An insight into insight
Written by listed counsellor/psychotherapist: Alex Thomas, Integrative Therapist - BSc (Hons) MSc (MBPsS) MBACP
23rd May, 20170 Comments
I recently attended a training event on safeguarding. A very important thing for me as a professional, but not the purpose of this post. The trainer was very experienced in the legislation and framework settings for the different organisations that would be involved, and this also came with strong opinions about those setups. That isn't to say that he had any doubt in the importance of how safeguarding should be carried out, rather I listened with interest to his frustration at the use of certain terms that pepper the legislation. Two that stood out were 'need to know' and 'insight', and I think that his belief is that this would come under what Wikipedia would flag up as 'weasel words'.
I know in academia there is a good reason to avoid using Wikipedia as a primary source of information because it is not a primary source but instead editable, crowd-sourced, and isn't peer reviewed. Even with that this appeal to an anonymous, faulty, or non-existent authority described by 'weasel words' could be seen in the trainer's view on 'need to know' and 'insight'.
His point was who defines who has the 'need to know' something? It could be argued that the person with the best ability to know whether they might need to know something is the receiver, but they cannot judge that need without the information. So it falls to the holder of the information, and often they might err on the side of caution for confidentiality. The trainer's recommendation was an idea of 'proportionality in context' due to the lack of an authority who can grant us the knowledge of who 'needs to know'.
His issue with 'insight' was 'insight is just when you agree with your therapist; they judge you have gained insight because you say what they have already thought about you'. A brave admission in a room of therapists, but I have enjoyed the challenge as it has allowed me to reflect on how I think about insight and how it happens in the therapy room.
Personally, I feel that the trainer has either made the mistake of believing that the therapist is the 'authority' in the relationship, or believes that the therapists themselves think that they are. Certainly, there are therapists who think of themselves as authority, and I have had clients who have asked for my opinion as 'the expert'. While I may have study and knowledge making me, one hopes, a useful practitioner; the expert in the room is the client, who is the authority on themselves and their experience. For me, while I can use my understanding to intuit something about my client, insight is offered by the client to both me and themselves.
In psychology, insight is said to occur when "the solution to a problem presents itself quickly and without warning." If we take this as a definition then merely agreeing with or confirming a therapist's formulation of the client cannot be insight as it doesn't offer a solution. The faulty idea that the therapist is an expert or authority on what the client needs to be, do, or have also means they cannot be a source of insight as it will not be happening without warning. I suppose it could be said to be without warning to the client, but the solution is certainly not presenting itself!
As a slightly flimsy analogy, I am going to turn to the Hans Christian Andersen story 'The Princess and the Pea'. I am sure you will be familiar with the story but, in a nutshell, a young woman seeking refuge in a castle is proven to be a princess and a worthy bride for the resident prince by feeling a hard pea through 20 mattresses and 20 feather beds with enough discomfort to ruin a night's sleep.
If I focus on the Princess's experience, this could be seen to be representative of a client who has chosen to come to therapy. She was experiencing discomfort that was impacting her life, and no matter what she put in the way she could not alleviate the discomfort sufficiently. In the therapy room, through the princess talking about her experience, we could slowly take down mattress after mattress and explore the role that it has had for her. Eventually, lo and behold, here is a pea that no one was expecting to be wedged in the fold of one of the lower layers!
This is where the insight comes in. I as the therapist can intuit that something is happening down in the layers of mattresses, but I cannot know that it is a pea. As we inspect the mattress I might notice the pea and point it out. This allows the Princess to grasp it, know that this is what caused her discomfort, and the solution is to not put it back in the bed. It will also mean that she needs fewer layers of protection and hopefully have both an easier climb into bed ford a better night's sleep in the future.
Insight isn't an appeal to the therapist's 'authority', but rather a disclosure from the client's authority of themselves that allows them to find the solution to a problem.
 Stuart, D. (2017) The thinking revolution: Unleash the full power of your mind, Red Door Publishing
About the author
I am an integrative therapist working in private practice in Ewell, Surrey.
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