From Physics to Psychology and a Storied Career at CCNY

Paul Wachtel’s Journey



Paul Wachtel
Paul Wachtel’s Journey from Physics to Psychology and a Storied Career at CCNY


Please share something about your personal and professional background.

I grew up in the Bronx and have been a New Yorker for most of my life. We were a family of four living in a one bedroom apartment. My father had dropped out of school after the ninth grade to support his single mother and younger sister. So I can identify with the many students at City who are the first in their family to attend college, and with the experience of whole new worlds opening up as a consequence. I was lucky enough to win a National Merit Scholarship which fully paid for my undergraduate education at Columbia, and I attended graduate school at Yale on a fully paid NIMH fellowship. Many of my childhood friends, from similar economic backgrounds, also were able to get a high quality college education without paying tuitions they could not afford because they attended City College, and their experience at City changed their lives the way my education changed mine — and the way that a City College education continues to change the lives of generation after generation of students whose intellectual resources are often far beyond their economic resources. I feel very fortunate to have ended up teaching at City, where students from economic circumstances like mine were growing up can thrive and achieve their potential.

‌‌How did you discover a passion for your field; and what made you decide to pursue a PhD?

As an undergraduate, I was a physics major for my first three years. Although I did well, something felt missing, some part of me was not being engaged. Because my course load was heavily weighted with math and physics courses, I did not get to take the standard freshman humanities course until my junior year, and for me it was a revelation. In writing a character analysis of Alceste, the central figure in Moliere’s play The Misanthrope, I experienced an excitement that I had not experienced in my math and physics courses. I enjoyed those courses, and still have a strong interest in science and math. But I realized that my passions were directed more toward the dynamics of personality than the dynamics of particles. I had found my calling.

Your most recent book, Making Room for the Disavowed, is being translated into Japanese, adding to the list of translations of your works into various languages. Could you share a brief overview of the central themes and concepts explored in this book, and why you believe it resonates with such diverse audiences globally?

Psychotherapy is often seen as uncovering the deep, dark truth about people, the feelings and desires they hide from themselves (and from others). Such a view, I think, limits how therapeutic the experience can be for the patient. The book examines how therapy can be more effective when the focus is not on what we hide from ourselves but what we fear in ourselves, the parts of ourselves we have learned to be ashamed of, and it elaborates an approach to therapy that aims to help the patient make room for the thoughts and feelings they have squeezed out. In pursuing that aim, I draw on contributions from all of the major schools of psychotherapy. The field of psychotherapy is impeded by the silos that block therapists of one orientation from learning and adaptively borrowing from therapists of other schools. Some years ago, I was one of the founders of the Society for the Exploration of Psychotherapy Integration (SEPI), an organization devoted to overcoming these problematic divisions. SEPI has become an important international voice for integration in the field of psychotherapy, and it is partly as a consequence of my leadership role in SEPI that I have received so many invitations to lecture and offer workshops around the world and that my books have been translated into many languages

Please share something about your plans — regarding research, teaching, engagement — for the next couple of years.

In my research and theoretical explorations over the years, I have been especially engaged in integrative efforts that incorporate observations and ideas from psychologists of different theoretical persuasions and challenge the silos that preserve limited and parochial understandings. I aim to continue these efforts and, as well, to further explore another theme that has been central to my thinking and my writing for many years — the destructive effects of defining well being in terms of all the “stuff” our economy tries to persuade us is the measure of the good life and of our defining the success of the economy in terms of the growth of the economy. Despite growing awareness of what we are doing to our planet, the ways in which our difficulties in achieving the changes necessary to avert environmental disaster are related to our faulty assumptions about the foundations of satisfaction and well being remain insufficiently understood. In the coming years, I hope to further explore this topic and to illuminate the ways that we are pursuing policies — both individually and as a society — that are based on a faulty understanding of human psychology. Organizing our lives around the goal of economic growth does not bring more and more satisfaction but simply more and more desire for more and more. We are not being forced into a tradeoff between the good life and the regrettable necessity to “cut back” — that way of thinking prevents us from achieving both the goal of effectively addressing climate change and environmental degradation and the goal of achieving the good life. In pursuing these themes, I hope to illuminate how moving away from the psychological treadmill that growth-obsessed economic thinking creates can enable our lives to be more satisfying, a win-win rather than a forced tradeoff.

What would you want to make sure everyone knows about what makes the Colin Powell School special?

A central fact of American life is that those who have more economic resources have a far easier path to thriving and fulfilling their potential. The Colin Powell School, like City College in general, is a profoundly important counterweight to this stark social fact. Talent is distributed far more broadly than is wealth, and by enabling those with much of the former regardless of the latter to receive the education that will enable them to contribute to society as leaders and innovators, the Powell School serves an indispensable role. As someone who in my own life began with limited economic resources and was enabled to thrive through the power of education, I am especially pleased to be a part of an institution whose values are so closely entwined with my own.

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