Una Maguire talked to Mary Montaut
Are We Diluting Humanistic Therapy?
Psychotherapy has had to go through a phase of being very inward-looking, until it became confident enough in its own identity, and we’re now probably deep into a phase of being worried about being exclusive. We may be in danger of diluting the Humanistic and Integrative mode or philosophy of psychotherapy, but hopefully there seem to be already signs of a reaction to that. People are saying that we are in danger of losing our specificity or philosophy or getting diluted to the point where it’s hard to see the difference between Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy and Psychoanalytic or other approaches. People are revisiting the inspiration and the philosophy and the humanism of Maslow and others.
The other dynamic that I see is the whole question of status and becoming business-like: we are spelling things out – part, I suppose, of the definition piece - and reacting to fright and worry and insecurity. There can be legitimate and really important concerns, but this process can go into a kind of overdrive and become too controlling and too stiff, trying to legislate for every thing and losing contact with the basic premise of Humanistic and Integrative Psychotherapy, which is trust in human beings and in relationship. The IAHIP needs people who will just keep reminding us about this in the running of the organisation.
Clarifying the dividing line between one kind of psychotherapy and another is one aspect of this stage of psychotherapy, and another is the dividing line between psychotherapy and other services of humans, individual or in relationship. I would look forward to a greater collaboration and a greater understanding between say, doctors and psychotherapists, between psychotherapists and social workers and other para-medical professions – solicitors maybe. Other professions could be allies, and should be really. We had a meeting at the Institute with people in these professions, like doctors, nurses and social workers, and it was heartening to meet these people and to hear of their growing appreciation of the contribution of psychotherapy and counselling to people’s well-being. This is especially important because sometimes doctors may mistrust counsellors and even warn their patients against lengthy therapy.
And then on the other side. I think that it is no harm at all for psychotherapists to familiarize themselves with the contribution that medication can make to the well- being of a client. That may be rather a dangerous thing to say, but as a psychotherapist who has always had tremendous interest in our body as the vehicle of our emotion and thoughts and relationship and spirit, I acknowledge that even simple bio-energetic exercises are effecting a chemical change, in our bodies and it may be that the chemists can move closer to the provision of chemical supplements, or something that would be similarly useful and facilitative. Facilitative is the word that is important, because if a client is so overwhelmed by, say, fear, that they can’t take on board anything else because they’re in such a state of stress, then wouldn’t something chemical just help to take that person back from the edge and allow them to sleep? To interrupt that vicious circle and leave an opening for movement in the direction of recovery.
The people that I know in the medical profession who have that openness are people who have been in therapy groups themselves. It would seem to indicate that in the medical profession generally there is a nervousness about acknowledging themselves as being clients or patients, a kind of hierarchy. And I know that psychotherapists are not immune to that either – “I have done so many years of psychotherapy so I’m a better human being than the client coming to me.” But at least the vast majority of therapies require the practitioner to have been a client for a long time – not just a few sessions.
Long Term Therapy?
One of the things that I wonder about at this stage too is the continuance of the necessity for really long-term work. By really long-term I mean anything over three or four years. Now, in nearly seventeen years of full-time practice, I can’t deny that there have been a number of people that I’ve worked with who evidently did need really long-term work, not only for recovery but for growth and development (see Maslow). But I think maybe, here in Ireland, with the greater willingness to acknowledge, to name, to recognize abuse and stress and trauma and dysfunction and so on, that may enable more of us to start in therapy at a point further along from where we used to start. People are clearer about the harm that they have experienced. It’s not explained away, and they don’t have to go through the whole business of realizing it in therapy, so maybe that is one thing that will make more of a difference to the practice of psychotherapy as time goes on.
The Question of Strict Confidentiality
Maybe this familiarity in the general public with reasons for going into therapy, and maybe a slowly growing collaboration among professionals on behalf of individual people or groups, will make a welcome difference the very strict, tight practice of confidentiality. This may be a bit dangerous to say, but anyway it’s certainly a question and a possibility that I’m noticing. I know it would take a lot of thought and respect to change, carefully, in a way that is really focused on the benefit of the person who is the client, and not just to let it become a matter of interesting conversation between people, even professionals – it’s too easy for that to become disrespectful gossip, as it does in the chat shows. I used to think of Oprah Winfrey as providing an amazing service in the earlier years of her programme, but I feel a lot less happy about more recent ones and about other people who are copying what she has done. At times it seems to me that they have verged on being abusive, perhaps even more of the people who are not in the shows. Some of those programmes are pretty hair-raising! Maybe lots of people watch them and know what they are letting themselves in for if they go – but then, what about the people who haven’t chosen to go and are implicated by the revelations that are made? What choice have they had?
Loss of Empathy
One of the things that horrifies me about television and film and maybe even the written medium, is what we are calling entertainment: the horror – the exposure - the violence – that somehow has become entertainment. I’m concerned about what that is subtly (or not so subtly) doing to our sensitivity and relatedness. It’s like we are entertained by people’s suffering, entertained by people’s violence, entertained by the thrill of computer games that are abusive and violent. That really bothers me. If I were paranoid, I might be thinking, are there groups of people around the world doing this consciously and deliberately? It feels like an undermining of humanness, an undermining of our capacity to feel what it might be like in the other person’s shoes, that kind of empathy. That troubles me.
On the one hand, are we going to have to deal with people who are traumatized by what is done to them via the media? But are we also at some point going to have to deal with massive desensitization and massive dissociation, which may be the only way people can protect themselves from being overwhelmed by traumatizing sights and experiences? Or even with media-induced addiction to the adrenaline rush of horrifying things? A detachment from sensory experience and your own body?
It seems paradoxical that as psychotherapists we would be called on to help people to resensitize, to feel a lot – not to retraumatize themselves, but to expand their capacity to experience life with everything that’s part of it, instead of becoming ’emotional zombies’. My immediate thought about this is that such a desensitized person might be wakened up to their need for therapy by the demands of a challenging relationship.
I wonder, is post-trauma work in a very specific way going to become much more needed? In this funny world we have, there are tremendous advances in terms of the expansion of the means by which we experience ourselves to be in relationship with each other and also with animals and trees – the whole ecology consciousness and sensitivity that’s growing – and on the other hand, there is the amazing insensitivity to fellow humans. It doesn’t seem to matter what country, whether north, south, east or west, there is slaughter – whether it’s someone taking a gun into an American school or militia who round up women and children and slaughter them, and do their best to wipe out the other. Need this be? The whole dualism that we live in and struggle with! Wilber comes to mind, and his description of movement towards an increasing identification of self, an expanding identification of self, not just of the part presented to the world. His map is based on the supposition that ‘what I present to the world is what I believe the world will approve of , and on the whole that’s been ‘goodness’. But it seems to me that there are places in the world where what a person can experience as being approved of is abusiveness and destructiveness and violence. But anyway, whatever the Persona, there is the incorporation of the Shadow, and the need to acknowledge that too as part of our energy.
Should we be trying to create a Utopia? No, I guess I’m just shaking my head in somewhat bewildered contemplation of the contradictions of our world, the dualism that we stagger from one side of to the other, for so much of the time. Quite an experiment this business of energy becoming material, you know! Actually that’s one of the things that has become even more evident to me, as a practitioner of psychotherapy – the need in myself as a practitioner for a very, very broad view of life, and the discovery of a position in myself that is not dissociated, but that can look at the world and life with a kind of equanimity and maintain the observer’s place, therefore to some degree separate, but laced with compassion. Maybe it is to the degree that we can know such a place in ourselves that we can be with the dreadful things that we hear and the appalling effects that we see in our clients. And let me not forget about rejoicing – appreciating and rejoicing in the amazing capacity that embodied life has – resilience and recovery and expansion and joy and ecstasy and, yes. love.
Una Maguire is a psychotherapist and founder-Director at the Institute of Creative Counselling & Psychotherapy in Dun Laoghaire.
Maslow, Abraham: Towards a Psychology of Being, 1968
Wilber, Ken: No Boundary 1979.