Life’s challenges sometimes seem more pronounced at holiday time. We miss loved ones who have passed away. We feel frightened by what we see on the news. Estrangement from a friend or family member might leave us confused, angry, or hurt.
Let’s face it: every one of us could use more comfort and joy.
Italian psychiatrist Roberto Assagioli (1888-1974) understood this well. He himself was no stranger to human suffering. He was jailed for being a pacifist by Mussolini’s Fascist regime; persecuted by the Nazis; forced into hiding with his family; and faced unbearable grief after the death of his only son.
Despite adversity, his legacy of psychosynthesis (psicosintesi) is a psychospiritual model of human development that emphasizes the positive side of human nature. A contemporary of both Freud and Jung, Assagioli, while embracing some of the elements of his colleagues’ theories, took psychology in a more holistic direction, incorporating the mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of an individual. He strongly believed in our conscious ability to make meaningful changes to our lives, as opposed to being helplessly driven at the hands of our unconscious instinct (as in Freud’s psychoanalytic theory). Psychosynthesis emphasizes our potential to grow and evolve throughout our lives.
“When we focus on an unwanted thought or image, negative energy is drawn to us like a magnet and produces a negative mood”
Outside the context of psychotherapy, Assagioli also envisioned his practical techniques to have applications in the areas of personal, educational, community, and social settings. Thus, in this article, I thought I would share with you a few of his life-affirming techniques for joy, which can be especially welcome as we celebrate our religious holidays and head toward the beginning of a brand new year.
Although not a substitute for psychotherapy when needed, these self-help techniques are simple and effective.
- The Technique of Evocative Words. Assagioli believed that certain words; for example, joy, serenity, courage, etc., have an ability to affect our state of mind, our physical state, and the acts that correspond to the word. Just seeing and reflecting on the word reinforces its effectiveness and activates the quality that the word signifies. The procedure is this: First, choose a word that expresses a feeling or quality you want to develop in yourself. It could be the word appreciation, friendship, calm, serenity, tenacity, wonder, etc. We will take the word “joy”, as an example aligned with the holiday season. Write the word “joy” down on several note cards and place them throughout your house where you will see them; perhaps on your nightstand, desk, or on a wall. Next, in a state of relaxation, focus on that word for a minute or two. You can repeat it to yourself, contemplate its meaning, and “feel” yourself absorbing it.
- The Technique of Substitution. Dr. Assagioli was convinced that when attention is centered on a certain object it gives that object energy and makes it more salient in our awareness. When we focus on an unwanted thought or image, negative energy is drawn to us like a magnet and produces a negative mood. Using what he calls our “skillful will”, we can displace one image for another. We can direct ourselves to look at, hear, or read uplifting materials that give us joy. Substitution helps to “clear away (negative) mental debris”.
- The “Acting As If” Technique. This means acting as if you are already joyful (even if you are not feeling joy at the moment). We can only exert limited control over our internal feelings and emotions but can more easily impact our mood by first directing our external actions. We can actually begin to change how we feel when we use our bodies according to the feeling we want to produce. For example, when we feel upset or angry about something minor, we can use joyful facial expressions, put on some music, and dance, or have a cheerful conversation with someone.
As a psychiatrist and psychotherapist, Roberto Assagioli recognized that depending on the seriousness of one’s issues, professional help may be indicated. For all the rest (i.e., our common, everyday challenges), the efficacy of his self-help techniques is confirmed in the behavioral science literature and they are certainly worth a try.
According to those who knew him, whether patients, colleagues, or friends, Dr. Roberto Assagioli radiated joy, light, and positivity right up to the end of his life. He was passionate about making a difference in people’s lives and believed we are all capable of finding that kind of unshakeable joy from deep within the Self, as we strive to reach our highest potential.
Dr. Assagioli’s lifelong work is a gift that can bring tidings of comfort and joy in this season and throughout the year.
Assagioli, Roberto, M.D. (1974) The Act of Will. Penguin Books: Baltimore MD
Association for the Advancement of Psychosynthesis:https://aap-psychosynthesis.org/Roberto-Assagioli
Nocelli, Petra G. (2017 ) The Way of Psychosynthesis :A complete guide to the origin, concept and fundamental experiences, with a biography of Roberto Assagioli. Publisher: Petra Guggisberg Nocelli.
Sorensen, K, and Birkholm, H. (2017). Roberto Assagioli: His life and work, a biography. https://kennethsorensen.dk/en/roberto-assagioli-his-life-and-work/