Psychological theories: Too much to bare.

Jay Haley once supervised a therapist who said that the family she was having trouble working with had a mother and daughter who were symbiotically attached to one another. Haley, famously said “I’d never let that be the problem.” (Brief Therapy: Myths, Methods and Metaphors. Zeig and Gilligan)

Pickpockets on a Nudist Colony: The Systemic Revolution in Psychotherapy, a book by Ben Furman and Tapani Ahola sums up beautifully what psychotherapy does. You have to sew a pocket on a nude before you can pick it.

Bill O’Hanlon once said that there is a place in a modern therapist’s room for a couch. Any time they get a theory about their patient they should lie down and wait for it to pass. (In one of his 30 plus books)

Most therapists would know those three tidbits, and we all chortle, genuinely, and yet there we go again, when we find a client difficult, we attribute some theory of maladaption that is impossible to surmount.

It’s sometimes a challenge to remember that all psychological theories are made up. None of them are true or real. They are also made up by human beings. A brain writing a theory about the brain…. there has to be something intrinsically dodgy about that.

As soon as you say that someone has a maladaptive attachment, has trauma stuck in their body, has a disordered personality or disordered thoughts, you are in trouble. You have constructed a problem that has the potential to be difficult to solve. You have also added something that wasn’t there. You have sewn a pocket on.

One of my heroes, Heinz von Foerster describes the way we do this kind of thing as an attempt to turn the amazing unfathomableness of human beings into a trivial machine. Trivial meaning if you input A you can predict output B.

A more universal example is the way schools attempt to turn children into trivial machines. Questions, it is understood, have answers that are already decided, and a good grade on the resultant test is proof of successful trivialisation.

He was the kind of fellow who could get seriously excited by the child who, when asked what is two times three answers green.

Something that hit me hard when reading his work and had a big impact on the way I raised my children was his notion of illegitimate questions. These are questions that when you are asking, you already know the answer to. They generate a yucky experience in the asker and the asked. We all remember that feeling from school that goes with a prayer that it will not be you that will be the chosen one…. even when you know the answer the teacher is thinking of.

I think that working therapeutically with a human being from a position or psychological theory will inevitably be an attempt to turn this person into a trivial machine. I suspect that a good grade from the therapist about the client will be evidence of trivialisation, but a good grade from the client about the therapist will reflect the respect the therapist had for the non-triviality of the client.

I used to think that the questions we ask reveal the client, disclosing who they are and what they care about. Then I realised it is not important for the therapist to see what the questions reveal, but for the client to discover. Now I wonder if the discourse is just a distraction for the thinking mind as the healing happens in the space between two people.

How else can diametrically opposed dogmas result in equal effectiveness?


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s