Taking a Mindful Look at Psychotherapy

by Melissa Karnaze

iStock_000006872173XSmallYears ago, a friend of mine wrote about professional therapy in way a that made me squirm:

“A therapist’s job is actually to help you conform to a specific environment or social reality, or to lead you into adopting thoughts and behavioral processes that will allow you to function in a set of social, political and economic circumstances, not to understand the brain at a deeper process level like neuroscientists who specialize in that kind of research do.”

It made me uncomfortable because this friend resisted securing professional help — even though he knew he needed some type of mental-health assistance. And he used this statement to deflect any value that therapy could offer.

It’s only years later, after having interacted with two therapists myself, that I return to his words for clarity.

Psychotherapy needs to be mindful of itself

It may seem that his words judge the profession, and he did aim for that end.

But the words themselves are objective.

If therapists aren’t dedicated to understanding the brain, staying up-to-date on important cognitive-affective research, and mindfully looking at the constructs that govern a client’s life — as well the constructs and implicit cultural models that govern the client-therapist relationship — then it can do very little by way of helping the planet heal itself.

Psychotherapy needs to be mindful of science

Earlier this week at Psychotherapy Brown Bag, Michael D. Anestis, M.S., talked about the greater need for common ground between clinical psychology research and clinical psychology practice — so that professionals would be more in tune with empirically-based treatments.

Clinical psychology needs cognitive-affective science, of which an important subset is neuroscience, to thrive, as well as to be as ethical as it can be.

When psychotherapy is mindful of itself and of science

My friend’s words were true, because they were honest. It’s not always comfortable to deconstruct something that you might normally take for granted, but you need to if you want to be more aware of it, and mindful of how you relate to it in your life.

When the profession of psychotherapy (and the helping professions in general) is mindful of itself and mindful of its alliance with science, then two things are made possible:

    • A therapist can help their client mindfully choose which personal and social constructs they want to adopt into their thoughts and behavioral processes.
    • A therapist can do so more constructively, with a conscious awareness of current relevant research, and the constructive nature of the brain, which directly affects thoughts and behavioral processes.

We need to be mindful of what psychotherapy is

Because we are a social species, we rely heavily on personal constructs and culture just to get by.

We need to have a healthy view of the professional field of psychology, if we are to use it for the betterment of humanity.

And to do this, we need to be mindful of these four things:

    1. Every therapist is going to be bound by their own constructs and their own cultural beliefs, some of which are passed on from the field of psychology.
    2. The interaction between therapist and client constitutes a culture in itself — one that is not often made explicit, but rather, kept hidden. Consider that a basic tenet of professional training is that the therapist does not give out advice. Well, this message may be emphasized in training, but it hardly gets out to the public. That’s one big reason why people see therapists in the first place — to get professional advice on their relationships and their personal experiences.
    3. Therapy is fundamentally a form of marketing, but this does not make it evil, because marketing is not inherently evil. As American psychiatrist Jerome Frank explains in Persuasion and Healing, a therapist’s job is to market the welfare emotions to their client — such as happiness, love, and pride.
    4. Because therapy is a human relationship, it is in itself neither good nor bad, functional nor dysfunctional — because it all depends on the therapist-client interactions and the work that is being done. So, the therapist-client relationship can turn out to be a well-funded and professionally-sanctioned codependent relationship, as self-described recovering psychotherapist Anne Wilson Schaef writes in Beyond Therapy, Beyond Science, or it can turn out to be a fascinating and stimulating relationship grounded in balance and respect, as San Francisco-based Jennifer A. Edlin, MFTi, describes on her website.

It’s important to take a mindful look at psychotherapy so that you can be more mindful of the role it may play in your life, and so that you can:

    • Find out if it is the best fit for your life goals, whether your role is therapist or client.
    • Decide how to make best out of your sessions and have realistic expectations.
    • Be more mindful of your interactions with your therapist, or if you are a therapist, with your client.
    • Ultimately take more response ability for your relationships, personal development, and self-healing.

If you have thoughts about this article, please feel free to share them below in the comments section. And if you find this message worth sharing, click on the link directly below.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Cole Bitting October 7, 2009 at 2:01 pm

Great article. It’s easy to agree with everything you wrote. It’s hard to watch yourself, particularly in therapy, but it’s such a valuable skill. Perspective, don’t go to therapy without it.

Melissa Karnaze October 7, 2009 at 4:32 pm

Thanks Cole. Yeah, perspective is a good thing to have pretty much everywhere you go. ;)

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