This is the second in a collection that aims to briefly capture my perspectives on different elements of my approach to psychotherapy, generally keeping to under one typed page each. I have attempted to be as clear as possible in hopes that everyone can understand these topics well enough to give them a sense of how I think about and experience my work.
There are many, many different approaches to psychotherapy, some say as many as there are therapists. Each provides a set of ideas about human psychology, how to make sense of psychological hardships (some call these “mental disorder,” “mental illness,” “mental health challenges,” etc.), and how the therapist can best help the therapy client with their difficulties.
While there is a lot of overlap between all these approaches, to me it seems very few focus on description of psychological struggles as opposed to seeking to provide explanation of them. That is, while other kinds of therapists may aim to help clients through providing an external, new way of thinking about and understand why they are struggling, my intent is to help people further describe what they are going through, who they truly are, and what meaningful directions they want to pursue.
My approach is informed by existential writers and therapists, as well as a lesser-known field called phenomenological psychology. My stance informed through these ideas is that offered explanations are potentially useful, but there are a lot of obstacles in the way of them being so. While the perfectly perceptive, well timed, and effectively communicated explanation for another person’s struggle can be helpful, in my experience this is rare. My explaining is more often than not either dismissed as inadequate almost immediately or accepted in the moment, only to be dropped or forgotten about shortly thereafter. Like a lot of quick-fix solutions, explanations offer a lot of promise at the start that is eventually found to have limited use for circumstances beyond what is immediately being addressed. As I see it, human existence is too complex and too fluid to realistically offer a cure-all of this type.
Alternatively, what I seek to do is help people more fully and authentically describe the reasons they are working with me. What is it they are experiencing? How they are relating to it? By slowing down the client’s traditional way of thinking about their struggles in order to consider these “whats” and “hows” more fully, new information becomes available and novel ways of approaching their hardship can be illuminated. Additionally, I offer my descriptions of what it is like for me to try on their perspectives, how doing so feels to me, and what occurs as I open myself up to being like them as best I can. These collaborations tend to equip the person in the client role with a more thorough and honest understanding of who they are, how they relate with others, and how they make sense of the world.
Early on in a course of therapy I make it a point to provide time and space for the client to describe their living as they naturally do, using my authentic curiosity to get as clear a perspective as possible about this complex, unique person sitting across from me. At times I will “try on” aspects of the client’s experiences, speaking from the first-person perspective in order to clarify the important parts of their sharing and to check my own experiences of doing so. I share whatever thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and further questions come from this and invite the client to correct me where I am off, as well as elaborate on what elements are meaningful to them.
In this way, we co-create a fuller, richer sense of the client’s existence, paying particular attention to opportunities for this person to change in ways that hold promise of bettering their lives.