Q: Dr. Hurd, I like my psychotherapist, but I’m seeking a game plan. I want to know what I’m supposed to do. Should I ask my therapist to provide this for me? Is it an example of bad therapy if I don’t get one?
A: It’s reasonable to want a plan. But psychotherapy is not
medical treatment. With medical treatment, you go to the doctor. You tell the doctor your symptoms, and the doctor also examines you. The doctor makes a diagnosis and recommends treatment based on the diagnosis.
Most people THINK this is what psychotherapy is, but it isn’t. Psychotherapy isn’t done by medical doctors. If it were medical treatment, then it would be done by medical doctors; but it’s not. And there’s a reason for this.
It’s not reasonable to say to a therapist, “Give me a plan.” It is reasonable to say to a therapist, “Please help me come up with a plan.” The basis for therapy is ultimately life. It’s not about fixing a particular problem; it’s about fixing your life.
While a medical doctor can potentially tell you what ails your lungs or your arms, and suggest a treatment to heal them, a psychotherapist cannot tell you what to do with your life. No therapist — no other person on earth, in fact — can tell you, “This is the career you need. Do this, and all will be well.” Or: “This is the person you should marry. Do this, and all will be well.”
A therapist is not your doctor. A therapist is your guide. Or your coach. YOU must decide where you’re going; the therapist’s job is to help you get there. You don’t say to a therapist, ‘Give me a game plan.’ Instead you say, ‘Here’s my goal. Please help me figure out how to best get there.’
What if you don’t know where you’re going? Then the therapist’s job is to help you figure that out, by asking you questions and encouraging you to think in a rational, lucid way about the matter.
It has been said that psychotherapists are “doctors of the soul” or “doctors of the mind.” OK, then. What does a doctor of the mind do? Help you use your mind. Your mind is like driving a car. A driving instructor never once gets in the car and drives for you. A driving instructor watches, teaches, guides and coaches as you learn to drive, and get more comfortable with driving. You wouldn’t say to the driving instructor, “Tell me where to drive my car, once I have my license to drive.” That’s up to you.
In my new book BAD THERAPY GOOD THERAPY, I make the distinction between “do as I say” dogmatism and “do as you feel” subjectivism. Both of these approaches to using your mind are errors.
Parents and other conventional authority figures usually provide the “do as I say” model. This usually leads to rebellion in adolescence, and does nothing to teach the eventual adult how to think, reason and act rationally on his or her own.
“Do as you feel” subjectivism comes from contemporary culture, particularly public schools and most of the media. This leads most young adults to escape into drugs or other less obvious, but still mindless, activities. It leads to the culture of underachievers and passive saps that many Americans have become. This is not the way to confidence, self-esteem and efficacy, either.
The purpose of psychotherapy is deeper than correcting problems. Correcting problems is necessary, but not enough. Good therapy ought to teach you, and help you internalize, a rational philosophy of life. Therapists are life coaches of psychology, and in order to be useful they must grasp themselves what a rational philosophy of life is.
Most people are lost, when it comes to reason and rationality in daily life. The few who don’t feel lost have latched on to supernatural beliefs which, to them, explain everything — at least for a time, and at least if they don’t ask too many questions (such as, “Why does a benevolent and just God allow children to die in tragedies, or evil to take over so much of the world?” or ‘What proof is there of a Heaven?’)
Our society is mostly secular, so not many people latch on to religion any longer. But they’ve replaced it with the cultural mindset of subjectivism. This leaves them every bit as lost, if not even more so, than they are with the various ideologies of supernaturalism. They’re taught to feel, feel, and feel, but don’t know what to do with those feelings. They don’t grasp the necessity and power of reason, not just in the business world but in their personal relationships and daily lives. There’s a huge need for a good psychotherapist with a rational philosophy in the life of anybody struggling with this unmet alternative to “do as I say” dogmatism and “do as you feel” subjectivism.
Living by your feelings and impulses, without reason and objectivity, is not liberating. Because of the confusion and helplessness it fosters, it ultimately leads you back to the attitude of authoritarianism: “Do as I say.” That’s happening in our society today, as government takes over more and more of our lives in what was once a largely free, spontaneous and prosperous society. This is no accident. People are increasingly mentally ill and weak because they don’t practice reason in their daily lives. The less that most people know how to practice reason in their daily lives, the more their authoritarian “betters” are happy to take over for them. Politicians, the least competent and rational of us all, leading the helpless masses? Talk about the blind leading the blind!
The sick society needs good therapy and the rational philosophy of life which it teaches and fosters. Yes, your therapist should help you develop a game plan. The game plan is not subject to the approval of your therapist. It’s subject to logical consistency with objective facts, and what you personally choose to have in your life. ‘IF you want X, then this is the most logical way to get there.’ This is what your therapist helps you discover.
Like it or not, you’re in the driver’s seat of your life. This isn’t merely how it should be; it’s how it is. If you believe that somebody else — including the therapist you call doctor — will take that over for you, then you’re suffering from the biggest illusion of all.