By Elizabeth Dickson, LCSW
What Do Psychotherapists Have Faith In?
When a client initially comes to therapy they may not have much faith. They may have attempted for quite some time to solve their problems on their own, and the admission that they need to reach out to another person, a stranger, for help is not something that they are necessarily proud of. But they feel up against a brick wall, and their own efforts to improve the situation are clearly not working, so they come in, sometimes reluctantly and sometimes with relief that they have finally become willing to reach out for help. It is up to the therapist to have faith in psychotherapy and to have the confidence that, most of the time at least, the client will come to see the benefits.
But it is common knowledge these days that psychotherapists do not have magical solutions to people’s problems; even though some clients think that we will give them answers that will set it all straight, most people know that psychotherapy is more of a “process” that cannot be so easily described. True, we help clients recognize counter-productive patterns and we often suggest alternative ways of thinking or behaving that might be more constructive, but the reality is that effecting meaningful change in people’s lives is rarely that simple.
The question is, what is there about this “process” of psychotherapy that therapists have faith in, aside from our ability to make suggestions and to educate clients about psychological concepts and theories? What gives us the strength and conviction to presume to take on the daunting task of helping another person overcome obstacles, heal and grow? And how is all of this tied in with spirituality?
Psychotherapists as “Facilitators” of Complex Healing Processes
If we were to ask a beginning psychotherapist where they place their faith, certainly their knowledge base, theories and specific therapeutic skills would be cited as very important. But as we gain experience, it would not take long before most therapists would emphasize their faith in infinitely complex and mysterious processes that appear to have a life of their own. Rather than direct these processes, it would be more accurate to say that we participate in these processes along with the client. We don’t so much direct as act as guides or facilitators.
The essence of the connection between psychotherapy and spirituality is that we as therapists rely so heavily on human processes that are, in fact, just as unfathomable, just as infinitely intricate, and just as mysterious as the universe itself. If we think of infinity as reflected only in the endless expanse of the cosmos, then spirituality may not appear to have that much to do with psychotherapy. But if we think of infinity as a quality that characterizes life itself, including, in particular, the infinite complexity of human interactions, then psychotherapists are very much on the front line. One might even say that psychotherapy is an act of faith by Tillich’s definition; every day when we go in to work it is our business to be “grasped by and turned towards the infinite.”
I have chosen to highlight three of these human processes that are essential ingredients for most psychotherapy and certainly for all types of experiential psychotherapy. They are 1) the “developmental thrust,” or the human tendency to move forward in the direction of healing and growth; 2) the healing power of relationship, and 3) the potential of loving compassion to bring about moments of transformation. Each of these three processes could be considered to have a spiritual dimension in that they all transcend our rational understanding; they represent forces of nature that we very much need to work with, but the source of their healing power is a mystery, and they cannot be readily harnessed to work on our schedules or according to our wills.
At one level these processes are so basic and so much a part of our humanity that we often can take them for granted, even as therapists. And yet they are the powerful engines behind so much of what we do in psychotherapy, even if much of their magic happens outside of our conscious awareness. If we as therapist fail to be in alignment with these dynamic sources of healing, it is difficult to imagine a successful outcome with our clients.
The Miracle of Felt Meaning and Forward Movement
If we believe in a “developmental thrust,” that humans have an innate tendency to seek growth and actualization, then psychotherapy becomes a much different enterprise than if the therapist is expected to do all the work themselves. This does not mean, of course, that there are no challenges to this growth tendency; people also tend to want to avoid confronting difficult aspects of their lives, and counter-productive belief systems developed at an early age can be quite entrenched. Yet under the right circumstances, when the therapist is able to show sufficient understanding and acceptance, clients are often able to experience this actualizing tendency. The human organism appears to have its own intricate direction. It may not be possible for psychotherapists to anticipate in advance exactly the way it will unfold, but we can do our best to help this growth process along.
What is the mechanism that provides people with this sense of direction or inner certitude? How do we recognize when we are on the right path? Key to understanding the developmental thrust is the sense that there is something inside of us that is not exactly conscious but that “knows” what is meaningful. We can check in with this “inner referent” (or what philosopher and psychotherapist Eugen Gendlin calls a “felt sense”) to see if we are on track and to recognize on a moment by moment basis which words or which interactions are moving us in a forward direction. It should be emphasized that moving in a forward direction is not the same thing as just moving in a direction that feels good or pleasant, since much of psychotherapy is actually about finding forward movement by facing areas that are difficult or painful but that ultimately feel very right to explore.
Both the client and the therapist depend upon this felt sense (both our own and the client’s) as possibly the most important basis for guiding the psychotherapy process. Even though we as therapists are always heartened when we see that a client’s life is improving in a general way, what gives us the most faith in psychotherapy is all those specific moments when the sense of meaning and forward movement is palpable, for both the therapist and the client. Because so much of what is meaningful comes to us in a visceral way that is not directed by our rational agendas, I call this process of finding meaning and forward movement “the miracle of felt meaning.”
The Healing Power of the Psychotherapy Relationship
“The client’s view of the relationship is the trump card in
therapy outcomes. . .Clients who rate the relationship highly
are very likely to be successful in achieving their goals. Despite
how chronic, intractable or ‘impossible’ a case may appear,
if the client’s view of the relationship is favorable, change is
more likely to occur.”
Mark Hubble, Barry Duncan and Scott Miller from The Heart and Soul of Change: What Works in Therapy
The healing power of relationship is equally miraculous. True, we have rational explanations for why the relationship between the therapist and the client is so integral to successful psychotherapy. We understand that the appreciation and empathic understanding of the therapist is necessary for the client to feel safe to explore unexpressed parts of themselves, and that the therapist can perform a re-parenting function and offer some of what the original parent was unable to give.
But we can look at the same process and use words that are more dramatic and more poignant to describe what is going on. For example, what happens when a client walks into the therapist’s office for the first time and looks into the eyes of this human being who is there to help them–that in itself can be such a profound experience that it brings many clients to tears. It is the human interaction that creates the conditions for meaning and for healing to take place in psychotherapy, but why this is the case and exactly how that works is certainly a mystery. Over time, the power of the psychotherapy relationship lies in the accumulation of all of these shared moments of meaning, both large and small.
And there is always the subject of love, and how it is quite common in psychotherapy for therapist and client to experience moments of belonging together that feel like a kind of pure love. The ability of love to heal is one of life’s greatest wonders. It is said that what many of us missed as children was “the gleam in the mother’s eye.” And while we as therapists would like to be able to provide that special gleam for our clients, this is not something that we can accomplish simply through an act of will. It requires that we are able to do a kind of dance with the client where we are somehow coordinated together in a special way.
Loving Compassion and the Potential for Transformation
And finally, there is the potential for transformation, something that can give a special sense of expectant excitement to our work. People often wonder why psychotherapists are not brought down or discouraged by having to deal throughout the day with people’s problems. And yet, to the contrary, our work is often uplifting. So much about psychotherapy is counter-intuitive, one example of this being that those times when our clients report the greatest suffering or upheaval in their lives often present the greatest opportunity for healing and growth. When clients are truly brought to their knees, when they have reached the point where they are willing to surrender some of their control and reveal parts of themselves that feel painful, foreign or shameful, real transformation often takes place.
What happens in transformational moments can feel surprising, and yet it is a phenomenon that most therapists are quite familiar with and is really an extension of the concept of the concept of felt meaning to a particular type of situation. When a client reveals a difficult truth or speaks from a deep place within themselves, it is often accompanied by an experience of loving compassion and acceptance that offers a special kind of healing and protection. Clients often describe a sense of release and/or relief. Both therapist and client experience the emotional shift, and the feelings of compassion and acceptance are often very present in the room.
Even though the therapist’s compassion is essential in these moments, the therapist does not create the moment. It would be more accurate to say that the compassionate therapist is able to actively participate in the moment and help facilitate it. These experiences can be quite dramatic, but the same elements of surrender and relief can be found in many more subtle moments that nonetheless embody this same transformational quality. It is the sum of these transformational moments, combined with other moments of meaning (in the context of the psychotherapy relationship), that work together to help the client create a vision for change as well as the motivation for change. And, of course, change is also occurring in the psychotherapy process itself, since the client is also a different person as a result of these interactions.
The Psychotherapist’s Faith: Conclusions
Whether to call these processes “spiritual” is a matter of semantics, but what is clear is that these healing processes that we rely on in psychotherapy are best described in the philosophical language of complexity theory or chaos therapy as opposed to the traditional, linear scientific concepts that we are more accustomed to. Complexity theory emphasizes the importance of infinitely complex systems of interaction as the foundation of our existence, and the same could be said of psychotherapy. At its foundation, healing in psychotherapy takes place in many moments that are infinitely complex and ultimately cannot be separated from the interaction of the two people involved.