August 27, 2014
Mark Forman, PhD
There is no such thing as a perfect therapist. Even the best have strengths and weaknesses. Some excel at working with a client’s thoughts and cognitions, some with emotions, and some with gut-level feelings and intuitions. Some are wonderful at facilitating insight, others at encouraging emotional catharsis, and still others with catalyzing behavioral change. Of course, it is possible to become skilled at many of these dimensions of therapeutic practice – and perhaps to become outstanding at several – but the truth is that the human psyche (which includes the spiritual) is far too vast and multidimensional for any one person to master.
Recognizing this, Integral Psychotherapy encourages a strong attitude of appreciation towards the wide variety of ways in which therapists work with, relate to, and conceptualize growth and change. There is something of value in every perspective, from the most medicalized to the most spiritual. The world – and its seven billion individuals – require a growing and diverse meshwork of healers and helpers in order to bring it what it needs.
Encouraging appreciation not only makes for better interrelations between therapists of different orientations and a more positive collective atmosphere, but it also helps us grow individually as therapists. We should work hard to remain open to the idea that there is something to learn from every therapist and every particular school of therapy. For just as a client who is not open to change is likely to remain stuck, a therapist who is not open to different viewpoints and methods will remain with unfulfilled potential. Our attitudes and worldviews – the mindsets we carry with us – can leave us open and emerging or closed and stagnant.
Being appreciative, however, does not mean that we cannot be skeptical and discerning. This is a crucial point. We simply need to appreciate things consciously – with consideration and critical awareness.
Indeed, by keeping in mind that all therapists and therapies have strengths and weaknesses – and by using the Integral model as one helpful tool to help guide us – we can actually be more discerning and more skeptical than we would be otherwise. We can see that it is not “mean” or “oppressive” to think critically or to notice limitations in what other professionals do – an unfortunately common idea in much of our postmodern psychospiritual culture – but rather it is simply natural, honest, and sincere to try and distinguish what is helpful from what is not. We should also be honest about our own limitations and the areas in which we do not shine.
Of course, being appreciative is not always easy. In certain cases, it does not seem like the best (or the most immediately available) stance. There are two situations in particular where I think we need to approach appreciation that much more consciously.
The first is when a therapist or school of therapy claims that their way or method always works, is always better, or that they own the one-and-only truth of what creates mental health issues and what we need to do to address them. This happens, sometimes overtly, sometimes more subtly. It does not matter from what perspective, from what line of research, or from what cultural background such a claim arises: Absolutism is highly suspect. History shows us that all methods, insights, and paths are partial. When we hear these claims, we need to work harder to see what is of value to ourselves and others and what is simply being passed on as dogma.
The second challenging situation is when a therapeutic school is formulated in such a way as to be dehumanizing, or has moved in that direction over time. This also happens more than one would hope. Dehumanization occurs when an approach to therapy attempts to cut away, repress, and marginalize aspects of human experience that are part of the hearts, minds, lives, and shared cultures of humanity. We cannot cut away thoughts, feelings, dreams, intuitions, or fantasies. We cannot cut away the shamanistic, the humanistic, the hedonistic, the existential, the religious, the economic, or the scientific. Whatever it is that we don’t like or don’t favor – we cannot simply make it go away. We should realize first that these repressive impulses come from our own disconnection with aspects of self, and that they encourage divisions within others as well, pushing them to exclude and fragment rather than to embrace and integrate.
Of course, saying that we should not marginalize any aspect of our shared humanity does not mean that all ideas or aspects of self or culture are equally well-honed, equally important, equally moral, or equally timely. Many will be overturned or reformulated in the future. It only means that, in our current moment, all have their place. And that when we push anything away with the hopes it will never return it creates unnecessary darkness and shadow. What we should do instead is to try and find any approaches’ essential core and reform it in a more healthy fashion. This will certainly lead to debate, but it does not make one unappreciative. To be appreciative is to honor the complex diversity that surrounds us and that is within us and to work to include it. To be appreciative is to steer clear from creating unbridgeable divides.