Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Open Letter to a Classical Person-Centred Therapist

Entry for 30 January 2007:

Background: To understand this entry, it helps to know that there is a large, continuing division (of varying severity) between "classical" or "nondirective" Person-Centred (Rogerian) therapy on the one hand, and "experiential" or "process guiding" Person-Centred therapy. Historically, this is the difference between two different periods of the development of Rogers' approach: First, the classical versions include Nondirective (1940's) and Client-Centred (1950's) therapies; these were later renamed Person-Centred. Second, Experiential therapies were developed in the 1970's and have continued to the present. Many US and UK therapists follow the classical version, while many Canadian and Dutch- and German-speaking therapists follow the experiential version, which is referred to by various names, including the therapy I helped develop: Process-Experiential/Emotion-Focused Therapy. The problem is, there has been a lot of fighting between these two camps, which continues today; the flashpoint is whether therapists should strive to be nondirective.

This conflict is played out all the time in the Counselling Unit, often at lunch, but also with and in the diploma students. The latest installment was an exchange between Beth and Mick, which started last Wednesday afternoon during the Social Anxiety Study Group meeting and continued by email. I finally caught up with the exchange today, and felt my heart sink as I read it. The following is my attempt to take this debate to a deeper, more personal level:

I'm struggling with the whole nondirectivity-directivity debate between Beth and Mick, because it feels to me that somehow what is really driving much of it is people's sense of vulnerability around deeply-felt ways of being, both in general and in doing therapy. For example, it now seems clear to me that Mick and John feel deeply constrained and trapped by what they experience as the constraints of the classical approach. (They can correct me if I'm wrong!) And like Mick and John, I long to breathe free from what feels like a prison, and I’m pretty allergic to singular solutions. As William Blake wrote,
….Twofold always. May God us keep
From single vision and Newton’s sleep.

There are lots of words; we are all clever academic types, so we can argue things from whichever side we are attached to. But underneath that, it really feels to me, is vulnerability. That's certainly true for me. But it is really hard to own this and just as hard to empathize with it. So, when I read Beth's defense of classical nondirectivity, I have a sense of somehow being misunderstood and judged; that somehow Beth doesn't think I'm as good a therapist because I have to resort to these process guiding things, when Beth feels that empathy should be enough for me and my clients. So that ends up feeling like conditionality, like Beth will think less of me if I don't go along with her view. And that makes it really hard for me to hear her vulnerability around this.

But my experience it this: Knowing the Other is a really deep thing for me, from my childhood, but I never connected with the classical Person-Centred perspective; by the time I came along we were with Gendlin and Rice at the experiential stage of the development of the Person-Centred approach in the 1970's. That's what has always connected for me at a deep emotional and personal level: Empathy plus a wee bit process guiding. That's because, for me, the essence of the PCA is its attention to process. That’s the Rogers I connect with; the one who sat around in Chicago with colleagues listening to hundreds of hours of recordings of therapy sessions and getting really good at hearing process. I love empathy, it's a rich and wonderous thing for me, and I also pride myself at being able to accept just about anything my clients come up with, but ... for me there is more. I have learned lots of cool things about process from listening to hundreds of hours of therapy sessions, often in the company of clients who could tell me what they were really experiencing moment to moment. It is this experience that is the foundation of my practice as a therapist, and some of what I’ve gleaned in this way, sometimes, can be really useful for my clients. And yes, I know all about client deference, inside and out, I was right there with Rennie when that was coming out, and more. So I think I have the same degree of sensitivity to power imbalance that Dot was talking about on Monday.

So: When Beth (or Dot or whoever) starts going on in a way that sounds to me like classical PC empathy is the One True Way, something in my stomach/diaphragm curls up into a defensive crinkly-cranky ball, and wants to fight it, then realizes that it is futile and so just wants to give up and tune the whole thing out, because it feels misunderstood, unvalued, unloved and unaccepted. And the worst part is, it has trouble loving Beth, who is one of the most wonderful people I know, because this part is feeling hurt and defensive and has trouble making space for love and understanding.

And the hell of it is, I have a sense the same thing happens on the other side, that somehow, I’m communicating in such a way that Beth and others end up feeling invalidated and feel the need to go out of their way to defend themselves with elaborate arguments that end with me feeling I have to defend myself also. It’s all done as an intellectual debate, which as academics we should be able to have, but it just seems to go endlessly in circles. In my book, going in circles is a Sure Sign of an unproductive, structure-bound process. It’s a circle of mutual invalidation, which feels like a trap to me.

I think I could be OK with other folks seeing the classical version as all they need, and indeed even a source of a great sense of freedom for themselves and their clients. But at some point it begins to feel like a different view isn’t OK with them, and therefore that I’m not OK with them. I have a terrible time telling how much of this is actually coming from them and how much is My Own Stuff. Some of this is undoubtedly my own personal Person-Centred Critic (PCC), the one who sits on my shoulder and frowns whenever I ask a question or propose a therapeutic task. An awful lot of us have this PCC (among them Les Greenberg and my students). Or maybe it’s my own insecure attachment issues and wanting to be accepted and included. Or something.

But if I’m honest with myself, it doesn’t feel good and I long for a different conversation, one in which I can be free to hear how Beth and Dot make the classical approach really work for them. I’d love to learn about that from them. (I'd love to make it into what I call a task, which is a way of organizing therapist process wisdom.) And I’d really like it if somehow it was free enough between us that I could feel that they could appreciate what I do in my wee process-guiding way. Maybe they can and I just haven’t wanted to let myself be vulnerable enough to show them. Actually, I don’t know.


John said...

This is really interesting to read. As a student on the Diploma Course I have been wrestling with what it means to be really grounded in the person-centred approach. Reading what you've written I can see that I live in myself the polarities you seem to be experiencing between you and and your colleagues. My fear is that I shall end this course with no real sense of where I stand. Will I be grounded authentically in a way of relating therapeutically to people that is truly person-centred, faithful to this "revolutionary paradigm", or will I be on more shifting soil, without the real appreciation for the variations within the approach that can really only come from having been imbued by the principles that undergird them all? And might that mean really learning/ practising one school approach in order the better to know its inherent limitations and the ways in which I experience the need to develop?

When I think of the classical approach, I find that I think of the therapeutic conditions writ large, without any thought of using "something extra". You put it in terms of directivity or non-directivity, but at this stage in my training I'm thinking simply of the enormity of trying to live and offer these conditions. Sometimes I feel that the course, in its attempt to expose us to the various schools, runs the risk of making me a "jack of all trades and master of none." Perhaps the idea is to make me aware of the variation within the approach so that I shall be informed for my future development. I can see the value of this but am also wondering in what sense I shall be trained as I leave with my diploma. Maybe I am putting too much emphasis on this aspect, and expecting too much of what is, after all, just a 9 month course, but it is the practitioner dimension that interests me and which has fired me to take this road in the first place.


Robert Elliott said...

But of course learning the classical conditions is a really good place (the best place, really) to start, even if one goes on to add other things. Certainly, without thorough-going empathy and caring delivered in a genuine manner, the added things are at best just "techniques", and at worse dangerous and harmful. It sounds like you are really engaging with these issues and that is great!

TenaciousK said...

One True Way

Isn't your visceral reaction precisely the type of reaction classical person-centered therapy most assiduously tries to avoid (radical acceptance, etc.)?

Though it's natural enough to quell our own ambivalence by grasping an artificial certainty, it indicates we're no longer listening or open.

I hate it when that happens.

Robert Elliott said...

(To TenaciousK): Yes, thank you, that is the dilemma that I was trying to talk about.