Is Bad Therapy Worse Than None? You Bet It Is

Empowerment consists of providing clients with the psychological tools to take charge of their lives as quickly as possible. It avoids the false alternative of silence vs. advice giving. The classic Freudian therapist says little to his client. On the other hand, Dear Abby-style advice givers dispense their brand of ‘counseling’ with reckless simplicity. Good therapy does not fall into either of these traps. The good therapist operates on the premise that human reason is the best method for solving emotional problems, and actively helps his or her clients to better use this capacity.

The advice giver, though usually well intentioned, seeks to do the reasoning for the client. The silent therapist, on the other hand, encourages the client to feel his feelings but not to apply reason and thought to them. The good therapist will not reason for his client, but at the same time doesn’t ignore the fact that reason exists.

‘Reason’ refers to the process of identifying facts of reality using one’s capacity for sensation, perception (sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch), and abstract conceptualization. To conceptualize is to condense the many bits and pieces of perception into more generalized, theoretical knowledge. Reason is the method by which a human being integrates perceived data into abstract concepts. We share our sensation and perception abilities with other animals, like dogs and cats, but the ability to form abstract concepts, such as ‘honesty,’ ‘career’ or ‘country’ is uniquely human.

Conceptualization, however elementary or complex, represents a capacity open to virtually all human beings, from childhood all the way to Albert Einstein. When a child grasps that all flat surfaces with four legs are tables, he has formed the concept ‘table.’ When a young adult grasps that there exist standards of right and wrong and each implies certain consequences, she forms the concept ‘justice.’ When Einstein grasped the concept of relativity, he engaged in a highly advanced level of concept formation.

Good therapy is a process of empowerment. Good therapists empower their clients by encouraging them to rely on independent, logical judgment. They are neither remote and passive nor authoritarian and controlling. A good therapist works to help the client better understand the relationship between thoughts and emotions. As a consequence, the client is empowered to discover the origins of his or her psychological problems.

A good therapist assumes (and encourages the client to assume) that feelings are not necessarily facts. Feelings are nothing more than automatic, perceived responses to an object, event or person. Feelings are not bad, but they are not, by themselves, a means of discovering the truth about anything. If one is depressed, for example, one needs to identify the thoughts and conclusions that led to the feeling that life is hopeless and worthless. This process may be difficult, and for a depressed individual, it usually requires the help of a good therapist. The good therapist has the attitude that, ‘I’m sincerely sorry you feel life is awful. Can you prove to me that life is awful? Let’s first discover what the facts really are, and whether or not your feelings correspond to those facts.’ If the client’s life does, in fact, turn out to be awful, then the therapist helps the client discover reasonable solutions
for improving it.

The bad therapist inaccurately sees feelings, by themselves, as a means of defining reality and proving a point. ‘If you feel that your husband is victimizing you, then he must be. After all, aren’t all men brutes? If you feel that your parents are abusing you, they must be. After all, aren’t all children victims of their parents’ emotional abuse?’ Nonsense. Therapy clients must bear in mind that thought and reason, coupled with input from the therapist, must provide the validation (or invalidation) of their feelings. Feelings arise from a whole series of assumptions and conclusions, some of which may be correct and others of which may be mistaken. Human logic is not infallible, of course, but substituting feelings for logical deliberation is no more productive in one’s emotional life than it would be in the technical and scientific world.

— Excerpts from Bad Therapy, Good Therapy by Dr. Michael Hurd