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  • Jason McCarty

Expansion – Constriction

I want to share a conceptual continuum created by Kirk Schneider, PhD, a leading writer and theorist in the existential-humanistic psychology community. In his book Existential-Integrative Psychotherapy, Schneider (2008) explains that a main focus of existential psychotherapy for many practitioners and theorists is the human experience of freedom/liberation. Existential therapists want to help their clients find more freedom in their lives, more liberation from their suffering, dysfunctional patterns, and toxic relationships.

In light of our struggle for freedom as humans, a continuum shows itself in this process and the two polar ends of the continuum are expansion and constriction.

Expansion is the perception of bursting forth and extending psychophysiologically” (p. 39).

Constriction is the perception of drawing back and confining psychophysiologically” (p. 39).

Schneider goes on to explain: “Expansion is associated with a sense of advancing, enlarging, dispersing, ascending, filling, accelerating, or, in short, increasing psychophysiological capacities” (p.39).

“Constriction, on the other hand, is signified by the perception of retreating, restricting, isolating, falling, emptying, slowing, or, in short, reducing psychophysiological capacities” (p.39).

In our Being-in-the-World, we may find ourselves too far to either side of this continuum. In the face of life, in the face of human possibility, we can often react in fear and hug too closely to either end. It is not as simple as expansion being freedom and constriction being the lack thereof. They can both become problematic. We can hide and constrict, or we can engorge and spread thin. Schneider explains the more healthy way of Being in the World with the concept ofcentering:

“Finally, centering is the capacity to be aware of and direct one’s constrictive or expansive possibilities” (p. 39).

So what actually happens when we go too far on either side?

Schneider explains, “The further one pursues constriction, the closer one gets to a sense of being ‘wiped away,’ obliterated” (p. 40). I see this in my clients who are constricting both their emotions and their “voice.” I am often helping people to find their voice, to speak up in their relationships. When we hide and don’t use our voice, we are not living as ourselves, we are hiding in such a way as to avoid being. One is afraid of annihilation and therefore hides, but the irony is that in that hiding, one obliterates oneself. He or she is, in effect, saying, “don’t hear me, don’t see me, don’t listen to me, I am not here.” Eventually, anger and anxiety set in, which is the psyche’s way of communicating to one’s self that a more courageous sense of being must ensue. We must speak, we must be.

In terms of going too far into expansion he explains, “The further one pursues expansion, the closer one gets to an equally excessive perception of” exploding, “entering chaotic nonentity (Laing, 1969)” (p. 40). I see the result of this process in two areas: addiction and psychosis. Laing worked often with those in difficult states of mind. I would assume this is why Schneider quoted Laing, because with a lack of boundary and limitation on our experience, we explode into a psychotic state, a state where the ego has lost its role and the free flowing of the unconscious leads to ever-expanding “nonentity.” The self becomes undifferentiated and lost.

Also, in my work with addicted individuals, I see a lot of times where a person lives a life of constriction, whether emotionally or relationally, or might be living with too much stress and no release. Their behavioral addiction acts as a pendulum swinging across to full expansion, to what seems like freedom and “letting go.” But as we know, having an addiction is nothing like freedom. It is one of the most limiting human experiences. So I am often helping the individual to see where their expression of self-in-addiction is an expression of a deeper need for de-stressing, for release, for a wider expansion of being in their everyday lives. The addictive feedback loop between constriction and expansion gets quite strong and shoots one back and forth like a rubber band, making it difficult to stop.

Schneider explains some practical psychological problems that can arise from the dread of either end of the continuum. Each of us is different in our perceptions of which end seems worse. We usually hug an end for psychological coping or compensation. But in the extreme, as Schneider explains, each is embedded in the other. He writes:

Dread of constriction or expansion (due mainly to past trauma) fosters extreme or dysfunctional counterreactions to those polarities. This sets up a situation where, for example, expansive grandiosity becomes an escape from, or a counterreaction to, the constrictive belittlement one experienced as a child; or constrictive rigidity becomes an avoidance of the expansive disarray and confusion one experienced in a natural disaster. (p. 40)

So what do we do with our overcompensating alignment too far left or too far right? We must confront those experiences, we must confront our fear of constriction, we must confront our fear of expansion. “Confrontation with the constrictive or expansive dreads, on the other hand, can promote renewed capacities to experience the world (e.g., from a standpoint of humility for the grandiose client or from the standpoint of spontaneity for the rigid client)” (p. 40).

In a footnote, Schneider clarifies the piece I addressed earlier in that each is almost embedded in the other when relied on too heavily. He uses the term hyper-constricted or -expansive to denote a dysfunctional way of being on the continuum. He explains:

Although expansion is often associated with freedom, and constriction with limits, they are not always synonymous terms. Restraint, focus, and discipline, for example, can be freeing in some contexts; conversely, activism, assertion, and audacity can be limiting (e.g., when compulsively engaged). (p. 39 footnote)

I know in my own life that I struggle with constriction in order to avoid expansion. In order to not feel judged, look stupid, or make mistakes, I may constrict my self in some ways. This keeps me from expanding and growing in healthy ways. I will also attempt to find freedom in avoiding what feels constricting (like my writing), but I am not actually free in those moments because I am often not doing what I know is best for me. I am not expanding in a truly authentic and healthy way—I am just avoiding constriction, and that is different.

I think Schneider’s footnote is the most important piece in understanding constriction and expansion. Oftentimes, it is within the embrace of the limitations of our lives that we find freedom. It is the denial and whining and complaining about our limitations that actually keeps us constricted. And other times, when people are constantly pushing themselves into expansion, that drive dictates limits to them. They can also become lost in that expansion like we see in psychosis or addiction, and instead of actually experiencing freedom, they experience limitation.

I find this very helpful for my own personal life and as a way to help conceptualize my client’s lives. I think other theorists such as Ernest Becker and his treatment of death denial help to put even more meaning and explanation to this process of constriction and expansion. So do Heidegger and Kierkegaard and Tillich—all deal with Being as a living, breathing and moving organism that must confront non-Being through possibility. Tillich explains that neurosis is the way of avoiding non-Being by avoiding Being. Any form of constriction, whether in hyper-constriction or hyper-expansion is a way of avoiding Being, and the irrational belief is that this avoidance will help one avoid non-being. As Schneider so poignantly states, we must confront our dread of these extremes in order to not avoid Being (life) through our confrontation of non-Being (death).


Schneider, K. (2008). Existential-integrative psychotherapy: Guideposts to the core of practice. New York: Routledge.

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