Who were we before our learned limitations?


  • The obsession with measurement tools in therapy and popular psychology is an interesting cultural phenomenon. The field jumped on the coat tails of medicine when it was achieving breakthroughs by measuring actual biochemical and physiological entities like blood sugar and blood pressure, exploring what bodily processes affected them and what treatments could alter them. The more understanding about the processes the more advances in treatment and the more trust that was built with patients who really just wanted a cure.

The trouble is that measuring traits like personality and thoughts and beliefs, or even brain activity are just not the same. You can study the brain but you can’t know one single thought it is having. The issue of the influence of the observer is more troublesome than in any other field as it’s always the brain that is building the theory of how the brain works. As Jay Haley so eloquently put it, therapists are part of the truth they seek.

Scientific method has been discarded in favour of the illusion of science. Correlation stands for cause and researcher’s beliefs about what the amygdala, hippocampus or limbic system must be doing so influence what they find. Careers are made on marketing and charisma in a field where you can find a study that supports anything you believe in and as a practitioner you haven’t been taught the skills to critically evaluate that study. The scenario that results would be like teaching firefighters how to start a fire but not how to stop one.

Psychological tools that measure human traits are universally measuring learned limitations.  As if knowing more about our learned limitations ever helps us unlearn them! The last decade has seen a rise in measuring outcomes of therapeutic interventions but again the emphasis has been on addressing what isn’t working. Therapists discover areas they need to work on and find ways to practice outside of the therapy room. It’s an encapsulation of what client centered strength based practitioners have been doing with clients. Find out what’s missing and create a way for the client to learn and practice. The therapist becomes the coach for the clients deliberate practice.

What would be different if we had chosen to measure strengths and abilities? If we’d found a way to disclose those often transparent abilities that people have, that leaders like Erickson could see.  Leaders whose reputation was built when people saw he was getting good results with difficult cases. These leaders didn’t self promote and only knew a platform as something you stood on to catch a train.

Despite all of that, there is a long tradition in every culture of humans who are suffering being helped by other humans. The modern iteration of psychotherapy seems only to be palatable to a small cross section of Western society. The people who could most benefit don’t seek it out even though we know it is as effective as most medical interventions. It doesn’t show up as useful and so often has been tainted by association with punitive measures starting as early as being required to see the school counselor because of a behaviour issue or being subjected to testing because there is clearly something wrong with you. What would be different if the emphasis on those early interventions was on finding what is right with you so that teachers are better able to help you. And what if the emphasis in modern psychotherapy was on finding what was right with you so that therapists were better able to help you?

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