Metamorphoses, Part 5 — What it Takes to Create a “Transformative Experience”

This is part 5 of a series on the theme of Metamorphoses, looking at what causes change and transformation through the lens of pioneering humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers. Why would Caveat do that? It probably seemed like a good idea at the time. Read all entries in this series here.


Okay, so, let’s review.

We’re exploring how personal transformation happens — or at least one way it happens — and suggesting that the most reliable way to create a “transformative experience” is not to create a particular experience at all, but a kind of relationship. That people change as a result of relationships in ways that they very rarely change as a result of events.

Following the work of humanistic psychologist Carl Rogers, we’re proposing that such “transformative relationships” have particular characteristics. That they are:

  • Dynamic: this is not a relationship where both or one person in it expects to be the same. Rather, it is understood that both parties in the relationship are changing, and can expect to change as a result of their interactions, and that this is a good thing. As Rogers writes: “To withhold one’s self as a person and to deal with the other person as an object does not have a high probability of being helpful.” Static relationships tend to produce static people; dynamic relationships help people change, and it has to go both ways.
  • Transparent: this is another way of saying consistently honest. That the other person in the relationship knows how you honestly feel, and trusts you to tell them. Bullshit is the enemy of transformation: if they have good reasons to suspect you of lying or having ulterior motives, the relationship probably can’t be transformative in the way we’re looking at. Rogers’ favorite term for this is “congruent”: a congruent person is someone who is aware of their own feeling and can express them accurately. Which is harder than it sounds.
  • Receptive: Here things get paradoxical. On the one hand, the transformative relationship must be transparent:  the person must know what you really think. And yet you must also be receptive: it must always be okay for them to be honest with you. It must be okay for them to have questions you don’t like, ideas you don’t agree with, to think things that disgust you. You must sincerely receive, in a state of unconditional positive regard, whatever it is they feel, even as you are honest about your own feelings towards it.

Wait, is This About Burning Man?

Does all that sound difficult to do? Yeah, it does to me too. But it also speaks to me about the relationships that … when I think about it … most facilitated positive changes in my own life. And while there is nothing uniquely “Burning Man” about such relationships — Rogers was writing decades before Larry and Jerry went to Baker Beach — there is, I think, something in Burning Man that is particularly conducive to these relationships.

I think this because the paradoxical nature of transformative relationships — that they must be congruent AND receptive; that you must be open to change in order to facilitate change — is matched by the paradoxical relationship of the key elements of Burning Man culture. To make “Burning Man” happen, “to Burn,” we must be both Radically Self-Expressive AND Radically Inclusive; we must have both Radical Self-Reliance AND Communal Effort.

Much in the way that static relationships tend to create static people, and dynamic relationships tend to create dynamicism in people, I suspect that the paradoxical nature of Burning Man culture leads to the kind of paradoxical relationships that create transformation.

It’s a theory. We’ll talk more about that in another post. Or maybe I’ll have changed my mind by then.

In the meantime, it’s looking at the conditions under which such relationships are created, beyond what we’ve already discussed. There are a few things.

Connection is More Important Than Content

One of the big arguments in psychology is the question of which approaches to therapy are the most effective.  Is it Analytic psychology? Depth? Cognitive Behavioral? Existential Integrative? Throwing medication at people?

The answer may be none of the above, because the content of therapy may actually be the least important part. There was a considerable body of research in Rogers’ time, evidence which has continued to be demonstrated across decades of research, that in fact it is the connection between the therapist and the patient, rather than the type of therapy practiced, that makes the most significant difference to the outcomes of therapy.

As Rogers writes:  “It seems from our studies that it is attitudes such as these rather than the therapist’s technical knowledge and skill, which are primarily responsible for therapeutic change.”

This seems to be a crucial element of the transformative relationship outside of therapy as well: the point isn’t so much what someone learns in the course of the relationship, as that they are learning. The fact that they are engaged in the learning process may be much more important than any particular thing you have to teach. No matter how important it is to you.

Evaluation is an Enemy

Rogers writes that to be transformative, a relationship must not involve “the threat of external evaluation” of any kind. Even a positive judgment is counter-productive.

“Curiously enough a positive evaluation is as threatening in the long run as a negative one,” Rogers wrote, “since to inform someone that he is good implies that you also have the right to tell him he is bad.”

Again, the issue isn’t to pretend to approve of everything someone does — that violates the need for transparency. It is to make sure that external standards do not become fixed reference points that lock us in to our existing identities

“Can I meet the other individual as a person who is in process of becoming, or will I be bound by his past and by my past?” Rogers asks. One cannot, it seems, change if one is bound. But when one is free, one can change in ways one never imagined. As Rogers writes (using the context of therapy, but again, intending it to be towards any transformative relationship):

“In the security of the relationship … in the absence of any actual or implied threat to self, the client can let himself examine various aspects of his experience as they actually feel to him, as they are apprehended through his sensory and visceral equipment, without distorting them to fit the existing concept of self. Many of these prove to be in extreme contradiction to the concept of self, and could not ordinarily be experienced in their fullness, but in this safe relationship they can be permitted to seep through into awareness without distortion… If I can free him as completely as possible from external threat, then he can begin to experience and to deal with the internal feelings and conflicts which he finds threatening within himself.”

This doesn’t mean that these relationships are “safe” — it means that they are relationships in which certain kinds of threats are removed so that one is able to examine the dangerous parts of one’s self.

When one expects to be judged, even positively, one’s ego becomes activated and threats to self-image become significant. When one is free from judgment, one can use that freedom to explore aspects of one’s self that might otherwise be locked away, and come to new conclusions about them.

Understand Without Trampling

Rogers spends a great deal of time writing about the need, in a transformative relationship, for the participants to be able to better understand each other — not to convince them of anything, but to understand their subjectivities in just the way Barzun suggested that art can help us do. Rogers asks:

“Can I let myself enter fully into the world of his feelings and personal meanings and see these as he does? Can I step into his private world so completely that I lose all desire to evaluate or judge it?  Can I enter it so sensitively that I can move about in it freely, without trampling on meanings which are precious to him? Can I sense it so accurately that I can catch not only the meanings of his experience which are obvious to him, but those meanings which are only implicit, which he sees only dimly or as confusion? Can I extend this understanding without limit? I think of the client who said, ‘Whenever I find someone who understands a part of me at the time, then it never fails that a point is reached where I know they’re not understanding me again … What I’ve looked for so hard is for someone to understand.'”

The experience that someone understands our deepest subjectivities, or at least that they have a place to go outside ourselves, may be one of the most important characteristics of the transformative relationship.

In the next post, we’ll look at what it means for someone to “transform” in this way, and what that experience is.


Top photo: LIVE and Tree (photo by Playaman)

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat Magister

A member of Burning Man Project's Philosophical Center, Caveat served as the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca from 2008 - 2013, and the lead writer/researcher for Burning Man's education program from 2016 - 2018. Caveat is the author of the the forthcoming book The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities., which is now available for pre-order. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

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