In the 1940s psychologists Donald Snygg and Arthur W. Combs introduced ‘phenomenal field theory.’ The idea was borrowed from philosophy and adopted most famously by Carl Rogers, a pioneer of Person Centred Psychology.
According to this theory, reality for every one of us consists of all experiences available at a given moment, both conscious and unconscious. In spite of the unusual name, phenomenal field theory describes a universal experience. It simply acknowledges that we all have our own unique and individual reality and that this reality is as real as anything else in the world and needs to be seen as such.
For each of us, this reality is made up of the entire world as we know and experience it. This reality includes everything – places, people, objects and experiences, our behaviours, thoughts, images and fantasies. It also includes our physical reality and how we perceive it, as well as our feelings and beliefs about everything from daily occurrences to concepts like justice, freedom and equality. It is, in effect, for each of us, our unique self and experience.
Our Stories = Our Selves
Snygg and Combs suggested that everyone has a need to preserve and enhance their unique self and that this involves more than physical survival or the satisfaction of basic needs because the body and its needs are only part of the story.
A teenager who attempts suicide, a soldier seeking martyrdom, or a prisoner on a hunger strike are not serving their bodies well. But they are maintaining, perhaps even enhancing, their own images of who they are. Their physical existences no longer hold the same meanings to them as they might to us. (1)
Threats to the unique self are ideally met with appropriate responses that enhance the self. But sometimes we don’t have the necessary tools to respond in a healthy way and when that is the case, we do whatever it takes to survive. Phenomenal field theory explains that each unique self has a story and no matter how illogical its actions or beliefs may appear outside itself, according to the structure of that individual, it is absolutely coherent. If we wish to understand others we need to acknowledge their unique self and the best way we can learn to do this, is to first pay attention to our own ‘selves’. Having gained some understanding of our unique selves we can more easily meet – and maybe even understand – all the unique selves around us.
Tomorrow – Classifying Human Experience
(1) Dr. C. George Boeree, Personality Theories, Snygg and Combs. Psychology Department, Shippenburg University, 1998. http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/snygg&combs.html
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