I watched “The Wizard of Oz” last night – and when Judy Garland (as Dorothy) said that classic line, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore, Toto,” I nodded in agreement. Much of my student experience is just like that.
Just eight weeks into my program, I am coming to realize that the profession of psychology is not the same as when I was taking my undergraduate (Bachelor’s) degree back in the 1980s. Back then, the professors who taught at my university learned their psychology from a school of thought known as modernism – the idea that ultimate truth could be known – and they were busy feeding into what I have dubbed the ‘theory wars’ – a perpetual struggle between behaviourism (B.F. Skinner), humanism (Fritz Perls, Carl Rogers, Viktor Frankl, and others), and psychodynamism (Sigmund Freud), and their various offshoots, including cognitive therapy (such as Albert Ellis, Aaron Beck, and so forth). All of the theorists and their disciples were waging war, arguing about which way was the right way to do therapy to produce maximal results.
Perhaps five or ten years after I graduated, an ideological concept known as post-modernism emerged, which questioned everything and stated that there were no absolutes. I heard a lot of preachers trying to say that this idea would be the death of society as we knew it. However, the critical thought process that it proposes asks important questions like, “Why do we do what we do?”, “What is working about this method, and what is not, and why?” Post-modernist thought, like it or not, is here to stay, and I must say that in a way, it is quite liberating because it calls into question all of those polarized arguments of who is right and who is wrong. And, as difficult as it is to get my head around the idea, the freedom to be able to be eclectic in my therapeutic approach (although some take offense at that word and prefer the term integration) opens the door for me to construct my own therapeutic style, one that is unique to me, one in which I can be genuine and empathetic, where I can truly accept those who come to me for help, while still working on the problems that trouble them.
This is exciting! I remember going to therapy several years ago; I was referred through my Employee Assistance Program. The counsellor was very technique-oriented, heard maybe 20% of what I said, and ignored the rest once he had made up his mind what my problem was. According to his rule-book, I had to do A, B, and C in order to get better. What I wanted out of therapy was something completely different – I wanted to be able to make peace with my past – and he wanted me to yank someone out of my past and make them pay for what they had done. That was not helpful, I was not after vengeance. All I wanted was peace, a path to forgiveness. I left therapy after the required six sessions and found help elsewhere – but it still took me considerable time to silence the monsters.
I want something better for my clients. I want to be able to truly hear them and to be able to use tools to help them that we both agree to. In my program, I am learning that this is the kind of counsellor that I can be; I do not have to be limited to one theory or type of therapy. I can bring others into it, depending on the needs of my client. Fit the therapy to the client, not the client to the therapy!
Yet … the landscape of this new learning environment is so different from the one I was in when I was in my undergrad. Back then, people were all into teaching your baby to read at the age of six months, studying rats in mazes, and making people lie on couches and spill their problems to a psychoanalyst that they couldn’t even see, much less relate to (or have their therapist relate to them!) Person-centred therapy had been around for a while, but was largely misunderstood and often mocked.
Now, there is a vast body of scientific evidence proving that the therapeutic relationship (including the person-centred elements of genuineness, unconditional acceptance, and empathy that so many made fun of) is a large part of successful therapy, twice as much as techniques are (Leibert, 2011). While this is amazing, and makes me very happy, it also makes me realize that much more than I ever realized, much of my own success as a therapist will depend on my own ability to establish that bond, no matter what techniques I use. And so, I get the feeling that this is all new territory – that I am ‘not in Kansas anymore’ – and that much more than just my age has changed since the last time I was in academia.
I will therefore need to be very careful when it comes time to choose a practicum placement (not until April 2017), for the people that will help to shape my approach will need to be at least supportive of my approach, and in that atmosphere, I can learn from them. With that in mind, perhaps I had better start looking around now, if I am to find something that will work for me. The yellow brick road is unwinding before me, and I have my ruby slippers. All I need now are good mentors, and I will “get there”.
Leibert, T. W. (2011). The dimensions of common factors in counselling. International Journal for the Advancement of Counselling. 127-128. doi:10.1007/s10447-011-9115-7