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The Surprising Secret of Why Therapy Works

Why does talking together make us feel better?

The late psychotherapist Fred Newman was no friend of the individualistic and medical model approach to emotional pain. The creator of social therapy, a group non-diagnostic approach, Fred was also a philosopher. During the nearly 40 years during which he maintained a large group practice and trained and supervised hundreds of social workers, counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists in social therapy, he shared with people how they had helped him figure out the conundrum of therapy and discover its value and the source of the joy it gave him.

For a long time, Fred was stumped by how come therapy was effective in helping people deal with their emotional pain. He was philosophically “anti-therapy”—convinced that the inner-outer and self-other dichotomies that traditional therapy is based on were mistaken. Yet, when he himself went into therapy he found it invaluable. During that time and for all the years after when he was practicing, he never changed his belief about the mistaken paradigm. And he also never gave up his quest. He thought that if we could discover the secret of therapy’s effectiveness, then maybe everyone could do it, maybe we could all be therapeutic with each other.

It was during the early 1990s that the puzzle was finally solved. The understandings of language, especially how speaking is socially completive of our thoughts, that are the hallmarks of Lev Vygotsky’s and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s writings, helped. Therapy is helpful because and to the extent that it socializes what we mistakenly experience as individualistic and private. It works because of what therapists and clients are doing together—not because of the therapist’s expertise in fixing clients’ faulty thinking processes, in interpreting or re-interpreting their life experiences, or in teaching them behavioral options. And what therapists and clients are doing together is creating something new—a new relationship, a new way of speaking, new meanings. This is possible because we are social beings who, in spite of the myth of individualism and inner states of mind, are forever interconnected in the activity of living. Therapy works because it exposes and creates with our relational interconnectivity. It “brings out” and develops what’s most positive about us. The best therapy, Fred believed, helped people be nicer.

In a public lecture he delivered in 1998 in New York City, entitled “Therapeutics as a Way of Life,” Fred said, “The process of therapy has nothing to do with any kind of internal mental surgery. I think that in the process of therapy, what happens is that we reshape community, we reshape our lives. Therapy has to do with helping people to be more giving, to grow, to learn, to be more responsive to environments, to learn how to interrelate and to recreate our humanness.”

“Therapeutics as a way of life” has caught on in the fifteen years since. Bringing out what’s best about what goes on in therapy rooms—the new kinds of conversations that get created, the intensified responsiveness to the other, the growth in relationship that occurs—is happening in other spaces and places. I see it in educational settings where kids are given responsibility for creating their learning environment, in consulting firms that are turning away from Power Point-presented rules and techniques and toward listening and relationship-building experiences, in psychotherapy trainings and conferences in which the topic is not the self but the other, in community-based organizations that don’t just bring together people who are estranged or strangers to each other and hope for the best but engage with them in transforming their relationships.

People, especially those in emotional pain, don’t need fixing. They need to grow. Psychology needs to be transformed. A new understanding and practice of human life needs to be created in which we are “therapeutic” with each other all the time.

You can read more about therapeutics as a way of life by clicking on any of the links above and in Newman’s book, Let’s Develop! A Guide to Continuous Personal Growth.

And if you want to read Newman’s 1998 lecture, I’ll be happy to send it to you via email.

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