After my third book, ‘Bad Therapy, Good Therapy (And How to Tell the Difference)’ went on sale last year, I received a number of emails asking if bad therapy is better than no therapy at all. My answer is ‘No.’
Good therapy should empower clients, i.e., provide the psychological tools to help them take charge of their lives. It avoids the clich Freudian alternative of silence, rather than openly giving advice. Of, course, there’s such thing as too much advice, as Dear Abby-style advice givers dispense their brand of counseling with reckless simplicity. Good therapy doesn’t fall into either of those traps. The good therapist believes that reason is the best method for solving emotional problems, and actively helps his or her clients to better use their capacity for reason.
TV, and (sadly) some therapy offices, are full of advice givers. Though usually well intentioned, they try to do the reasoning for the client. The cartoon-like Freudian, on the other hand, encourages the client to feel the feelings, but not to apply any reason and thought to them. I use the word ‘reason’ a lot. Reason is the process of combining abstract conceptualization with our senses, i.e., sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch. To conceptualize is to condense the bits and pieces of perception into more generalized, theoretical information. Using reason, all that information is then integrated into abstract concepts such as ‘honesty,’ ‘career’ or ‘country.’
All human beings can conceptualize. When a child grasps that all flat surfaces with four legs are tables, he has formed the concept ‘table.’ When a young adult understands 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 similar, but more advanced level of concept formation.
Good therapy empowers the client by encouraging him or her to rely on logical judgment. The good therapist is neither remote nor controlling. He or she works to help the client better understand the relationship between thoughts and emotions, so the client can discover the origin of his or her psychological problems.
A good therapist helps the client understand that feelings are not necessarily facts. Feelings are nothing more than automatic responses to an object, event or person. They’re not bad, but by themselves they’re not a means of discovering the truth about anything. Here’s an example: If one is depressed, one needs to identify the thoughts and conclusions that led to the feeling that life is hopeless. This process may be difficult, and for a depressed person, it usually requires the help of a good therapist. That therapist may say to the client, ‘I’m sincerely sorry you feel life is awful. Can you prove to me that life is awful? Let’s first look at the facts, and then see 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 come up with reasonable solutions for improving it.
The bad therapist derails this empowerment process by inaccurately seeing feelings, by themselves, as a means of defining reality. ‘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.
Thought and reason, and only thought and reason, can validate or invalidate feelings. Coupled with input from the therapist, a whole host of emotions might arise from a series of assumptions and conclusions. Some may be correct and others may be mistaken. Human logic is not infallible. 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 of piloting a jet or discovering a cure for cancer.