here’s something i wrote a few years ago. it’s still pretty relevant, i think. i’ll post it in installments.
The psychotherapist in context
Personal life, roles and social environment
The vast majority of the literature on psychotherapy deals with therapeutic techniques and theories – the “what” and “how” of a process that is, ostensibly, aimed at ameliorating suffering and/or adjusting the thoughts or behaviours of persons who are in need of (or are deemed by others to be in need of) such ministrations. Much consideration is also given in that literature to one part of the “who” in that process, namely the “patient” (or “client”, which is the identification I will use in this paper), although the scope of those discussions is usually limited to that aspect of the client which constitutes his maladjustment or suffering.
The other part of the “who” is the therapist (and I will use the term “therapist” to stand for a number of mental health professionals, such as psychotherapists, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, social workers, and counsellors). But just as the client is usually seen only in his role of carrier of maladjustments and sufferings, the therapist is usually seen only in her role of the one who “has” (i.e., owns) the skills and knowledge to deal with those problems. Other aspects of the therapist – her personality, life experience and beliefs, to name but a few – are usually disregarded or touched on only in the briefest manner. However, just as in any relationship, these aspects come to bear quite heavily on the social interchange we call therapy. The lack of attention to these aspects can be illustrated with a few examples from widely used text books on counselling and psychotherapy: Brammer (1985) dedicates 19 out of 163 pages to “Characteristics of helpers”, Egan (1975) spends 2.5 out of 239 pages on “Portrait of a helper”, and in his 390-page text book, Corey (1986) has a 33-page chapter on “The counsellor as a person and as a professional”. Some writers do not touch on the subject at all, notably behaviourists (e.g., Brown, 1977).
This paper attempts to sketch some elements of the influence the person of the therapist has on the therapeutic process. An example of this influence would be a therapist steering a musically inclined client towards attending law school because the therapist harbours great admiration for lawyers but not for musicians. This example also shows that not only does the therapist bring her own personal issues into the therapeutic process, but also her social environment, which, to varying degrees, she shares with the client.
In this case, the preference of lawyers over musicians might also occur in the social environment common to client and therapist – and we must also note that because the therapist may have higher social status in this environment than does the client, her values might weigh heavier than the client’s. In the title of this paper, I speak not only of the “personal” (i.e. private) aspects of the therapist but also of her roles (in our example, she might have taken on the role of an adviser). Roles can be seen as expressions of accommodating the personal (i.e., “private”) aspects of the therapist, of her interactions with the client, and of social conditions and demands.
Thus, one aim of my discussion is to pay attention to the particularity of the person of the therapist and not only to the universality of skills and theories which can be learned by all; and to pay attention to the subjectivity of the therapist and perhaps to lessen the emphasis of the objectivity she is often admonished to preserve, sometimes at all costs. Another aim is to attempt to make explicit the interplay between social environments and therapists’ personal needs and attitudes.
(a continuation of this article can be found here)
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