological well-being plays a significant role in the practice of psychotherapy, as it provides, either explicitly or more often implicitly, the benchmark from which a clinician can assess a patient's level of functioning and determine if the patient is getting better or worse; ultimately, it guides treatment decisions as it serves as the currency upon which therapeutic justifications are grounded.  

One fundamental component to psychological well-being that seems evident in clinical work is a person's capacity for experience. The word experience derives, in part, from the Latin word peritus, the meaning of which includes the notion of peril and "to try out," as in "to experiment." In On the Way to Language, Heidegger (1959/1971) described experience as "something [that] befalls us, strikes us, comes over us, overwhelms and transforms us" (p. 57). A sense of surrendering to, embracing, or enduring a process that lies outside our full control is key here. To experience something then means to let go and allow oneself to be swept up, taken over, altered, and finally moved through an unfolding event.  

The capacity to give way to an experience suggests that the converse is true; we can also manipulate our reception of it. In the service of self-protection, Freud observed that instead of fully submitting to a potentially painful experience, we often employ different defenses to delay, distort, or dismiss our experience.  However, the degree to which we close down our openness towards experience is the degree to which we become estranged from our experience.  This facilitates a feeling of alienation as we lose contact with our self and the world.

Being fully engaged with our experience engenders a kind of freedom. To be able to experience something as it is frees us from needing to alter it.  For Heidegger, freedom lets beings be the beings they are. When our capacity for experience is diminished, we are unable to let beings be and we therefore become ensnared in our manipulation of experience. Returning back to our experience brings us back to our ground of being.  Accordingly, psychological well-being emerges as a freedom to be with our experience as it is which fosters a sense of being at ease in oneself as oneself.

Mark McKinley, Psy.D.
Impulse Staff Writer