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Encouragement as a vehicle to empowerment in counseling: an existential perspective.

This article continues the discussion of empowerment in the field of rehabilitation, by describing a concept that is often taken for granted but never fully elaborated in helping persons gain empowerment: courage. The writer argues that understanding what courage is, and how it is a measure of motivation, can assist rehabilitation counselors to establish conditions in the counseling process that can be rightly termed "encouragement." Encouragement in the counseling process, then, may facilitate "empowerment."


A major recent emphasis in disability rights and rehabilitation counseling is that of empowerment. The way that empowerment is generally viewed in this arena is that the experience of disability leads to the experience of viewing life differently, and to the creation of a new perspective that is less concerned with body image and ability, and focuses rather on living interdependently with the full use of one's assets (Hahn, 1989). The position of this paper is that the element of courage is involved in the creation of this new perspective, and that rehabilitation and independent living counselors can facilitate this process through the use of encouragement. For example, the word "encouragement" is used several times by both Emener (1991) and Vash (1991) in their articles on empowerment.

Rehabilitation counseling involves several components including evaluation (assessment), guidance (teaching new ways of living) and confrontation (removing blocks to and challenging the client to use resources). However, practitioners also frequently encourage clients particularly when they want them to try things which are new, or threatening, or for which the person has low confidence. Courage is a philosophical construct that belongs to the field of ontology and has been discussed in depth in the existential psychology literature (May, 1967, 1969, 1975). Thus, the author believes that the study of existence (existentialism) can elucidate courage as construct, and that conceptual bridges can be built to specific strategies in counseling that can "encourage" the creation of new life perspectives in persons with disabilities. Indeed, this paper will purport to demonstrate that courage is the stuff of everyday life and is a measure of how we live that life. As Rollo May (1967) puts it in The Art of Counseling:

To live the life of self-expression requires courage. To love greatly, to admit one's hate without having it destroy one's equilibrium, to express anger, to rise to heights of joy and to know deep sorrow, to go on far adventures in spite of loneliness, to catch lofty ideas and carry them into action in short, to live out the infinite number of instinctual urges that rise in glorious challenge within one - this requires courage.

Courage has been defined in the philosophical and psychological literature (Heyd, 1982; May, 1972; & Walton, 1986) as generally occurring in the presence of the following conditions: (a) a careful presence of mind and deliberate action; (b) the presence of difficult, dangerous, and painful circumstances; and (c) a morally worthy intention. Tillich (1952) adds another dimension that underlies courage, which is that the person is engaged in an act that has existential meaning for him or her. Without that existential meaning, daily efforts become nothing but the drudgery of the slave.

Disability is sometimes accompanied by giving in, or, as Wright (1983) calls it, succumbing. Depression is the most frequent concomitant of this, but certainly other characteristics are also associated. External locus of control, failure identity, low self-esteem, and substance abuse often are the result of a person' s succumbing to a disability experience (Beck & Lustig, 1990). In the area of substance abuse and alcoholism. several theories seem to imply that abuse and addiction result from a breakdown in courage as it is defined above. The degree of difficulty of a person' s life (social strain), as exemplified by barriers to educational and employment opportunities, as well as escapism through addiction to give meaning to our existence, is reviewed by Simon (1986) in an article on alienation and alcohol abuse. And May (1975) states that courage is moving ahead with one's life in spite of despair. There is ample evidence that the emptiness that gives rise to addiction is seen in failures of courage, or, as May (1975) implies, victories of cowardice. When a client is confronted in counseling who has succumbed to addiction or who is in a state of deep self- or societal-estrangement because of the disability experience, it seems that sooner or later we, as counselors, must confront the courage issue. This is what is usually meant by encouragement, or, giving courage to our clients. We give the client the courage to take up their treatment as his/her own. Some counselors and therapists use the term "confrontation" for the same process, although "confront" is similar to "encounter," which implies a minor battle, whereas "encourage" implies inspiration with hope, courage, or spirit. The former is related to control, and may be appropriate in that stage of counseling whose object is destructive, to break down defenses, whereas the latter is constructive. and urges the person to own and attempt new ways of being and living.

Of course we as helpers have always encouraged our clients, but we often do so intuitively and pragmatically, and without a theoretical basis. The purpose of this paper is to attempt to give a description of courage and its conditions that hopefully will enable the reader to conceptualize efforts at encouragement, and therefore to "give" courage more effectively.

Courage as a concept in the counseling professions

"Courage" is an ontological construct, which means it is generally about the nature of being, and specifically the metaphysical or spiritual being. This partially explains why the field of psychology has not addressed this construct, except for the existentialists (e.g., May, Frankl, and other isolated theorists such as Adler). Rehabilitation has begun to deal with the spiritual aspects of empowerment, and the importance of courage (Emener, 1991; Vash, 1991).

Another reason why courage may not have been employed as a construct in the writings on empowerment generally is that it goes against modern egalitarian ethics. According to Walton (1986):

This theoretical bent toward an "economic" and "democratic" view of ethics as equal distribution of goods is mirrored by a popular suspicion and cynicism about anything that seems to derive value from heroic excellence...As a result of the influence of the social sciences, altruistic acts are no longer likely to be taken at face value, and may be thought to be irrational in one way or another once deeper motives are explored...To many of us, then, courage as a virtue may seem but a tattered remnant of outdated ideals of chivalry - a macho-military quality that has outgrown its usefulness in civilized society.

Courage, then, is on the same footing with another ontological concept, free-will, in the sense that in some branches of the helping professions we may act as though it doesn't exist or doesn't matter, then we go ahead and use it in counseling with clients in the sense that we try to encourage them to choose to make changes in their lives. We generally do this through refocusing a client's verbalizations in counseling towards a general responsibility-taking stance (for example, we use the phrase "client ownership" of feelings, goals, plans, behaviors, etc. that we all learn in counseling theories classes). We are on the side of their self-affirmation, or, choosing life rather than death, and as such, we actively engage ourselves in the battle for the client's being. In fact, paternalistic intervention and limit setting against a person's will has been justified by some (e.g., Bratter, 1985) with the argument that counselors are on the side of life-affirmation and are set against self-destruction. Indeed, if we as therapists are on the side of self-affirmation, then we cannot deny the role of courage lest we demean the struggles of clients and misunderstand their task.

Because those who have either an addiction or are convinced that they are failures because of a disability (Glasser, 1965) at least have some-thing, though that some-thing is destructive. The client has clung to that some-thing and has invested it with immense personal meaning (which is why many recovering alcoholics experience a profound question, "who am I?" when they abstain from alcohol). To let go of an addiction, a dependency, or a failure identity, though negative, means risking replacing it with nothing, except that which the client may identify as an alternate good, something worth risking and living for. If we do not admit the role of courage in this the client is indeed alone in their task.

Just before his death from cancer in 1991, Dr. Paul Lustig of the University of Wisconsin's Rehabilitation Counseling Psychology department discussed courage with the author in the context of the idea of putting together the present paper. His comments (Lustig, January 15, 1991) are reflected in the following several paragraphs that spell out his ideas regarding the conditions of courage, and its relationship to faith and support.

Lustig's conceptualization of courage

As was postulated in the introduction, one of the key elements of courage is that it involves doing something of positive value, despite full awareness of its possible negative consequences. The degree of courage is directly related to the degree and possibility of negative consequences of which one is fully aware. Thus, courage has a relationship to informed consent, in the knowing of the potential dire consequences and agreeing to proceed. Proceeding may entail risking the abyss of abandoning a known though uncomfortable life-style and replacing it with the new, which is the stuff of which ambivalence is made. With respect to ambivalence, it is a full recognition that not proceeding is less dangerous than proceeding.

Awareness of consequences can be based on factual knowledge or on belief. For example, if one believes that dangerous gremlins are inhabiting a cemetery and one proceeds to enter the cemetery, one is acting courageously, if the purpose of the act is for the good.

When a negative consequence is desirable, there is no courage. When one is not fully aware of the possible consequences, there is no courage. In ambivalence, the choices have inherent danger. An extreme example of facing dire consequences without courage occurs in the following example:

A donkey is dying from thirst and dying from hunger. It is half way between hay and water. It believes that if it goes to the water, it will die of hunger and if it goes to the hay, it will die of thirst. Either choice is dire and it knows or believes in the consequences of a choice. If the donkey makes a choice, it is not expressing bravery, since both will result in death.

Nevertheless, courage is required in most cases of responding to ambivalence. Usually there is a mixture of positive and negative consequences for any choice made. A person can be helped to make a choice if that person is helped to understand the negative consequences of each choice. Then, the person is able to select the lesser of the negatives. The focus on the negative is necessary because the negative immobilized the person.

Medals given for military courage are really given for acts that go beyond the normal. Being a lone machine gunner, firing at an enemy, may not be courageous unless the person is aware that the process of firing makes him known to the enemy and he will thereby increase his chances of being killed. Thus, Rachman (1990) distinguishes between "fearlessness" and "courage" in that the latter implies action in the face of fear. The Congressional Medal of Honor is not given for courage, because no one asks the person what he/she felt. In fact, some people may be awarded a medal without their awareness of the potential consequences.

However, the awareness of consequences in courage is quite different from acting on faith, and no understanding of courage would be complete without an understanding of what constitutes faith.

An act of courage is the opposite of an act of faith, although faith is an important ingredient of hope. An act of courage is independent behavior, while an act of faith is dependent behavior. When there is an act of courage, the individual is fully aware of the possible negative consequences. Despite this recognition, the person acts. When there is an act based on faith, the individual believes that some external force will make the outcome good, or protect the person from harm, or will reward the person for doing the act. Martyrdom, which is usually based on faith, often assumes that in the end one will be rewarded. Sacrificing one's life to protect another or an ideal becomes an act based on faith if one believes that in the end he or she will be rewarded for the good deed. When there are nine people in a row boat that can carry only eight people and one person decides to sacrifice his or her life by jumping into shark-infested water, it is because the logic of the situation tells him or her what needs to be done, and it is an act of courage. If that same person believes that he or she will be protected from the sharks and rewarded in after-life, then it is an act of faith. When a person goes along with someone whom he/she trusts, it is an act of faith because the person believes that the trusted person will be a protector. It is dependent behavior because the person has placed the power to decide into the hands of the trusted person. The person acquiesces to this superior being. The person who acts on such faithful expectation is submerging oneself to an external power. Submerging oneself is not courageous. It may be valid, admirable, or desirable, but it is not courageous.

Many persons who abuse substances or who succumb to disabling illness or injury and who therefore indulge in self-destructive behavior, see the future as having only devastation and calamity. They have to avoid thinking about the future. It is like the belief, before Columbus' time, that if one sailed too far one would fall off a precipice and land in Hell. If the person's feelings are that only negatives will happen, the only choice available is to do nothing or erase from the mind the entire idea of a future. The ultimate way of doing this is to eradicate the mind and the self via suicide. Instead of looking for courage, it may be best to lead the person toward positive consequences, i.e., show the person that the fears of direness are not self-evident. This is one of the ways we treat phobias. If the person has a fear of heights one can try to reduce the fear by gradually having the person stand on higher and higher platforms. It is probably a very slow process, because the person needs to repeat prior successes before going on to a slightly higher level.

Rather than building on success, courage is related to punishment. Since the consequences to an act of courage are the potential for hurt, punishment is also a consequential act that involves hurt. Thus courage can have nonpersonal consequences as well as personal ones. When the negative consequence is punishment, it usually refers to the administration of the hun by another person.

Courage relates to at least three different areas of behavior. It can be physical or motoric, emotional, and/or intellectual. In physical or motoric courage, the potential dire consequences are physical. The person might be physically hurt. In emotional courage, the consequences may be via other people or through self. The possible negative consequences are that others may disfavor the person, or it may result in an attack upon one' s own integrity. The major concern is in the social area. Bill Wilson, the famed co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, exhibited a lack of this type of courage when he used alcohol to reduce his fear of high-status persons with whom he had to deal in his career formation (Thomsen, 1975).

The third type of courage is intellectual. This probably touches on the emotional in that ideas that are scornfully rejected, are also social pains. Thus, a deficit in intellectual courage can explain aspects of denial, which is the refusal to consider perspectives of one's self that have the potential of inflicting emotional and social pain.

Courage defined in the existential literature

Perhaps the greatest theorists on courage have been Tillich (1952) and his protege, May (1967, 1969, 1975, & 1988). Tillich was a theologian-philosopher who dealt with courage on the philosophical level of existence and meaning, whereas May attempted to apply the construct of courage to psychological phenomena. Tillich and May viewed the human as having within him or her a directionality that exists from birth. As May (1988) stated in Paulus: Tillich as Spiritual Teacher: "...The Greek concept of entelechy has always impressed me: that the ultimate form is contained in the seed, and the tree or animal or human being grows toward this form, malformed though he may be in the process." This directionality is called by both men intentionality, or, as Tillich (1952) put it, "being related to meaningful contents of knowledge or will." Thus, intentionality is in contrast to meaninglessness, and May (1975) described the former as having the following elements: (a) conception, or to have in mind an intention or purpose; (b) a sense of self-confidence or self-efficacy; and (c) commitment, and the vitality to carry out that commitment. Thus, May's three elements in intentionality may be described as I conceive, I can, and I will. This motivational process, propelled forward with courage in difficult circumstances, results in the formation of identity - I am - in which the person perceives meaning in behavior. It is this last element that is inextricably bound up with courage, and the movement towards a purpose or intention is the measure of the person's courage.

Meaninglessness, or anomie as some have called it, results in a breakdown in intentionality, produced either through profound alienation from self and culture (through guilt, anger, or shame), or from fear of death. In this way, meaninglessness is related to despair, which Kierkegaard regarded as the wish to die but the knowledge that one is unable to do so. Kierkegaard (1954) calls despair "sickness unto death" and elaborates that when one becomes acquainted with an even more dreadful danger (than death), one hopes for death...(and) despair is the disconsolateness of not being able to die. It is also related to anxiety, which is fear without an object. Anxiety is both neurotic and normal. Normal anxiety comes about as a result of fear of meaningless, fear of guilt, fear of condemnation, and fear of death. Tillich stated that "anxiety strives to become fear, because fear can be met by courage". Courage is self-affirmation in spite of the threat of nonbeing, or meaninglessness. Neurotic anxiety for Tillich (as well as for other existentialists such as May and Frankl) is a surrendering of a part of the person's potentialities in order to save what is left, in other words, repression. Neurotic anxiety equals the inability to take existential anxiety upon oneself. Tillich stated that: "Pathological anxiety, in spite of its creative potentialities, is illness and danger and must be healed by being taken into a courage to be which is extensive as well as intensive".

May (1969) viewed neurotic anxiety as a lack of trust, which is related to lack of courage and to lack of confidence, resulting in an inability to affirm life. He stated that the inability to affirm is merely another term for inability to trust. Not being able to trust, the neurotic lacks confidence and the related quality, courage. He must therefore endeavor to remain dependent in some situation of false security. Fear, also, has been related to self-confidence. Cox, Hallam, O'Connor, and Rachman (1983) confirmed a positive relationship between self-efficacy beliefs and low fear in a sample of parachute-jumper trainees.

Tillich's courage to be, to face one's destiny with freedom, takes the following forms: (a) the courage to be as part (or, the courage to be in community with others without loss of self); (b) the courage to be as oneself (or, the courage to be an individual, without living in isolation from others); and (c) the courage to accept acceptance (or, the courage to relinquish or make amends for guilt and shame). Thus, Tillich addressed the balancing act that is constantly being played by all of us in Western civilization, between the imperatives that we must endeavor to be ourselves without isolation (individuation) while at the same time living in community without giving up ourselves in mindless conformity. The courage to accept acceptance relates to May's concept of the ability to trust (Tillich, 1952).


Mt follows from the above discussion that our objectives in encouraging are to help individuals identify consequences of their decisions, define purpose, spur vitality, overcome free-floating anxiety, and try new ways of living, rather than those that would otherwise maintain dependency. That this is difficult is obvious, since the person is being asked to do something that goes against what that person has been doing and has found to be acceptable. Staying in one uncomfortable position or role is often far more comfortable than acting to get out of the rut into an unknown. The person may feel more comfortable with the known harshness than with the unknown. The unknown may appear to be more dangerous and devastating than the known. A person who is abused in a family situation may hang on to it, because the family and the behavior of its members may appear to be more desirable than moving away from family and its punishing members. The unknown has the potential for total annihilation.

When the situation is dire and extreme, one needs to recognize with the person, the potentially dangerous and negative consequences of acting. At the same time, one needs to point out that failure to act prolongs the current painful situation. The option to act involves courage to do something despite its potentially negative consequences. Here one needs to evaluate the degree of courage. Placing the decision on courage, when there is very little or none, can only result in depression, rejection of a desire to change, and even suicide. When asking a person to use courage, one must determine whether the person has even a tiny iota of courage. It may be extremely devastating to conclude that one does not have any courage. However, it is often difficult to determine beforehand whether there is any courage. In many cases it can only be determined by asking the person to express a courageous act, like doing something that the person is fearful to do, with full awareness of the possible negative consequences. If it is now determined that the person has too little courage to act, then whoever is in the helping position, needs to support or carry the person through the frightening act, in order to show the person that he/she has the potential for mastery. The counselor who is aware of the conditions of courage does not challenge or "confront" the person to act in new ways when the client has not yet been given the chance to demonstrate courage.

Therefore, one of the goals of treatment ought to be the assessment of courage and the conditions that underlie it. For example, a client who abuses substances because of the stresses of a demanding, unrelenting job is asked to take himself or herself to a career counselor to begin discussion of a job change. However, the prospect of changing jobs is too frightening to the client who suffers from low self-confidence and a lack of courage to make the overtures. A counselor in this situation could do several things. First, the counselor could support the client in his fear, and accept him for the ambivalence and difficulty that he is experiencing (Rogers, 1951).

Second, she/he could focus counseling efforts on low self-confidence ("I cannot") and low commitment ("I will not"). Several forms of treatment could work in this regard. Reality therapy (Glasser, 1965) prescribes achievement in small steps towards a goal as a way of teaching a person independence through the formation and carrying-out of one's own goals. Behavioral management and social learning strategies do essentially the same thing, along with specific reinforcement, modeling, and vicarious learning techniques (Bandura, 1977). Attribution and expectancy approaches can be used by the counselor to model the counselor' s belief that the client can do it, thus making it easier for the client to accept this belief (Bandura & Schunk, 1981). In addition, counselors can arrange for clients to meet other clients in similar situations who have successfully managed a desired change (if he/she can do it, so can I!).

Third, the counselor could work on reducing the fear of spiritual nothingness and finding the purpose that gives the person's life meaning. Existential counseling (May, 1967) is designed to accomplish exactly that end. This counseling approach has both confronting (e.g., breaking down nihilistic and melancholic tendencies) and encouraging components (e.g., elucidating the consequences of viewing destiny not with morbid resignation, but as an opportunity to test one's freedom). Dynamic, existentially oriented counseling approaches in general strive in their evaluative stage to uncover neurotic constrictions of experiencing (e.g., fear, anxiety, and guilt), to confront them, and to reduce their potential for blocking directionality and commitment. Behavioral medicine approaches have much to offer in the areas of relaxation training to teach the person a response incompatible with that of fear, as well as several cognitive approaches to dealing with asserting one's rights and reframing mental self-talk in the face of fear-inducing stressors (Turk, Meichenbaum, & Genest, 1983).

Fourth, the counselor could provide the client with an opportunity to join an appropriate group, which may establish a source of encouragement (i.e., Tillich's courage to be as part). Although there is the potential for the clients transferring his or her dependency to a group and the risk of further losing his or her self, the group experience may also provide models of behavior and success with which he or she can identify and emulate.

Finally, and most importantly, the counselor must see herself or himself as the alter ego of the client in the matter of courage. The counselor may help clarify matters, exhort the client to action, and lend the client strength, confidence, and expectation (I conceive, I can, I will, I am) at the crucial moment when the client is at a state of readiness to do something involving fear or anxiety. Rollo May (1967) stated: "...the counselor must give people courage to live...". She or he provides the vital empathetic link, that has been called the encounter", involvement", and merger", upon which the client may rely while the client faces their difficulty or fear and takes the necessary first step forward.


This paper has attempted to define courage, its conditions, its blocks, and some of its facilitators, including some ways in which counselors might approach creating situations in which it may emerge. It also distinguished between confrontation and encouragement, which the author sees as complimentary processes - one breaking down of defenses and the other facilitating the emergence of intentionality.

This paper has also tried to distinguish between support and encouragement so that, in those cases in which persons are so devastated by experience that they no longer have any courage, active support can be applied until they have gained strength.

Courage is a concept that is elusive, metaphysical, and somewhat vague. However, if clients are to become "empowered", meaning that they are able to rely on a positively functioning motivational system, then the process of encouragement must be understood. Empowerment (or "self-empowerment" as it is sometimes called) is an objective in counseling, not a process. Thus, empowerment as process implies a stronger person directing a weaker client. Empowerment as objective where encouragement is the fuel for the process implies creatively erecting conditions in counseling in which empowerment is the result. Empowerment is the result of "rehabilitating the will," in the midst of medical-model passivity. Counseling involves affirming life, which in its part involves creation, and creation implies satisfying the requirements of intentionality. Intentionality is driven by and is a measure of courage. Where courage is lacking due to either a deficit in the conceiving process - I conceive; or to a lack of self-confidence - I can; or to a lack of commitment - I will; or to an immobilizing fear or anxiety, guilt, shame, or feeling of non-acceptance or trust; the counselor may give courage by addressing the particular lack and by being the client's partner in his or her straggle. The counselor may, indeed, encourage.


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Richard J. Beck, Rehabilitation Institute, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, Illinois 62901-4605
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Author:Beck, Richard J.
Publication:The Journal of Rehabilitation
Date:Jul 1, 1994
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