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Malcolm Welland  MA, Dip CTP, Member CAPT, Clinical Member OSP


Malcolm Welland, psychodynamic therapist Toronto, Canada

What is the Therapist Doing?

Daniel Goleman, in his book Vital Lies, Simple Truths, recounts a time on a bus on a very hot summer day when he observed the interaction between a friendly, cheerful driver and his grumpy, short-tempered passengers. On that particular hot morning the driver greeted everyone with a smile and a friendly greeting. Not only was this driver outgoing, but to top it off he made jokes  and sang to anyone who was listening. Goleman notes that many people who had got on feeling disgruntled and fed up were in fact smiling and feeling more  light hearted by the time they got off at their stops. We often find in our own experience that being around particular people has a positive effect upon our mood. To a certain extent this is what happens when one has built up  rapport with a therapist. When we are with this person, who listens attentively, is supportive and encourages us through non judgmental recognition of our doubts and concerns, we find that some of the other person’s calmness, strength and insight tends to rub off on us. So, what is the therapist doing? In the following discussion I have drawn from some of C.G. Jung’s ideas, changing some of Jung’s language so it is more in keeping with a current and diverse psychotherapeutic situation.

A therapist witnesses our situation and in so doing, helps us to deal with our moods and internal emotional states. In some ways this idea of therapist as witness seems to reinforce one view, that a therapist remains distant and uninvolved with our difficulties. In this view, one which Jung argued against, a therapist is seen as someone who just sits opposite us not saying much. He or she appears removed from what we  experience as we recount what we remember. Jung scathingly reports the case of a woman who came to see him after it became evident that her previous therapist, who was clearly uninvolved and cold, was a major source of the woman’s difficulty. Jung writes: “She told me certain things she had done in her bewilderment, and it was quite obvious that she would never have done these things if her analyst had been a human being and not a mystical cipher who was sitting behind her, occasionally saying a wise word out of the clouds and never showing an emotion.”  There is, however, a big difference between the therapist being cold and uninvolved and the therapist remaining neutral, and not “taking sides”.

When we are in the grip of trying to articulate something difficult or we are in the midst of an “emotional storm”, as Michael Eigen refers to it, we often doubt our own experience of the situation. The therapist can provide a much needed perspective for the client. It may be important for the client to hear that they were in a difficult situation, or that, in fact, they did do the best they could. Also, there may be times when the client is unaware of the emotional impact of a certain experience. Seeing how the therapist reacts to the client’s story gives a needed orientation and the client may be able to acknowledge what the therapist has helped them to see. This role for the therapist is far from being just a detached observer.

While a therapist is “on our side”, he or she must also be neutral. The therapist must take a stance that allows us to make our own choices or to come to our own insights. The therapist ideally waits to see what shows itself and draws our attention to it. The stance of neutrality means that the therapist is endeavouring not to misuse his or her influence. This very important fact is summed up very nicely in Jung’s correspondence with Dr. Loy. He tells Dr. Loy: 

What direction a patient’s life should take in the future is not ours to judge. We must not imagine that we know better than his [the client’s] own nature, or we would prove ourselves educators of the worst kind. [Therapy] is only a means for removing the stones from the path of development, and not a method… of putting things into the patient that were not there before. … It is better [for the therapist to] … simply try to throw into relief everything that the [therapy] brings to light, so that the patient can see it clearly and be able to draw suitable conclusions.

In the role of witness, the therapist becomes an advocate, sometimes pleading our case before our own doubts. In order to do this, a therapist must be engaged in what the client is saying. The therapist is attuned to the emotional states of a client and hearing the plight of another person has an affect on the therapist. The therapist’s reaction is critical and it is for this reason that Jung once said: “ That is the reason why I reject the idea of putting the patient upon a sofa and sitting behind him. I put my patients in front of me and talk to them as one natural human being to another, and I expose myself completely and react with no restriction.”  In continuing the case of the woman whose therapist was too removed, Jung, with a touch of humour, relates her reaction to his display of emotion:

When she told me all that [her history], I naturally had an emotional reaction and swore, or something like that. Upon which she shot out of her chair and said reproachfully, ‘But you have an emotion!... But you should not have an emotion’. I replied, ‘Why not? I have a good right to have an emotion’. …  She objected, ‘But you are an analyst! I said, ‘ Yes, I am an analyst, and I have emotions. Do you think that I am an idiot or a catatonic?’  ‘But analysts have no emotions.’ I remarked, ‘Well, your analyst apparently had no emotions, and, if I may say so, he was a fool!’  That one moment cleared her up completely; she was absolutely different from then on. She said, ‘Thank heaven! Now I know where I am. I know there is a human being opposite me who has human emotions’.  My emotional reaction had given her orientation.

This experience of seeing the therapist’s reactions does two things: it affirms what the client has said which helps them to have a fuller emotional response to their  experience and secondly it encourages them  to expand their emotional capacity to deal with other experiences. It is nicely summed up in the woman’s story when she says, “Now I know where I am.” This exchange between therapist and client is at the heart of a successful therapy.

What the therapist is doing at the best of times is essentially being himself or herself. As Jung notes often it is not so much what the therapist does per se as it is what kind of personality the therapist has and how that fits with the personality of the client.  “… the personalities of the [therapist] and the patient have often more to do with the outcome of the treatment than what the [therapist] says or thinks—although we must not  undervalue this latter factor …”  Jung stresses the match or fit between client and therapist. He often uses the metaphor of a chemical reaction. “The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” 

Bernd Jager summarizes all of these ideas when he writes that what the therapist does is to embody "the act of standing by, or standing with someone in facing a difficult situation…These metaphors for assisting, helping, or supporting someone all point to what is perhaps at the same time the most basic and most essential of human relationships. This most profound relationship permits us to be human by giving us access to a human world. The art of [the therapist] concerns itself with understanding and cultivating this most basic of all relationships.” 

Malcolm Welland 2008 May not be duplicated or distributed without permission of the author.

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