You're Going to Therapy, but Do You Feel Yourself as a Soul?

The mechanisms of some psychotherapies undermine their therapeutic value.

Posted Jan 30, 2019

We evaluate. Therapists ask question after question, and when we’re not asking questions, we’re noting answers to questions we haven’t asked. We’re so curious—professionally curious. It’s a trained curiosity, and, if we’re not careful, a habitual curiosity, a distractive curiosity, a harmful curiosity. James Hillman (1967) warned:

Curiosity awakens curiosity in the other. He then begins to look at himself as an object, to judge himself good or bad, to find faults and place blame for these faults, to develop more superego and ego at the expense of simple awareness, to see himself as a case with a label from the textbook, to consider himself as a problem rather than to feel himself as a soul. (p. 23-24)

Ali Marel/Unsplash
Source: Ali Marel/Unsplash

There is often a contradiction between my image of the person through their self-assessment of their problem and my experience of the person before me. There is also a vast gulf between the diagnosable problems as seen through the lens of clinical expertise and the essence and worth, strengths, and hopes of the person before me. I must cultivate therapeutic space to come to know the whole person. This begs the question of what “knowing the whole person” entails. But let’s be clear: Diagnostic assessment is not what helps you feel yourself as a soul.

We therapists must also be cautious of increasing demands for “evidence” and remain wary of peddlers of newly fashioned practices that claim better help to clients and of institutions nudging psychotherapy professionals toward turf wars and a kind of increasing intellectual hegemony, rather than the sort of second-order dialogue that led us to where we are today. Suffice it to say that rote practice models prescribed by brand name treatment cadres are not what helps you feel yourself as a soul.

Stirring Hope Amidst Distress

In C.S. Lewis’s (1950) book, The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Aslan, the noble lion, comes to reverse the curse on Narnia. The initial sign of Aslan’s activity in the land is seen in the melting of snow. “Winter began stirring backwards.” There is a rise of hope and anticipation of the dawn of a new day. “Spring is in the air.” When clients enter therapy amidst distress, snow is so often still covering the ground. There exists some cold force keeping it “forever winter, yet never Christmas.”

Clients may need to enter therapy in the midst of ambivalence about change. Clients should be provided freedom to express skepticism toward therapy and the possibility of change. A therapist’s posture of acceptance, curiosity, and in some cases respectful confrontation toward such reticence can lead clients into a mode of contemplation, a fundamental early stage in effective therapy.

Miller, Duncan, and Hubble (1997) suggested, “Expressing the understanding that change requires time, thoughtfulness, and sometimes radical accommodation takes the pressure off and gives the contemplative client the space and support to commit to change." (p. 98)

Despair and Courage

In The Sickness Unto Death, nineteenth-century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1941) contended that “despair” is not the opposite of perfection but of genuineness and wholeness. Kierkegaard’s notion of “despair” was not synonymous with problems or dependency but with inauthenticity and invulnerability. In other words, Kierkegaard contended that our most common despair is in not choosing to be oneself. He declared, “To will to be that self which one truly is, is indeed the opposite of despair.”

Yiran Ding/Unsplash
Source: Yiran Ding/Unsplash

Kierkegaard analogized our anxieties as peering over a cliff—the piercing excitement that you could fall over and plummet to your death combined with the simultaneous terror in knowing that you could throw yourself—fear and dread, respectively. We live at the mercy of both that which is outside of our control and of that which is inside of our control. And so, we live either in fear or dread or courageously in spite of them, especially in spite of what we cannot control. Sometimes, let’s face it, courage is MIA.

The task of therapy is, in part, one of empathy and its byproduct, encouragement. As courage expands, openness to change merges into willingness. Willingness is an expression of courage. Faith, hope, or even relationship may catalyze therapeutic transformation. This sort of change demands great preparation, care, and patience.

It is surprising to many that when transformative changes do occur, they often come in subtle ways and bring with them simple joys, almost unexpectedly. The novelist John Steinbeck (1954) wrote, “Change comes like a little wind that ruffles the curtains at dawn, and it comes like the stealthy perfume of wildflowers hidden in the grass.”

The Soul of Therapeutic Change

Carl Rogers (1961) conjectured that optimal therapy requires a therapist entering into an intensely personal and subjective relationship with a client, “relating not as a scientist to an object of study, not as a physician expecting to diagnose and cure, but as a person to a person” (pp. 184-185).

Yet we are easily wooed by gimmicks and novelty, aren’t we? In his 1784 essay, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” the philosopher Immanuel Kant asserted, “Dogmas and formulas, these mechanical tools designed for reasonable use—or rather abuse—of his natural gifts, are the fetters of an everlasting nonage [or, immaturity].”

If a psychotherapist is lifeless or his technique too technical, his efforts to help may be worthless. Therapy in such cases is not relationship but a poor excuse for scientific experimentation. The mechanisms of some psychotherapies undermine their therapeutic value. If a therapist is not fully present as a warm, accepting, genuine, caring person, then the power center of therapy remains turned off and, for all practical purposes, ineffective.  Ultimately, the empathy-driven, person-centered process in therapy is what helps you to feel yourself as a soul.

Does it matter? You tell me. I'd love to hear from you.

References

Hillman, J. (1967). Insearch: Psychology and religion. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Kant, I. 1784 (first published 1798). "An answer to the question: What is enlightenment?" (Translated by Mary C. Smith). In Mary J. Gregor (ed.). 1996. Practical philosophy, pp. 17-22. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kierkegaard, S. (1941). The sickness unto death. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Lewis, C.S. (1950). The lion, the witch, and the wardrobe. London: Geoffrey Bles.

Miller, S.D., Duncan, B.L., & Hubble, M.A. (1997). Escape from Babel. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Rogers, C.R. (1961). On becoming a person: A therapist’s view of psychotherapy. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

Steinbeck, J. (1954). Sweet Thursday. United States: Viking Press.