"Love is the will to extend oneself through one's own or another's spiritual growth."
M Scott Peck
The Road Less Travelled
Fay Weldon's article "Will no-one rid us of these turbulent priests?"1 paints a disturbing picture of therapists as a dangerous group of "thought police" who influence and manipulate their clients' thinking to align with their own beliefs and values. She suggests that we have elevated therapists to a God-like status where they are unquestioned and unchallenged.
I believe that is true that in the client/therapist relationship the therapist's views may be highly influential and sway the client's own views. However, I feel that one of the most fundamental goals of self-awareness is one's own capacity to think for themselves. There are many areas where qualified professionals are sought to give advice. Few fields are as subjective as that of psychotherapy, because it deals with such a diverse group of experiences that has shaped an individual's life.
In that, it is disappointing to see her own article containing so many superfluous adjectives that endeavour to sway the reader toward her own views. This type of literary bias is a contradiction of the very same finger she points at therapists. By painting her article with emotional idiom she - just as equally as the therapists she accuses - attempts to sway the thoughts of the reader.
The evolution of psychology
What distinguishes man from beast is his capacity and thirst for knowledge and what some of us believe to be a soul with conscience and will. The saying "ignorance is bliss" has much merit. From my observations, those who remain unaware or have no need for change appear to have little suffering. The book of Genesis describes the origins of sin and human suffering originating with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Given liberties of everything in the Garden they were told that should they eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would be like God, and yet alienated from Him. However, as long as they remained in their innocent state, they had no difficulties. As they ate of the tree seeking to become more like God, they gained awareness and were ashamed at their nakedness.2 From here they embarked on the paradoxical journey of growth toward the God they had alienated.
And so it is in the quest for human growth. As one encounters situations where the old methods no longer fit, their subconscious forces them to take a path of change. Rarely is the process comfortable or pleasant and in many instances humans tend to resist that suffering at the expense of growth. 3
It appears that psychotherapy developed rapidly following the Industrial Revolution.4 From an existentialist point of view, I feel that prior to this period human beings were seeking more basic needs to be fulfilled. The predominant needs for survival are food, water, basic shelter and protection from enemies. This is supported by Maslow's theory of hierarchical needs which believes that once the most basic survival needs are satisfied, people search for the next level of fulfilment.5 A good example is the current state of marital dissatisfaction. The 1950's type marriage identified the man as being the physical and financial provider to his family. In this type of relationship there were still elements of the primitive "hunter and gatherer" approach to survival.
With the advent of the feminist era, women entered the workforce and became less reliant on the male for physical and financial protection. I believe that at that point they began searching for something more from their marriage than meeting basic survival needs. It was no longer necessary for a husband to merely provide for and protect his family from physical harm. Marital satisfaction now required him to invest in the relationship emotionally and spiritually.
Why do people seek therapy?
For many people, at some point in their lives their "gut instinct" tells them that they are not travelling in the right direction toward meeting that higher level of needs. The blueprints that they have been taught during their formative years are no longer effective or "fit" them. An experienced therapist can offer them the tools they need to help them address this and find their way out.6
People may need therapy for a number of reasons. Generally, we can relate the need for therapy to the "forest for the trees" analogy. An individual may be looking for a path through the forest and that path is difficult to find when trees and undergrowth obscure their view. Emotions and baggage interfere with their gut instinct and they become stuck and indecisive on which way to proceed. It is at this point that they may require external guidance to find their way out. Conversely, there is the other type of person who is determined to go down a certain road without looking at the whole forest and first seeing an overview of the entire picture. Their path may be long and difficult, sometimes damaging or detrimental to themselves or others by a dogmatic and single-minded stance.
Reality is often more subjective than one single answer to a single question. As Weldon accurately states; "Real life is chaos, nothing fits and reality can be foggy."7 This is very true. And it is here that a therapist can help the faltering client form judgements and define their course in order to move toward growth. In the case of the client who has a single-minded objectivity, the therapist can present new views and alternative perspectives.
Weldon discusses the therapist's capacity to influence the client to fit his or her own values, and this is something that the therapist needs to be aware of. It is difficult, almost impossible, for a therapist to be completely impartial and without bias. Indeed, to do so entirely would be undesirable as it is precisely the interaction between therapist and client that is such an integral part of the relationship. Corey discusses ethical issues such as religious beliefs, sexual orientation, abortion and other topics that the counsellor may have strong views on and the dilemma that they can be faced with in confronting a client whose behaviour goes against the therapist's own moral values.8 He goes on to explain that "it is neither possible nor desirable for counselors to be scrupulously neutral with respect to values in the counseling relationship". 9 Unless the therapist/client relationship is the right "fit", it is difficult for the relationship to work effectively.
Weldon criticises therapists for fitting people into nice clean co-operative, too tight shoes?10 My personal experiences with therapists contradict her assumption in that the therapists I've encountered have enough flexibility to encourage deviation from what society would term as normal and acceptable. Perhaps the primary motivation behind therapy is to restore balance to an individual. This would mean that where certain emotions are paralysing the client, the therapist seeks to find solutions on why a client may be stuck in a certain stage. If the behaviour of a client becomes damaging or counter productive to the growth of others, the therapist may offer insight into the reasons why the client is stultifying another's rights. If a client is stuck in a phase and unable to move because s/he is unable to make judgements, the therapist can provide them with enough feedback to centre their thought processes, categorise a situation, classify it and move onto the next stage. 11
Contrary to Ms Weldon's inferences that therapists are self-elevated to a God-like status, as with all other human relationships, the therapist is also in a constant evolution of self-growth and learning.12 Therapists don't ask to be worshipped, in fact, if anything a good therapist will earn more respect from their client when they respond honestly to difficult questions if they do not know the answers.13 In many ways the field of counselling can be compared to friendship and like any good relationship it requires reciprocation, interaction and feedback.
True, therapists charge for their services to this type of relationship. Primarily this is their chosen profession. It would be ludicrous to suggest that a person with insight, experience and a talent for understanding the complexities of human nature would divest their time free of charge and have no other means for support. As in other professions it may be difficult to switch off from the pressures of the day, particularly when there is an emotional exertion in the course of their job and they deserve to be well rewarded for their experience and skills.
Perception by Society
Weldon also raises some important professional and ethical issues in her article. She suggests that the counsellor plays judge and executioner of clients, particularly in the field of social services. Shortly after, she contradicts herself by inferring the quest for self-fulfilment is at the expense of society.14
As with individuals, if society is to function effectively there needs to be moral parameters and boundaries reflecting the collective view of the community. Without that, we risk suffering the same anarchy that many of us feel within ourselves. The heart of society can be seen as similar to the individual. Without core values in society, we have disjointedness, chaos and disorder and are unable to move forward. To avoid that paralysis, there are times when judgements are necessary. This judgement made by the collective community may say that it is our view that a certain type of activity is wrong and infringing upon or thwarting the rights of others. There is behaviour that is acceptable and behaviour that is unacceptable. Yet what was abhorrent before, may be acceptable now and vice versa.
This should not deny society the right to continually question and re-evaluate their community beliefs and values. In fact, an integral part of growth is the will to continually review and reappraise our morals and beliefs and altering them where they no longer "fit".
Tools for Growth
Weldon criticises therapists for encouraging people to lose their outrage, their capacity to hate and that this may deaden our capacity to be alive.15 In The Road Less Travelled, Peck discusses that the opposite of love is inertia and that this laziness exists because of the fear of discomfort associated with growth.16 Indeed, it is often because people have grief, fear, hate or guilt that they are unable to move forward and truly be alive until they address these issues and deal with them. How could finding the tools to cope with grief deaden us if our recovery from that grief helps us to move on and live?
In confronting our anger we are able to stop unacceptable behaviour that thwarts our own growth. Weldon's assertion that replacing politeness with Truth by telling "Dad he's a drunk, he's despised"17 actually represents a distortion of "Truth". It is about gaining the tools to discontinue allowing oneself to be drawn into relationship dynamics that impinge upon the freedom or growth of the individual.
Ethics in Therapy
Another serious ethical accusation Weldon raises is concerning the case of Sylvia.18 This singled-out example of poor counselling to prove Weldon's case is, thankfully, the exception rather than the norm. The therapist may have violated one of the basic principles of codes of ethics; that of non-maleficence, doing no harm, avoiding activities that have a high risk of hurting clients.19 Until Sylvia had obtained alternative therapy, I feel that the therapist owed a duty of care for her welfare. The luring of the client on the premise of providing her with a full report after one session was without regard for Sylvia's basic rights of informed consent regarding costs, access to files and consultation on the expected length and termination of treatment. One of the ethical codes in counselling dictates that the counsellor should demonstrate a sensible regard for the client, and the profession's expectations.20 The manner of the initial consultation appears to have been done with little consideration to the potential damage and Sylvia subsequently felt abandoned. However, in attempting to prove her point, Weldon did not mention whether she had questioned Sylvia as to if the counsellor had actually been made aware of the full extent of the damage done.
Personally, I feel that Weldon becomes guilty of the same deed that she accuses therapists of. Her opinions represent only one tree in the forest. And yet she is attempting to bias readers with her own opinions and judgements, thereby also playing God.
I feel that our individual goal is to grow within ourselves and move closer to the God we alienated. At times this requires judgements and conclusions on issues that may hinder our journey. But we must not forget that our truth is from our own life expertise and experiences. It is not necessarily the truth of others.
For Ms Weldon, it is apt for her to make a judgement according to her beliefs, she is very entitled to that. But she must be careful not to colour her words to influence other's judgements the same as she accuses therapists of doing.
Good therapists realise this and are careful of transference and counter-transference issues with their clients.21 I believe that the therapist's goal is to help the client make a judgement according to his or her own values. Their opinions may show the client another, often clearer perspective of truth, but ultimately it is the client who has to have peace within.
Yes, there are bad therapists. There are cases of false repressed memory syndrome, incorrect diagnoses. For those negatives in the field, do we throw out the baby with the bathwater and say, "Therapy is useless, just look at the evidence I have to prove it"?
From my personal point of view, I think that all the psychological theories are a portion of the greater truth. I believe that as human beings we are all aiming for one main goal, but we have different ways to get there. Some chosen roads help some, some help others. In the client/therapist relationship, it is finding the right fit. That doesn't mean that the therapist will tell you what you want to hear, or condemn you if you don't concur with their views. But hopefully they will challenge you to grow within yourself even if the process of that growth may be uncomfortable at times.