Full Context - An International Objectivist Publication
Full Context - An International Objectivist Publication Full Context - An International Objectivist Publication Full Context - An International Objectivist Publication Full Context - An International Objectivist Publication Full Context - An International Objectivist Publication Full Context - An International Objectivist Publication

Biographical note

Interview with
Michael J. Hurd
by Karen Minto


Michael J. Hurd, Ph.D.Q: Where did you grow up, and what sorts of things did you like to study as a youngster?

Hurd: I grew up in the Washington, DC area. From the earliest age I enjoyed reading more than anything. In my grade school years, I particularly enjoyed math and science. In high school and college I developed an appreciation and preference for the humanities—psychology, philosophy, and history. I always enjoyed reading, though. From as far back as I can remember, I always had a book in my hands. My friends used to marvel at the fact that as soon as I finished one book I started another. There was never a time I wasn’t reading something.

Q: What were some of the formative influences on your intellectual development?

Hurd: As a young child, I was taught the Catholic religion—mostly by conservative Catholic nuns. In high school I was taught by more liberal Catholic priests. They exposed me not only to the Pope’s viewpoints, but also to the ideas of psychologists such as Freud and Skinner. In college and graduate school, I became very influenced by humanistic psychology.

Humanistic psychology, represented by the ideas of people like Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow, was secular in its orientation. By secular I mean of this world, of this earth. It was man-centered, or human-centered. As a result, I liked it. I found it much more appealing than the Catholic preoccupation with another world, and the Freudian preoccupation with penis envy and incest. In 1988, I chose to attend Saybrook Institute for my graduate studies, formerly the Institute of Humanistic Psychology, founded by Carl Rogers and Rollo May (another humanistic psychologist).

During my studies at Saybrook, I became disillusioned with humanistic psychology. The basic reason was its subjectivism. Humanistic therapy, for example, centers on the individual’s subjective experience of reality as if nothing else matters. I disliked the wishy-washy, fawning over everyone’s emotions as if emotions were all that mattered. Many self-described humanistic psychologists I met also bought into mysticism and environmentalism. They banged on drums, danced and threw berries from the top of a mountain, and dared to call this psychology!

By the end of my doctoral dissertation, which I did on cognitive psychology, I was pretty well over humanistic psychology. But I held to my secular orientation. I knew that this world was what counted, and I firmly believed in the grand potential of human beings if they used their free will properly. This was the context in which I discovered Ayn Rand.

Q: How did you discover the ideas of Ayn Rand? What kind of effect did they have on you?

Hurd: A close friend’s mother, upon completion of my Ph.D., asked me if I had ever read Ayn Rand. I told her "no," that I had heard of Ayn Rand, but that I had heard she was a conservative. I did not like conservatives, because I associated them with religious ideologues like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Jack Kemp. She corrected me, and told me that "if you want to be a serious intellectual, you must read Atlas Shrugged." She said it with such conviction and certainty—I’ll never forget it. I could tell the book had really affected her deeply, and she was a woman whom I already respected for various reasons. Never before or since have I moved so quickly to follow through on someone’s recommendation to read something.

I decided to read The Fountainhead first. My reasoning was that since Ayn Rand was a philosopher, her thinking must have evolved over a period of many years. So I thought it made sense to read her earlier work first, and her masterpiece last. In hindsight this was, I believe, the correct decision. The Fountainhead is a magnificent illustration of human independence and integrity, while Atlas Shrugged also outlines, more comprehensively, the abstract ideas (and social system) which make those qualities possible.

I initially approached The Fountainhead with some skepticism. I did not like conservatives. While I did not embrace subjectivism, I did not like religious, faith-based "absolutism" either. While I did not think much of conventional liberalism, I was not a social conservative either. I wanted absolutes but I wanted the absolutes to be grounded in reason and facts, not arbitrary, faith-based dictates. I was open to free market ideas, but disgusted by how they always went hand in hand with religious dogmatism and theocracy. Imagine my surprise and delight when finding out that Ayn Rand, in actual fact, represented neither of these false alternatives.

I was so enthused by The Fountainhead that I immediately began to read some of Rand’s non-fiction materials. As a psychologist, I almost instantly saw in her writings a foundation for a truly secular, humanistic theory of man. She unflinchingly placed man and this earth first, but was not a subjectivist. She boldly stated that objective reality exists, yet a human mind must grasp it through a certain method. She was not mystical, or wishy-washy; nor was she religious, faith-based, or dogmatic. She swept aside what I had sensed all along were the two false alternatives: consciousness without existence (subjectivism); and existence without consciousness (religiosity).

Her political views were ruthlessly consistent and, I thought, supremely fair: man should be free from physical force. Period. Government only exists to keep man free from fraud, force, and coercion. With amazing speed, I was able to see why I had been disenchanted with both liberalism and conservatism. In short, I was simply blown away by her ideas.

Q: Why did you decide to study psychology?

Hurd: When I entered college, I knew that I was fascinated by what makes human beings "tick." I wanted to learn more about what makes human beings "tick" so I could better understand myself and people in my life. I considered other fields—creative writing, political science, sociology, and even business. In the end, I went with psychology because I thought its emphasis on the individual was the most interesting of all the humanities fields.

Also, I knew that psychology would offer me a chance to make a decent income doing what I loved, and would not confine me to the academic ivory tower. A local radio psychologist (with whom I briefly corresponded in the early 1980’s) told me, "No two days will ever be the same in your career as a psychologist." I thought this was a very appealing way to earn a living. And she was right on target!

As a freshman in college, I briefly toyed with the idea of majoring in philosophy. One philosophy teacher in particular was especially encouraging. I was very enthused by the writings of Plato and Aristotle. I did not think Plato made a whole lot of sense, but I thought he was imaginative and a serious thinker. I was inspired by Socrates’ adherence to principle even to the point of death. Aristotle made a lot of sense to me—and I marveled at the fact that someone writing so very long ago understood so many basic truths.

By the time we began to study the moderns, however, I lost interest in philosophy. Something troubled me about Descartes’ mind-body dichotomy—I could not yet, at that point in time, name it. And Kant made no sense at all. I was hopelessly lost by his boring, incoherent abstractions. I assumed I must be missing something, and that philosophy was not for me. So I went into psychology instead, which I found much more real and interesting.


Q: Why did you write your book Effective Therapy: Choosing the Right Therapy That Works for You? What is its major premise, and what makes it distinctive from all the other therapy genre books out there?

Hurd: When I first started practicing, clients often asked me what they should expect out of therapy and what the different schools of therapy involved. I thought this was a very good question. I looked for books which addressed this question in an intelligent way, for the layman or therapy consumer. I could not find any. So, in part, this book arose from a need to provide my clients with a basis for evaluating what to expect from counseling.

As I met more and more therapists, I also began to recognize that many operated on fundamentally different premises from the ones I did. For example, Freudian-oriented therapists assumed that childhood was the root cause of all emotional problems in the present. Behaviorist-oriented therapists acted as if changing behaviors, without reference to the workings of the mind (i.e. thoughts and emotions), was the only important goal. Family therapists often acted as if the individual did not matter—only the family dynamics did. I thought it was important to explain to would-be therapy clients, and beginning therapists, what the basic differences were between the different schools of thought.

Writing the book helped me clarify, for myself, the essential and basic differences between the various types of psychotherapies in existence. I found this very gratifying. Knowing the concepts I explained in the book enables me to be much more conscious about what I am doing with my clients and why. I know my methods, but I also know my basic premises. Not too many therapists know their basic viewpoints, in my experience.

The major premise of the book comes from philosophy: the idea that reason is the human method of survival, and—as it applies to psychology—the means of solving personal and emotional problems. The method of the book is to critically evaluate the different schools of therapy from this perspective, and to provide concrete examples of how to use reason in your daily life.

Q: Why do you think psychotherapy is the misunderstood stepchild of American medicine?

Hurd: I say "misunderstood" because so few people understand what the proper purpose of therapy is. In fact, few seem to understand that psychotherapy should even have a proper, rational, objective purpose of some kind—at least, no purpose that you, the patient, should participate in determining. Instead, they see it as a procedure or treatment that somehow "does" something "to" you. Yet therapy, as I point out in my book, is not passive, but active. A therapist is not like your doctor, or your surgeon. A therapist is more like a coach—a mental coach who knows the proper principles of human psychology, and whose job is to teach them to you (in plain language) and show you how to apply them to your daily life.

If you approach therapy passively, it is certain to fail. If someone tries to coerce you into therapy, it will almost certainly fail. This is because effective psychotherapy requires an active, engaged, thinking mind. It cannot be "done" to you without your active work and consent.

I say "stepchild" because, just as a stepchild often feels he does not belong with his new stepparent, I am not convinced psychotherapy really belongs in the medical profession. In a metaphorical sense, psychotherapy is a treatment that helps people heal—mentally rather than physically. But I dislike the implication of passivity that goes with lumping mental health "treatment" with medical treatment. It does make sense to group medication treatment such as Prozac and lithium with medical care. I do not think psychotherapy belongs there, however—at least not in a literal sense.

Q: What factors are necessary for good or successful therapy?

Hurd: To find out, read my book!

In short, these factors include: an emphasis on reason and objective reality as a means of "talking back" to your emotions; a therapist who gives you objective feedback and asks you questions designed to help you resolve your conflicts or contradictions; and a solution-focus rather than a disease-focus.

A "solution-focus" means a therapist should hold the client responsible for taking constructive action to improve himself in between the sessions. Therapy should not merely be a forum for complaining and making excuses.

Q: In choosing a therapist, what is the difference between "objective" credentials and "claimed" credentials, and is one preferable to the other?

Hurd: Objective credentials can be easily verified by the therapy client. For example, the therapist either has a Ph.D. or he does not. He either has a license or he does not.

Claimed credentials are not so clear. A client usually has to take a therapist’s word for them. For example, many therapists call themselves "self-esteem" experts or "adult child of alcoholics" experts. These claims may mean that the therapist has some special training in the subject and/or a high degree of experience in it. It may also mean, however, that he simply likes working with these issues but does not necessarily have a lot of knowledge about or experience with them.

It’s best to ask the therapist specific questions about the claimed credentials, such as: "Could you tell me what percentage of your clients, approximately, see you for this issue?" A good therapist will happily and non-defensively answer your questions.

Neither sort of credential is inherently superior to the other. Since psychological and counseling training is so general, it’s a good idea to find out about a therapist’s claimed credentials and specialties. Graduate school alone does not make someone a good therapist. Professional experience counts for a lot.

Q: What is one of the most important questions a therapist should ask a new patient?

Hurd: How will you know you’re "better?" Or, put another way: What needs to happen for you to consider this therapy experience successful?

A close second, in importance: Why did you seek help now? What was the trigger event, externally or internally?

Q: Is it ever appropriate for a therapist to morally judge a client? To let him know that something evil that they have done violates the client’s own moral system. Can this be useful in changing behavior by having them think that their lives are in chaos because they are not thinking according to higher principles?

Hurd: Yes, a therapist can and should morally judge a client. To refuse to make judgments is phony, unprofessional, and makes no sense. If I saw a therapist, nothing would annoy me more than for him never to challenge me or question me or occasionally pass judgment on something I said or did.

But keep in mind that moral judgment and moralism are not the same thing. To be moralistic, in part, means to tell somebody that something is wrong with his action but not to explain why. It also means to communicate to him that he is somehow permanently worthless because of the wrong action.

Consider the difference between, "You lousy jerk!" (a not very therapeutic statement) and "I don’t agree that your actions at the party were wise because they really damaged your marriage, which I know is important to you." (a therapeutic statement which involves a judgment).

A good therapist must also make it very clear to the client that despite past errors, he can start fresh from this moment forward and not continue to act against his self-interest. This keeps the moral judgments from turning into moralism.

If evasion—the refusal to think, the refusal to face a fact right in front of you—is the essence of immorality, then a willing therapy client can be among the most moral type of person you will find. Think about it. To submit yourself to total self-honesty, which therapy (and all introspective self-reflection) necessarily involves, is the opposite of evasion and denial. To make yourself look at your good points and your bad points, your errors as well as your strengths—no matter what anxiety this may cause in the short- run—is courageous and admirable.


from Full Context, Vol. 10, No. 8
(April 1998)

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