Updated: Nov 17
From the perspective of sceptical observers and even interested clients, therapy can seem like a suspiciously obscure endeavour. Given the array of different approaches and ever evolving techniques, this fogginess, disconcertingly, extends beyond novel practitioners to seasoned therapists (at least in their honest moments). At first glance, this seems like a catastrophic failure of the field but there is a good reason for this, and it does not negate the value of therapy, nor its successful outcomes.
Regardless of which authoritative source claims certainty in this field, whether advocates of new modalities (usually advertised as ground-breaking panaceas for the suffering inherent in the human condition) psychotherapy can never produce the empirical validation from causal processes that the applied sciences rely on to justify their authority.
Psychotherapy, in practice, is an intuitive art, and a dynamic collaborative process that constantly frustrates or defies the very human need for intellectual certainty. Unlike most other fields of professional life, competence in psychotherapy, to a significant degree, depends on a capacity to move from, and find stability in, a place of not knowing. Paradoxically, this receptive capacity, frequently births catalysing insight whose genesis is the relationship between therapist and client; the third entity that emerges when two individuals come together. In this context, insight, which cannot be predicted nor controlled, comes from the body’s capacity to synthesize varied sources of data into novel perceptions. This is opposed to the formulaic and dead knowledge that is ingested and then regurgitated when the ‘appropriate’ trigger is present.
This can be challenging for various reasons.
Firstly, it requires that the therapist, to a large degree, let go of technique and theory acquired from years of study and significant financial outlay. This gives rise to difficult but important questions related to the role of therapist. Frequently, therapists rely on such things to buffer them from encountering their own vulnerability in a relationship that is predicated on the assumption of a transfer of knowledge. I suggest that to the extent a therapist is successful in maintaining and encouraging this assumption, a vital dimension of this work is ignored.
As Carl Jung conceived way back in 1952, therapy at its best, is concerned with the individuation process of clients. In simple terms, this can be thought of as the development of a self that is psychologically separate from its cultural and familial origins. This implies that the therapist’s role is helping clients regain the natural authority for their lives that is usually lost in the frequently traumatic events of childhood, and the forced adaptation to the external values of society.
The therapist’s authority, while initially important and necessary, is just another form of external authority that ultimately needs to be relinquished for the difficult burden of self-responsibility.
Ideally, a therapist should be working to foster this capacity in their clients. This can take the form of specific tools for self-soothing or encouraging insight, but ultimately involves a radical shift in identity, away from the contents of mind and its inherited knowledge, to the spontaneous being-force of embodied existence. The dragon in this quest is the trauma we all hold to varying degrees in the cells of our bodies, and it must be confronted, embraced and grieved so we can come alive again as the innocent beings that we are, beneath the layers of conditioning.
Secondly, working in this way demands a tight-rope walk between boundaries that encourage feelings of safety, and the ability to merge and feel with the other. I think of this as a kind of therapeutic muscle that can be strengthened with constant vigilance and brutal self-examination. Alternatively, this muscle can be undeveloped in novice therapists who hide behind theory and technique, or allowed to atrophy as a result of over-confidence and rigidity in experienced therapists. As a fluid skill that comprises the utilization of apparently antithetical positions, it requires the ability to contain ambiguity and paradox. Appropriately, this is a competence that therapists should be able to model for clients, and is a trait of an integrated psyche and well-developed human being.
Thirdly, the formation of the relationship entity depends on a relaxing of boundaries that serve the client’s safety needs and the therapist’s professional persona. This can expose the therapist to an increase in the intensity of inter-psychic dynamics that can sometimes prove destabilizing, but also open a window into the psyche of the client. This is always invaluable information that can be used in the service of the client, providing the therapist can contain and process what are frequently intense projected feelings and disowned aspects of the client’s psyche.