For the next four blog posts, I will look at four key principles that inform how I approach psychotherapy. These come from practical experience and study of several theoretical approaches. They are not the right or only principles, simply formulations that work for me. I write these here for current or future clients who might want to understand why I do what I do in session. Some therapists are great about explaining to their clients therapeutic principles and providing a very clear context about their interventions in session. This is not my style, and at times I wonder if this is confusing for the client.
1. Human behavior is purposeful, and its purpose is often paradoxical.
People rarely start therapy when their lives are working well and they feel wholly authentic. Typically people come in when lost or overwhelmed, when life doesn’t seem to work, or someone else has pushed. There is often a disconnect between thoughts, feelings, actions, impact on others, and what is believed about one’s self. The person entering therapy might not understand why they’re feeling, thinking, or doing the things they are.
When I am sitting with a person telling their story, I sit with the view that very little if any of their behavior or “symptoms” are random or purposeless. Many of our behaviors are solutions to problems we’ve encountered in life, either discovered or learned from family that became rigid. When people are stuck, typically we are entangled with our solutions and have lost touch with the creativity that produced the solution in the first place. Then we are consistently applying the solution in ways that no longer work well, or cause us and others harm.
If someone comes in with a “drinking problem,” one of the questions that is always an open question is: what does this drinking problem solve? If this client managed to control her drinking, what would she need to confront next? One theory of posttraumatic stress disorder, for example, is that the traumatic incident causes a psychic wound and the one who suffers experiences this as a part of self that feels like the trauma is happening in real time when reminded of it. The person with PTSD often finds themselves caught in a bizarre bind of constantly trying to avoid reminders of the trauma while another part of themselves constantly tries to re-experience it. With enough severity, the sufferer may turn to addictions as a way to numb the stress of PTSD.
In this example, one solution is the addictive behavior–drinking to oblivion solves the problem of re-experiencing, though it also creates many new problems. The other solution is the re-experiencing itself, which some researcher think is the psyche’s instinctive way of healing itself from trauma. The theory is that those with PTSD engage in avoidance strategies that keep the trauma from being integrated–the natural solution is experienced as itself a problem.
The paradoxical part is that much rigid behavior also has an inner incongruence. The person who can’t stop talking and dominates the conversation may have an inner, unconscious or semi-conscious, feeling that he is not being heard–but the people around him don’t realize this, because they are experiencing that feeling themselves and see him as the person who does not listen. This assumption provides an interesting field of inquiry because it does not seem to make sense initially. With exploration, we might find that in fact he is not being heard because he is not saying anything that truly matters to him. His excessive talking is a way of distancing himself from the connection he craves, pointing in every direction except the one that matters most.
When a part of us is stuck, we are very skilled at re-creating the circumstances in which we feel stuck. Perhaps we do this because we hope one of these days we’ll finally be proven right. Perhaps we do this because the familiar feels safe, even when it’s miserable. Perhaps it’s because the story we tell about ourselves is hiding some deeper truths that we’re avoiding. One of the gifts of this principle is that even avoidant behavior contains clues that point to these deeper truths. If someone appears to be pushing too hard in one direction, I become curious about what lies behind them.