Freud said that the goal of psychoanalysis was the transformation of neurotic misery into ordinary unhappiness. Roughly one hundred years later, we might be talking "counselling" or "therapy" rather than "psychoanalysis"; "anxiety" or "depression" rather than "neurotic misery". But what do we mean by "ordinary unhappiness"; can it really be a therapeutic goal?
To explain, I will look at the so-called "therapeutic relationship". That is, the relationship between you, the client, and me, the therapist.
Frequently, a client will ask a therapist, "How are you feeling today? Have you had a good week?". Typically, the therapist's response would be a non-committal, "fine," followed by a rapid refocusing upon the client's feelings; therapist rationale being, "This is about you, not me. Let's leave my feelings out of it.". If the client persists in asking about the therapist's wellbeing, this is likely to be noted as a form of evasion.
Clients may well evade their own painful feelings by attempting to talk about the therapists. However, a humanist or existential therapist might respond to the enquiry differently: "Not too good this week. I have felt a bit low", perhaps.
It may come as a surprise to those expecting a blank face and reflecting back approach, but contemporary therapy can employ this level of openness. It is called "self-disclosure" and is appropriate only if the therapist believes that it will prove valuable to the client, in the end. How can this be so?
Firstly, it may remove the perception of the therapist as someone who has resolved all their problems. Therapists are not people without problems. Rather, they tend to be those who have found therapy beneficial in their own lives, and wish to help others access these benefits.
Secondly, learning that another human being (in this case the therapist) has also felt low during the week may help the client to feel less alone and more connected.
Trust is the issue here. The information, freely given, by the therapist to the client – "I have felt a bit low", indicates that the therapist trusts the client with feelings. This is modelling behaviour – I show you trust, in the hope that you will reciprocate, either in this or future sessions.
The relationship is at the heart of this form of therapy. We take time, care and skill to build a strong therapeutic relationship with our clients. This strong relationship can help the client in many ways.
The therapist, when appropriate, will let the client know how she/he tends to behave in a relationship. We all have ways of being of which we are not fully aware, some of which will negatively impact upon our relations with others. Judging whether, when, and how, to let a client know about these traits is one of the therapist's key skills.
Whatever problems the client brings, it is likely that its roots lie within interpersonal relationships. Relationships with partners, parents, friends, colleagues, or children. Overtly making "our relationship" central to our work can bring purpose and clarity. We know what we are doing in this work: illuminating how you sometimes behave in relation to another person, thus empowering you to alter all your relations out there, in the real world.
Of course, the therapist's disclosure – "I have felt a bit low" – entails risk. The client may not wish to admit the therapist's feelings into the space, believing that every minute should be spent discussing his/her own feelings. Consequently, discomfort or even anger may arise.
These negative feelings can be used in a positive way within the therapeutic relationship. A skilled therapist might perceive that the client tends to experience relationships just one way, for instance. When appropriate, this therapist can share this perception of the client during the session: "I see you as someone who has difficulty in hearing others", for example. Once more, the therapist has risked being open and honest.
Therapy can help you in many ways – to increase self-knowledge and develop resilience; to feel less alone; to embrace life changes; to foster empathy and understanding; to become empowered in changing your relationships forever. What therapy cannot do is make you happy.
Which brings us neatly back to Freud. Not only is unhappiness ordinary, every day, but it is also, at some time, everybody. That includes you, and me.
The therapeutic process is long, hard, often painful work. Unhappiness may be ordinary, but through this hard work, some extra-ordinary happiness may also be granted to you.
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