Ernest Becker on Transference and Transcendence
By Zur Institute
Trained in cultural anthropology, Dr. Ernest Becker was motivated in his work by an overriding personal pursuit of the question, “What makes people act the way they do?” Refusing to dismiss answers to this question coming from any field of study based on empirical observation of human behavior, Becker almost inadvertently created a broadly interdisciplinary theory of human behavior that is neither simply speculative nor overly reductionist. Encapsulated in the title of his most famous book, The Denial of Death, Becker’s synthesis describes human behavioral psychology as the existential struggle of a self-conscious species, wrestling with the implications of its mortality.
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Ernest Becker Recap:
- Each and every day we are confronted with the reality of death and our own mortality. Simultaneously, we are strongly motivated by a survival instinct. Ernest Becker’s psychological existential perspective is born in the recognition of this clash.
- Ernest Becker’s basic ideas have been largely substantiated in stringent laboratory testing conditions by a school of social psychology called Terror Management Theory.
- Ernest Becker’s work is not a school of psychotherapy in itself, but rather fosters exploration of the common ground between many schools of psychotherapy. Presented initially as an existential reworking of psychoanalysis, this work moves well beyond the confines of psychoanalytic psychology.
- Death is a complex symbol for human beings. The very energy cooking away in the human subconscious is the need to keep anxiety about death away from consciousness.
- We are born into culture, and the socialization process is largely one of learning how our culture symbolizes death.
- How we symbolize death strongly impacts our sense of what the good life is, and how we conceptualize the enemies (both personal and political) of ourselves and our society.
- Social and individual character is contoured by the avenues for heroic denial of death (diminishment, loss, the void) offered by our culture, and in the habitual balances we create in buffering ourselves too much or too little against the rush of death anxiety.
- Humans naturally seek to ground themselves in powers that transcend the individual as a symbolic defense against mortality, and just as naturally we feel attacked when our higher powers are diminished. No less than their clients, therapists must gain clarity in this regard as to their own ethical, moral, and spiritual biases.
- Psychotherapy is best understood as a process of mutual exploration and healing, as both the therapist and the client seek to find ever less destructive and more creative ways of being self-conscious, mortality-aware beings in the world.