Profiles of Virtue: Interview with Psychology Today

Leon Seltzer wants you to think, reflect and be more compassionate.

Dr. Seltzer, a clinical psychologist and longtime humanist, has tackled a range of issues in his popular articles for the online Psychology Today, from the connection between anxiety and depression to analyzing the narcissism of basketball player Lebron James. His posts have collectively received over 665,000 views.

His latest post, co-authored with American Humanist Association President David Niose, was titled “Teen Sex: The ‘Holy’ vs. Humanistic Approach.” It was the most read article on Psychology Today in early August. The article asserted the need for comprehensive sex education over failed “abstinence-only” programs that are commonly rooted in religion.

Dr. Seltzer holds doctorates in both English and psychology and taught at Queens College (CUNY) and Cleveland State University. Today he lives in Del Mar, Calif., where he has maintained a general private practice since 1986. He is the author of “The Vision of Melville and Conrad” and “Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy,” and has written his blog Evolution of the Self for Psychology Today since June of 2008.

The AHA’s Maggie Ardiente interviewed Dr. Seltzer by email for the second installment of “Profiles of Virtue,” a new series profiling the good works of everyday humanists.

What religion were you raised in, if any?

I was raised Jewish, but although I’ve always been proud of my Jewish heritage (because so many eminent people in the arts and sciences have also been Jewish), from very early on I saw myself as a citizen of the world — not accurately defined by any particular religion.

How did you discover humanism?

I think I’ve always been a humanist without ever being quite being conscious of it. When, all the way back in 1981, I published as an English professor an article on Kurt Vonnegut and alluded, sympathetically, to his humanism, I remember somehow feeling a spiritual link to him and his non-religious ethical tenets (particularly that pivotal line from “God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater”: “God damn it. You’ve got to be kind.”). But I still continued to see myself as agnostic (clearly leaning in the direction of atheism). That is, I didn’t feel I could say definitively that there was no God. That seemed somehow arrogant to me. Yet traditional concepts of God made little sense to me, didn’t “speak” to me, and — practically — I’d never had any direct experience of such a superhuman being.

It was only when somebody showed me a copy of the Humanist magazine a few years ago that I fully realized that this was who I was and immediately felt a strong responsibility to become a member of the American Humanist Association to take “ownership” of this. Inasmuch as over the years I’d come to recognize the many ills of traditional religion — especially in its most fundamentalist, belligerent forms — I felt ethically obliged to more formally take a stand against such, to me, ultimately inhumane forces.

How does your humanist outlook shape your work?

As a practicing psychologist, my humanistic outlook enables me to be more tolerant of, and empathic toward, client beliefs that personally I don’t espouse. Without religious dogma or appeal to a higher being I yet adhere “religiously” to the Golden Rule. And although I’d never “preach” to clients, I trust that my abiding ethical commitments will somewhat be contagious — especially with those clients who are still in the process of evolving moral standards by which to regulate themselves. Although as a therapist I simply don’t have the luxury of being a moralist (but must, pragmatically, help clients find solutions within their own value framework), I do endeavor to encourage them to look more deeply into the moral ramifications of their behavior and to explore how becoming more sensitive to others’ needs ultimately serves their own. If I can “grow” a client’s conscience, if only by an inch, I feel richly rewarded.

Donning my other hat, as an author I’ve written about such morally-infused topics as passive-aggression, pathological narcissism and the age-old problem of evil (e.g., I did a piece on the Virginia Tech massacre shortly after it occurred). And my perspective is at once psychological and ethical — regularly emphasizing the centrality of compassion in humanely understanding that which would be much easier simply to disapprove of, be indignant toward or condemn. I’d like to think that all my writings stress the importance of dealing with others humanely (again, “God damn it. You’ve got to be kind.”). And, finally, to me the core principles of humanism are virtually synonymous with a humanitarian ethic (i.e., humanism = humanitarianism).

What topics do you cover on Psychology Today, and what do you hope to achieve?

As a blogger for Psychology Today who has now completed some 90 articles, I’ve written on a wide variety of topics. To give a broad sampling, here’s a synopsis: the myth of laziness, self-indulgence vs. self-nurturing, the origins of passive-aggressive behavior, the dynamics of anger, the dysfunctional pattern of people-pleasing, trusting — or not trusting — your emotions, the path to unconditional self-acceptance, the power of vulnerability, ego strengthening (and shrinking), confronting others to confront themselves, attachment vs. detachment, giving — and responding to — criticism, the “I feel like a child” syndrome, psychological bonding vs. bondage, and mastering failure and rejection. Whew!

The title of my blog, Evolution of the Self, should also be suggestive. I’d like to think that the implicit — though totally secular — morality that informs each of my posts will, at least indirectly, prompt some individuals to become more interested in humanism. Additionally, I’d hope that my writings will serve to make my readers more sensitive and empathic toward one another — as well as more compassionate and understanding toward themselves. And to the degree I can help readers “evolve” their humanity, I think my endeavors will have been successful.

I’m also on Twitter (drlee1) with the key purpose of sending messages not to tell anyone what I’m up to at the moment (hardly of compelling interest!), but rather to let them in on my not-very-conventional ponderings — so as to get them to think, reflect and maybe even move to a somewhat higher level of consciousness (in 140 characters or less).

What was your favorite article written for Psychology Today?

Very hard question to respond to. It would be much easier to tell you which “comments” I’ve received (and I’ve received many hundreds of them) are my favorites. Fairly regularly, a reader will offers thanks for how much I’ve illuminated a difficult issue for them and offered them practical ideas for better dealing with it. Inasmuch as I’ve always had an intense sense of purpose in life, I find responses like this particularly gratifying.

As regards the articles I’ve written that I feel might be of greatest practical value to readers, I’d single out “From Self-Indulgence to Self-Nurturing,” “The Path to Unconditional Self-Acceptance,” “The ‘I Feel Like a Child’ Syndrome,” “The Power to Be Vulnerable,” and “Disarming Your Buttons: How Not to Get Provoked.” But, frankly, they’re all my babies — and I have a certain “family attachment” to each one — though my greatest joy is the act of sending them out into the limitless world of cyberspace, to do whatever good they may be capable of.

What do you like best about the American Humanist Association?

Given the many inadequacies and injustices of traditional religion, I think AHA is invaluable in offering people the option to identify with a rock-solid ethical system that has nothing to do with established and frequently misguided dogma. I see AHA as not only providing an exceptionally liberating belief system but as being a powerful ethical force against age-old and narrow-minded prejudices, hatred and bigotry. And its political involvement in such issues as separation between church and state and gay rights make today’s AHA truly a positive force in contemporary society — more relevant than ever before. AHA isn’t simply self-righteous armchair philosophizing but a dynamic movement extremely well designed to address the many wrongs that exist in our country right now.

If you could have dinner with any three people (alive or dead), who would you pick?

Forget personalities here. How about dinner (or better, a picnic!) with the world’s three greatest, and most convincing, optimists — and I really can’t say who’d they be either (we’d have to ask them, in all modesty, to please step forward!). When I read such alternative news sources on the Web as Truthout, or investigative journalism in such superb magazines as Mother Jones (not to mention our own excellent the Humanist), it’s hard for me to be as optimistic as I wish I could be about our country’s (actually, about the world’s) future. Sadly, politicians — in league with the big bad wolf of the indomitable military-industrial complex — seem to have ultimate power in determining policy (and therefore the direction) of our country today. And, just in general, we seem to lack the collective will to actually do anything significant about such enormous problems as global warming and unsustainable growth on planet earth. So at times I have a very hard time being optimistic about humanity’s future, and I could use all the help I could get here.