Dr. Stephen Aronson
By Lisa Belisle
Photography by Sean Thomas Photography
NAME: Dr. Stephen Aronson
Dr. Stephen Aronson has been in practice since 1971 and has had training in cognitive-behavioral, Jungian, and transpersonal analysis, among other approaches. He now focuses on existential/spiritual questions, such as the search for meaning in one’s life. He is currently a psychotherapist with Mental Health Associates of Maine.
Why did you become a psychotherapist?
From an early age I was interested in mystery, and discovering what lay behind apparent reality. The greatest mystery of all seemed to me to be consciousness. I think without knowing it, it moved me in that direction. How do we know anything? What are we doing here? What is the meaning of life? What is the meaning of existence? There has to be something behind it.
How do we get to a better understanding of the world?
Our senses direct us into the world outside of us where life seems to be. Yet, all our experiences of life are inside of us. They’re in our mind, in our heart, in our sensations. To know yourself, you have to observe yourself. We can see our thoughts, we can see our feelings, we can see our contradictions, our hopes and our fears if we’re looking. Each of us is a world unto ourselves. Recognizing how subjective everything is can cause us to feel somewhat groundless at times. Groundlessness is a challenging thing. How do you work with this? Paradoxically, groundlessness turns out not to feel groundless. It feels much more solid. It’s the outside world that seems more impermanent. You get a house, you lose a house. You get a car, you lose the car. You’re young, then you’re old. The world out there depends on what I think it is and feel it is. My world changes, but it changes because I’ve changed as a person.
Is it possible that some “mental illness” is actually a response to difficulty and discomfort with one’s life?
Our consciousness and our ability to pay attention and respond to things is directly tied into our biochemical system and our nervous system. However, a large percentage of people who have normal anxieties, normal fears, and self-doubt are uncomfortable because they are not living a life that they’re best designed for. The real key is that I have to be at peace with myself. If I’m not at peace with myself, I can’t really be at peace with my life and the tendency is to look outside myself for solutions. Most of our difficulties are really projections of internal discomforts. We are trying to solve our problems in the wrong place.
As a physician I am often asked to prescribe medication for people who are going through difficult times. While I think there is a place for a medication, it seems As though it is at times overused.
I think that’s complicated. We want to help—we are very compassionate and we don’t like to see people suffer, [especially when] they come to us and say, “Make me feel better. Please. Quickly.” If we have something that could help ease their pain, it is hard for us not to use it. There’s no tolerance for friction. With a lot of people I see who have anxiety, their anxiety has been acute for so long that we can’t do therapy until they get an anxiety medication and find out what it’s like to be able to breathe and think. Then we can do some work.
It has often been said that we’ve become a sleepless nation. What impact does this have on our well-being?
One of the downsides of our technology is that we can change our natural rhythms. We don’t have to go to sleep when the body wants to. We don’t have to eat when the body wants to. Most of us can’t see the night sky anymore. We are so far removed from the mysteries and realities of being embodied human animals on the surface of the planet that we’re much more easily susceptible to fantasies about who we are and who we should be. In the final analysis, it seems that reality is fairly subjective. Perhaps knowing this can help us to be a little bit more compassionate and less judgmental towards everyone else? Wouldn’t that make a better world?