If You Are a Therapist in Training, I Suggest You Develop Your Natural Healing Style and Lose Most of the “Musts” [49]

In Psychotherapy by Dr. Keith Witt

iStock_000001806047XSmall1I conducted my first therapy session in 1973 as a peer counselor working in the Student Counseling Center at UCSB. My client was a sophomore coed with typical issues—boyfriend anxieties, academic stress, and confusion over what exactly it meant to be an adult woman in the early seventies. I was young, smart, arrogant, and completely dedicated to being the best therapist I could be, and noticed—even then at the beginning of my career—that if I stayed connected, open, accepting, curious, and flexible, she benefited from our sessions. I studied dozens of therapy systems in those days, and designed and instituted counselor training programs in the student community that are still being implemented in Santa Barbara today. In the subsequent decades I earned my MA, Ph.D, Marriage Family Therapy License, Psychologist License, and various other certificates and accreditations, and continue to this day my study of healers and healing systems. Along the way I’ve observed the development of psychotherapist training in graduate schools—especially the numerous ones in Santa Barbara—and for years was a professor myself at the Santa Barbara Graduate Institute. All this has led me to make some basic conclusions about the practice of therapy. Here are a few of them:
  • Good therapists find a natural healing style that fits their interests and gifts, and serve best by discerning and enhancing that natural healing style throughout their careers.
  • The bottom line in therapy is that if you—the therapist—are interested, accepting, willing to acknowledge that any perspective you have is just the best one you’ve discovered so far, and that there are always better perspectives for you and your client to unveil, your clients will benefit from your attention.
  • Willingness, even eagerness, to keep refining and altering your beliefs in the face of new information—like from your client, other people, research, or new insights—characterizes the therapists who keep growing throughout a lifetime of service.
Most people in the therapy business would agree with these points, and add a few of their own. I suspect I’d like most such additions—but with a big caveat. Often people who’ve had big insights or who’ve felt successful with a particular approach believe their rules or practices must be for everyone. Strangely, this is especially true for some pluralistic individuals whose worldviews are multi-cultural (all cultures are equally valid), non-hierarchical (power structures are inherently bad), and relentlessly egalitarian (no one’s perspective is “better” or “superior to” another’s). You’d think such caring and inclusive perspectives would have room for huge diversity of opinion, and they consciously do. Occasionally, though, there is a moralistic fervor that emerges from some deeply held conviction. This was reflected to me most clearly in an article on diversity from the California Board of Psychology around ten years ago where the authors used the word “must” thirteen times in their article. They had their perspectives, and, by God, you had better agree and you must comply! I’m not particularly big on “musts.” Some, of course, seem completely necessary—don’t have sex with clients, don’t exploit clients for financial gain, don’t try to be friends with clients, and don’t break confidences. Most other areas of human connection are more relativistic, more “shades of gray.” For instance, therapists are taught to not give advice. But, why not give advice sometimes? My clients would be justifiably pissed off at me no end if they asked me what I thought was best in a situation and my response was some variant of, “I’m not going to tell you what I think is best for you—even though I have an opinion—because I was taught that I must not give advice.” I was discussing this a while ago with a client of mine named Jane who is a graduate student in psychotherapy. She was feeling overwhelmed by the volumes of reading (thousands of pages) and writing (dozens of papers) that were part of her training. She despaired over ever feeling confident as a healer. “How can I possibly remember all this stuff?” She asked despairingly, “And how do you remember even a little bit of it in therapy sessions?” After listening for a while, I finally said, “Jane, there’s been a lot of research on what helps people in therapy and the consensus is that your relationship with them combined with the resources of their lives—you know; friends, family, work, hobbies, and spiritual practices—are what matter most in clients getting healthier and happier. Some research says your method of treatment—whether you do cognitive/behavioral therapy, psychoanalysis, Gestalt, somatic therapy, or whatever—accounts for only one sixth of positive change.” Jane’s eyes widened at this. “So why all the books and tests and systems? Why all the people telling me how important it is to absolutely know what they’re teaching?” I smiled, “I assume they feel the way I feel, which is that their understandings are valuable and that from the huge array of perspectives you’re offered in graduate school, you’ll find the ones that optimally guide you to your natural healing style. On the other hand, most everybody agrees that the helping relationship is the best service a therapist offers. My experience—and a vast body of therapy research—suggests that if you are interested, accepting, attuned, and willing to keep questioning your beliefs and looking for better ones, your clients improve, and that you will grow as a therapist throughout your lifetime.” “It can’t be that easy!” Jane replied, half serious and half in mock protest. “I’m not saying that being interested, accepting, attuned, and willing to keep changing perspectives is easy.” I shot back. “It’s actually quite hard to give up cherished beliefs which don’t seem to be working or don’t fit your experience, or stay attuned to a client who’s overwhelmed with the emotional violence of a defensive state. On the other hand, intimacy and acceptance have such profound healing effects that attuned therapists almost always help clients have better lives.” Jane visibly relaxed and responded with a more hopeful tone, “This is good to hear. I think I needed a reality check.” If you are a therapist in training, I suggest you consider that caring, acceptance, interest, attunement, and openness to new understandings all tend to create healing relationships. See how beautiful, good, and true this approach seems to you, and try embodying these characteristics in your work. One of the easiest ways of doing this is just noticing when you are feeling caring or critical, accepting or rejecting, attuned or disconnected, or open or closed to new perspectives. Just noticing tends to naturally shift you towards caring, accepting, attuned, and open. But, do me a favor. With a few critical exceptions, lose the “musts.”