Reification & De-Reification

Posted By William Dubin, Ph.D. on February 8, 2018 at 11:28am | General

I will act as if what I do matters
– William James

We all use metaphors, generalizations, and other ways of abstracting from raw sensory data to help us make sense of the complex and fine-grained objective reality with which we have to cope. It is important to understand that the models we use to represent objective reality is not the same as the reality (the map is not the same as the territory). The failure to appreciate the difference between the events that happen and the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of them, causes us to take our beliefs and perspectives too seriously [Reification].

Events and your reaction to events

The brain receives a lot of sensory input. To make sense of its environment, your nervous system summarizes and abstracts the raw data it receives to create understandings and stories. This interpretive process is vulnerable to the biases caused by your beliefs and perspectives. You can tell if you have fallen into a self-sabotaging trap by being vigilant for repeating patterns of counter-productive reactions to the things that happen.

The Transformation of Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde

Dr. Jekyll is a college professor who sees me for anger management  — although I have never seen him when he is not calm and rational. His descriptions of his viscous arguments with his wife are delivered quietly and with often with great contrition. In my office Dr. Jekyll is experiencing these events from the dissociative perspective of the narrator; during the fight he is experiencing the same sequence of events from the associative perspective of a biological creature being provoked. For example, when describing a recent argument, Jekyll reports: “I felt hot and angry and thought, ‘she is always putting me down; she is such a bitch.’ But I know that I’m an ass-hole when I’m drunk. I’m probably more to blame than she is. . .”

The trance formation of Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde began the moment he took the negative appraisals of his wife seriously, as if she really was a bitch who was always putting him down. By the time I saw him in my office he had returned to the subjective reality of the rational Dr. Jekyll. Note his statement, “I thought, ‘she is always putting me down.” Once he was able to view things from the observer’s perspective he de-reified the concept that she was and always would be a bitch, and appreciated that the idea that she was a bitch was a creation of his nervous system, not hers.

Reification of pathogenic beliefs is the sinister potion
that turns the rational Dr. Jekyll into the destructive Mr. Hyde.
De-Reifying those abstractions
is the antidote that can prevent
this trance-formation.

My mission as Jekyll’s therapist is to help him de-reify his pathogenic beliefs. The easy first step [described above] was to ask him to describe how the fight came about. To describe it to me, he had to review the sequence of external events and internal states from the perspective of an observer. This dispassionate narrator in my office was not handicapped by state-dependent distortions, and had cognitive resources  —  including the ability to think rationally and the awareness of his motivation to be a good dad  — that were not available to Mr. Hyde.

Jekyll was embarrassed by how he looked from this dispassionate perspective. A bit later in the session he vowed he would never get angry at her again, and would work to make amends for his previous destructive actions. Easy for Jekyll to say, but can he speak for Mr. Hyde? [Note: In the past, vows made by Dr. Jekyll have been routinely broken by Mr. Hyde.]

Spouse abusers tend to follow a predictable sequence of escalating anger culminating in overt aggression, followed by a period of guilt, contrition, and the intention never to act out that way again. During the anger phase the previous intention not to act in the future has little influence, and during the contrite phase the abuser is certain that he will continue to perceive things from his current rational perspective, and so will never make that mistake again.

Intellectual appreciation of this Soul Illusion is not sufficient. To promote good outcome Dr. Jekyll will have to de-reify pathogenic abstractions such as, “She is always trying to undermine me. ”

Reification in the service of will

Therapy often focuses on the De-Reification of pathogenic abstractions, but Reification is also a powerful therapeutic tool. I have purposely reified the concept of self-sabotaging traps to help you conceptualize how the cause-and-effect principles work. However, these traps are not assumed to exist as real entities. They are merely abstractions — stories — that help make sense of things, rather than complete representations of the complex and finely-grained reality. [Likewise, the client examples presented throughout this course are used as fables that omit the complexity of the actual case, but still, hopefully, provide useful lessons for the reader].

The more you reify an abstraction — in the sense of taking it seriously and acting as if it were true — the greater the impact it will have on you. Since I think these concepts will be helpful to you, I want to reify them . On the other hand, you can help yourself by de-reifying pathogenic concepts such as “they are not going to like me” or “I’ve always been a loser.”

The Meta-Cognitive Awareness that your appraisals, judgments, and interpretations are fictions that you create will free you from the Soul Illusion that results from taking your abstractions too seriously.

As long as they are not contrary to objective facts, none of your creative fictions is valid and complete. Our collaborative task is to De-Reify the harmful fictions and Reify the helpful ones.

The Reification Fork

The events that happened in your life are what they are and can never be changed. However, the story you composed to summarize or interpret those events is one of an infinite number of equally valid creative fictions. Some of these interpretations are pathogenic in that they promote outcomes that are not only bad for you, but self-confirmatory and so they persist.

The mission of this course is to help you identify and De-Reify pathogenic abstractions, and to Reify the beliefs and perspectives that promote good outcome as you define it. With this in mind, a navigational fork is available here. One option is to follow a philosophical path that promotes de-reification of pathological concepts:

Or, you can use Suggestion as a tool to Reify abstractions that promote resourcefulness, confidence, and a healthy respect for the nature of your challenge.

Alternatively, you can follow the default path to access the contemporary thinking of Cognitive Therapy. Of particular interest are the pathogenic thinking errors to be vigilant for, and an excellent method to identify the specific cause-and-effect mechanism that is responsible for your self-sabotage trap.


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Posted by William Dubin, Ph.D.

Bill received his doctoral degree in Psychology from the University of Iowa. He has dedicated his career to the study of mood and addictive disorders and how to escape them.

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