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Friday, July 16, 2010

Human Nature

In my current course for school, we are studying the way you practically apply various psychological theories. So in other words, based on various theoretical models, how to you structure the delivery of psychological counselling? Once again, I am fascinated and stimulated by the subject matter. Some of these dead white guys actually had some very interesting things to say!

Carl Jung believed that at midlife, many people reach a crossroads. One is generally settled in one's lifecourse in terms of family and career but then one has an existential crisis (he is the one who coined the term "Midlife Crisis"). The purpose of therapy for people at this stage of life is to enable the process of individuation, which is essentially self-acceptance. This involves acknowledging all of one's shortcomings, as well as one's gifts, and finding meaning in one's life and one's place within the world. It is coming to terms with the one's own fallability and mortality and the fallability and mortality of humankind. I find this perspective extremely interesting and profound, and it is by far one of my favorites. Of course, operationalizing working towards the goal of individuation is easier said than done. There are several therapeutic techniques which have self-acceptance as a focus, but ultimately, I think the best approach depends on the individual.

In contrast, Carl Rogers proposed the Person-Centred therapy model which I think is ridiculous. He believed that humans are inherently self-actualizing. In other words, people inherently strive towards self-improvement. So first off, I don't agree with this assumption. Second, his model with how to deliver therapy doesn't work for me. I call it, "Hire a friend" because the therapist specifically avoids giving any interpretation or professional advice. There is no structure at all and sometimes the therapist barely says anything. The only criteria he specifies is that the therapist provides unconditional empathy and understanding to the client. I agree with this, but then there has to be a more directive approach, in my opinion. Nevertheless, I am willing to concede that this approach may be most suitable for some individuals...just not me.

About 13 years ago when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, I went to see a psychologist at the University of Toronto, where I was doing my (first) Masters degree at the time. This woman was using the person-centred approach and all I can say, is I left in tears. I remember her saying just 2 things to me, this is how the dialogue went:

Her: So what brings you here today?

Me: My mother was recently diagnosed with breast cancer.

Her: How does that make you feel?

Me: Um, scared. (And I'm thinking here, how the #@*&% do you think it makes me feel, you idiot?)

Her: Why?

Me: Um, I'm scared that something will happen to her...and I'm worried about what this means for my own health. (And I'm thinking here, I'm scared because I think killer squirrels are about to take over the world, why do you think I'm scared, stupid?)

I don't remember anything else about the session except feeling uncomfortable due to her lack of interaction and frustrated by her lack of useful feedback. I stormed out of the session in tears and never went back.

Nevertheless, there is extensive empirical support for the importance of unconditional empathy and understanding from therapists. It is critical to the outcome of patients. This makes me wonder if I am really up to the task of being a therapist. I'm not known for being the most patient, tolerant individual...will I be able to fulfill this obligation? What if I dislike a client? Rogers says the therapist must acknowledge these feelings but work through them because it is essential that the therapist is sincere in order for the therapy to be effective. I am realizing what a huge responsibility being a therapist really is. You can have a tremendous impact on another person, either good or bad. This is a responsibility that cannot be taken lightly. I have a lot of work ahead before I'm ready to take it on, but I'm commited to getting there and doing the absolute best that I can do.