Someone recently asked me this question and it’s a logical one.
Clearly there are many, many ways to answer – clearly nobody is the same, right?
In a sense that’s true, but in a deeper sense, something an old GP of mine once said also rings true:
“They’re all the same. It’s like getting a haircut.”
I think the reason he said that is multifold – I’m not sure if he knew exactly why such redundancy exists in a field where you’d expect almost artistic or literary subjectivity. He knew though, intuitively or through experience.
The most obvious reason is fear. Most therapist function under a constant radiation of background fear that they themselves are persistently ignoring/repressing. That’s ironic, isn’t it. Well, if you saw/heard the number of shrinks on medication or on therapy themselves you wouldn’t question it.
What’s to fear though? Any number of things. You could fear you’re a fraud, for instance (most of the more astute psychologists and mental health people understand that, for the most part, they preach a primitive religion and that they’ve ascribed to it unwillingly). Personal development sessions are compulsory to attend to drive home those ideas; research to the contrary is ignored or deemed “not scientific”.
Therapists also fear the reaction of the client. They’re humans, and they don’t want you to laugh at them, roll your eyes at their memorized description of CBT, provide advice fit for Dr. Phil
I think my exposure to so many therapists over such a wide cross section of purposes has allowed me insight into the psyche as a whole. To boil it down to as simplistic a level as possible, this initial fear (I’ll propose what the fear is caused by later) separates the developing shrinks into two camps: Directive (Dr. Phil) and Dr. Seuss (Deepak Chopra, a number of well intentioned mindfulness gurus). One is loud, takes up most of the “talk time”, and has black and white views. The other is evasive, gives indecipherable or rhetorical answers to questions (even ones that demand hard advice).
In a bi-causal sense, peoples perceptions of and reasons FOR going to therapists now often boil down to seeking out one of those two types of surrogates. Surrogates as in surrogates mother, father, etc. Since there’s no final definition of what therapy is, I can’t mark them as wrong for it – but it seems random and odd the path it all took.
It’s no less odd, though, than the path therapy initially took for many, many decades. You don’t need a history lesson, but compared to those two archetypes described above, therapists of yore were raving lunatics writing tomes on child erection and mystical moon beams.
So – what do you do in therapy Michael? Also – what is it you think these other therapists are afraid of?
Let’s qualify it. Obviously, I’m not exempt. Secondly, not all therapists fit so neatly. Some are absolutely brilliant artists at their crafts (and it is a craft).
I’ll answer the second question first. Therapists are afraid of not knowing what the point (deeper point) of what they’re doing in the therapy room is and they have a fear of silence emerging and taking the place of this meaninglessness. They’re terrified it could be that simple and that the silence could manifest into a living entity with a black cloak and a scepter and point at them with his skeleton finger: “Liar.” Better keep things moving! Thief!
When I’m the therapist? There’s a moment of scary awkwardness. Especially if the person is new and even if they’re not. They nervously look around for a seat … tiny sounds are amplified. I say nothing (obviously I welcome them and point out where their seat is though!).
After that, typically there is small talk to break some of the tension. Traffic… something they see in the room. Anything. I don’t encourage nor do I discourage it; when it ends it ends.
After that ends and it’s clear they’re pretty unclear as to what’s going on here and if they ought to just leave or not, I ask them … “What would you say therapy is?”.
This answer nearly always yields an interesting answer … but the point isn’t the question, really. The point is to give me a chance to get to know them without doing it in a direct way. You can get to know the guy on the street with all his psychic defenses up … say hello to him and you’ll get back conditioned responses. I am more interested in beginning to hear and get to know a person underneath that defense.
In that way, it seems therapy is (eventually) the process of taking away a persons learned thoughts and behaviors and giving them space to discuss alternatives; or, even, to discuss whether it’s therapeutic to believe in a self at all.