While reading an interesting article in the Sunday New York Times about research on psychotherapy (I’ll have more to say about that article later), I came upon a quotation from a psychoanalyst I greatly admire and whose writings were highly influential in shaping the direction of psychoanalysis in recent years. It is a quote that captures my sense of what I am doing in my work as a psychoanalyst and psychotherapist. The psychoanalyst Stephen Mitchell is quoted as describing therapy as a
shared effort to understand and make use of the pains and pleasures of life’s experiences.”
There is a great deal in those few words. The practice of therapy is a “shared effort” between therapist and patient. Mitchell was an influential voice in the movement for psychoanalysis to turn more “relational.” This form of contemporary psychoanalysis is firmly focused on the relationship that exists between the two participants and understands that relationship as the cauldron for change. Each person is viewed as a participant. The analyst/therapist is not an expert, especially not an expert about this other person. Rather, she is a participant with certain skills, particularly in listening, thinking and being empathic. Mitchell defines the task to “understand and make use of the pains and pleasures of life’s experience.” How do we make use of the full range of our experience? Certainly, there is the development of understanding, what is referred to as “insight.” We are creatures propelled towards knowledge. As we know more, we have more choices (particularly when so much of behavior and thought has unconscious underpinnings). We can also find solace in understanding when dealing with life’s pains. We make use of experience in the very act of sharing/talking about those experiences. By sharing with others, we hopefully may feel better understood and closer to the other person.
There is much in Mitchell’s words in terms of what they don’t say. The Times author notes, “Therapy, in his language, is not a practice that tries to fix any one thing, but one that aspires to help its participants build the most out of the challenges that face them.” I think that is so very right. While people come to see me seeking changes in their lives, our first steps are often intended to diffuse the notion that they are there to be “fixed.” We take our cars to the shop to be fixed when not working properly. For human change to occur, aspiring to “build the most out of the challenges” we face seems to me the right perspective. To that effect, developing more compassion and acceptance of oneself is actually integral to making meaningful change.
I will write more about the NY Times article and what it says about research findings about psychotherapy. It was so refreshing to find such a succinct expression of what is fundamental to the process of two (sometimes more) people coming together to talk (what we call psychoanalysis or psychotherapy) that I had to write this post first.