Wednesday, February 03, 2010

The Cultural Self in Integral Psychotherapy: Narratives of Multiplicity and Multicultural Counseling

This is the first paper for my new class in Social and Multicultural Foundations in Counseling. We were given four rather vague questions and I chose to go my own way with the assignment. So of course, I went where my interests are right now, integral theory, cultural psychology, and the narrative construction of the self. We were limited to five pages (double spaced), which is little more than a long abstract in my world, so this is a little different than the one I handed in, a little longer, though not nearly long enough.

The Cultural Self in Integral Psychotherapy:

Narratives of Multiplicity and Multicultural Counseling

Looking back through the history of developmental psychology, there have been dozens of models that attempt to quantify and delineate various stage models of human traits and abilities. For example, Piaget examined cognitive development (Piaget, 1950), Kohlberg and Gilligan examined moral development (Kohlberg, 1981; Gilligan, 1982), Loevinger outlined ego development (Loevinger, 1976), and Jenny Wade has created a developmental model for overall consciousness that incorporates many of the other models (Wade, 1996). When each model’s developmental stages are lined up side by side, the combination of cognitive skills, moral levels, ego stages, and so on, combine to form worldviews that reflect the way a person holding that worldview conceives of the world (see Forman, 2010, figure 6.1 for further examples of the specific traits forming worldviews).

Ken Wilber’s Integral Psychology (2000) offers the most complete synthesis of the various developmental models, more than 200 from Western psychology and Eastern religion, and synthesizes from them a system of worldviews ranging from the most primitive to non-dual consciousness (p. 197-217). In general, the stages can be simplified to pre-conventional, conventional, and post-conventional, or pre-personal, personal, and post-personal, or pre-modern, modern, and post-modern (Wilber, 2000; 2007). Within the respective worldviews, pre-conventional stage people tend to be egocentric, conventional stage people tend to be ethnocentric, and post-conventional stage people tend to be world-centric. As people move up the developmental ladder, their perspective moves from kinship and tribal affiliations (power drives), to race and cultural affiliations (authoritarian), to seeing self as a member of a group encompassing all living beings (egalitarian) (Beck & Cowan, 1996).

David Berreby (2005) refers to the ways that people group themselves as kinds (p. 15), suggesting that “Human kinds are infinitely divisible: examine one, and you find inside it subcategories and, inside those, still more” (p. 15). Berreby presents some arguments that the “codes” that generate this type of grouping behavior are “built-in,” (p. 101), and there may be some truth to that position, as evidenced by some arguments coming from evolutionary psychology (Rushton, 2005; see anything by Steven Pinker). However, the relatively recent cultural psychology movement (Benson, 2001) offers a more integrative understanding of why human beings chose to group themselves in various ways, from the simplest family-based groups of hunter-gathers, to the most complex worldcentric views of the Dalai Lama.

Both integral psychotherapy and cultural psychology are the cutting edge of psychological theory, and within these models ideas of race, religion, gender, sexuality, and other forms of us vs. them thinking are based partly in biology, partly in culture, and mostly in the intersection between the two, the psyche. More importantly, this composite self is also located in space and time so that where and when a person lives also shapes their development, and consequently, their worldview. Precisely stated: “self is primarily a psychological system of location designed by evolution and culture for negotiating our ways through human worlds” Benson, p. xi). As therapists, we become more effective when we fully grasp the complexity of interactions between neuroscience, genetics, culture, and social structures that creates the individual sitting in the consulting room with us.

To provide an example of how the idea of a culturally created values system functions, many of the Germans who killed Jews during the Nazi reign followed orders without question, while often defying Nazi edicts in other areas, suggesting a deeply held anti-Semitic racial attitude in Germany at that time (Benson, 158) rather than a forced obedience as sometimes argued by those who committed these crimes. Another example involves the Chukchee people in the far north of Russia, as observed by Vladimir Bogoraz (Bruner, 1986). In this culture, objects from outside the culture are defined as “disgusting” and produced nausea in members of the culture. This may be one of the clearest examples of how emotions and responses are culturally created (p. 116-117).

A Multiplicity of Narratives and Narratives of Multiplicity

The newest research suggests that no child is born hating any person or anything; in fact, they are born knowing that other people are like them (Gopnik, 2009, p. 45), but they also notice differences in skin color and hair, for example (Anti-Defamation League, 2001, para. 3). However, one of our first lessons about the world, one that initiates the development of a unique self, is that there is difference between the child and the care-giver, the self-other split (Siegel, 1999, p. 101-102). From that point onward, a person’s perception of the world is built upon this self-other duality, which reaches its fullest expression in Martin Buber’s I and Thou (1950). What becomes “other” for each person depends on that person’s development (for example, kids naturally form in-group/out-group dynamics as they enter their teen years), and what they are taught is “other” by family, peers, teachers, and the culture.

Because the self and its values are culturally constructed, and hate may be a perfectly normal emotion within Western culture (Corcoran, 2003), what we hate is learned from our psycho-culturally context, the time, place, and people around whom we grow up. In each of the three generalized developmental realms, why we hate takes on a different narrative structure. For example, at pre-conventional stages we hate the “other” because s/he is from a different kin-group, worships different ancestors, eats different foods, and so on (as represented by the Chukchee people mentioned above). Contact with others tends to be limited for people at this stage because they live in traditionally tribal cultures or as isolated groups within a larger culture. At the conventional stages, we hate the “other” because their skin is a different color, their religion is different, they pledge allegiance to a different flag, and so on. This grouping of “kinds” is more common in larger groups, including nation-states, major religions, and racial out-groups, not to mention political parties, fans of sport teams, and so on. Finally, hate is less pervasive in the post-conventional stages, but early on in this developmental realm we find those who hate people who hate, or those who dislike all hierarchal developmental models because they define people (which is in itself a contradiction in that such a statement creates a hierarchy). Since so few people have a majority of developmental lines in post-conventional, post-formal, or post-personal stages, there are few people who do not experience hate in some form or another.

For each developmental stage, there is a multiplicity of narratives for how one relates to the world. It is becoming increasingly common and viable to talk about reality as a narrative construction as we increasingly learn that people think verbally and construct their sense of reality in words and symbols.

As I have argued extensively elsewhere, we organize our experience and our memory of human happenings mainly in the form of narrative—stories, excuses, myths, reasons for doing and not doing, and so on. Narrative is a conventional form, transmitted culturally and constrained by each individual's level of mastery and by his conglomerate of prosthetic devices, colleagues, and mentors. (Bruner, 1991, p. 4)

Considering the variety of developmental stages [at least five general stages are fairly common right now on the planet (Beck & Cowan, 1996)], and the variety of narratives possible within each stage, based on environment, time, cultural influences, and the biological make-up of the individual, there are many, many narratives of reality. Consequently, there are equally as many narratives of hate.

However, returning to the post-conventional stages, we find those entering into these more relativistic stages embracing more multiplicity in their narratives of reality. It is in these stages where we first encounter multicultural sensitivity, civil rights, religious tolerance, gender parity, and other issues involving innate equality (Wilber, 2000, p. 158-173). These post-modern stages seek to be inclusive, to reduce the marginalization of the “other,” and to limit the intolerance of rationality and its desire to squash the irrational or non-rational (Wilber, 2000, p.159). Multicultural sensitivity in psychotherapy also stems from this postmodern inclination toward inclusion.

Becoming a Multicultural Therapist

Not all of us have reached the post-conventional stages of development, so how do we develop this sensitivity and inclusiveness as therapists? There are two very good processes through which we can discover, work with, and reduce our unconscious prejudices. The first one is the 3-2-1 shadow process developed by Ken Wilber and his staff at the Integral Institute and presented in the Integral Life Practice book (2008, p. 41-66). The model is based in simple Jungian shadow work, but takes it a step further by including a 1st person, 2nd person, and 3rd person perspective for each shadow issue.

Because our own feelings of prejudice are likely repressed or exiled, we will want to begin with the 3rd person perspective, talking to or about an “it,” for example, homophobia. As we can begin to understand the feelings from this distance, we can then begin talking to the homophobia, expressing our feelings toward it and about it. When this becomes easier and more comfortable, we can then talk from the homophobia, expressing our perception of its needs and fears. In this way, we truly get to know our repressed energies around any given shadow material. It’s a very effective approach.

The other option is Byron Katie’s The Work (Byron Katie, Inc., 2010). This is a very simple form of shadow work (“process of inquiry”), which relies on four simple questions and a “turn around.”

Is it true? Can you absolutely know that it's true? How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought? Who would you be without the thought? (Byron Katie, Inc., 2010, Section 2)

Once you have looked at your issue, for example racism, through the lens of the four questions, you are ready to turn it around—here is an example:

For example, "Paul doesn't understand me" can be turned around to "Paul does understand me." Another turnaround is "I don't understand Paul." A third is "I don't understand myself." (Byron Katie, Inc., 2010, Section 2)

Katie warns that we should be careful with these in that they can reveal material we were not aware of holding in the dark closet of our psyches.

If more therapists did their own shadow work and sought out higher developmental levels of awareness, our clients would be better served. However, this is not the case in our profession. When it is, as Fuertes, Bartolomeo & Matthew Nichols (2001) point out in relation to teaching multicultural competencies, agencies and individuals perform better in this realm. But we must also do the deep work to become aware of and detached from our own interior narratives of hatred, discomfort, or bias. Until we do that work for ourselves, no amount of cognitive behavior intervention/skills development will makes us truly comfortable and open to multiplicity in our clients.

As we do become more aware of our own inner biases, we tend to move away from biased language and become more comfortable with a multiplicity view of culture and how people are shaped by their own unique genetics, cultural experience, social status and the ways these forces have shaped their lives. We must try to resist political correctness simply to be politically correct—clients will see through this and feel patronized—rather, we must generate a compassionate embrace of cultural, gender, racial, and religious differences.


Anti-Defamation League. (2001). Hate is learned and can be “unlearned”. Retrieved from

Beck, D. E., & Cowan, C. C. (1996). Spiral dynamics: Mastering values, leadership, and change. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Benson, C. (2001). The cultural psychology of the self : Place, morality, and art in human worlds. New York: Routledge.

Berreby, D. (2005). Us and them: Understanding your tribal mind. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Bruner, J. (1991). The narrative construction of reality. Critical Inquiry, 18(August). doi: 0093-1896/91/1801-0002

Bruner, J. S. (1986). Actual minds, possible worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Buber, M. (1950). I and Thou. Edinburgh, England: Morrison and Gibb Limited.

Byron Katie, Inc.. (2010). What is the work? . Retrieved from

Corcoran, P. (2003, September). Good, healthy hate: Frontier of the negative emotions. Paper presented at the Australasian Political Studies Association Conference, University of Tasmania, Hobart.

Forman, M. (2010). A guide to integral psychotherapy: Complexity, integration, and spirituality in practice. Albany, NY: State University of New York.

Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gopnik, A. (2009, August 1). When we were butterflies. New Scientist, 203(2719), 44-45. Retrieved from New Scientist Archive database

Kohlberg, L. (1981). The philosophy of moral development: Moral stages and the idea of justice (essays on moral development, volume 1). San Fancisco: Harper & Row.

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Rushton, J. P. (2005). Ethnic nationalism, evolutionaryEthnic nationalism, evolutionary psychology and Genetic Similarity Theory. Nations and Nationalism, 11(4), 489–507. Retrieved from

Siegel, D. J. (1999). The developing mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. New York: Guilford Press.

Wade, J. (1996). Changes of mind: A holonomic theory of the evolution of consciousness. Albany, NY: State University Press of New York.

Wilber, K. (2000). Integral psychology (1st ed.). Boston: Shambhala Publications.

Wilber, K. (2007). Integral spirituality: A startling new role for religion in the modern and postmodern world. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

Wilber, K., Patten, T., Leonard, A., & Morrelli, M. (2008). Integral life practice. Boston: Shambhala Publications.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

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