When soul informs psychotherapy

Photo: Anasazi Kiva.

Research on human attachment has improved the practice of psychotherapy in part because attachment theory gives therapists permission to be “real” people with their clients. One of my favorite books on the subject is David Wallin’s Attachment in Psychotherapy, which describes how to practice attachment-focused psychotherapy. (He’s working on a new book that looks at how therapists’ own attachment patterns effect psychotherapy.) As mentioned in an earlier post, rather than acting like “blank screens,” and relying on emotionally detached, analytical interpretations to support clients’ attempts to heal childhood wounding, attachment-focused therapists instead facilitate healthy attachment-related experiences, which invariably means engaging in real and meaningful ways.

Of course, attachment theorists aren’t the only ones who see the relationship between therapist and client as central to the practice of psychotherapy. Psychodynamic psychotherapists have made the relationship the cornerstone of their approach, although many maintain an analytical stance towards clients.

The Jungian analyst Robert Stein was an early dissenter to the emotionally detached, analytic approach to relationship. His book The Betrayal of the Soul in Psychotherapy explores the importance of making soul-felt connections with clients, which he argued requires a real, human connection. According to Stein, a soul-to-soul connection is the most healing aspect of psychotherapy (or analysis), which an analytical stance likely impedes.

The following quote is not from Stein, but rather from Jungian analyst John Ryan Haule who wrote the Foreward to Stein’s book. Haule describes the impact of the failure to witness soul. It’s a long quote, but I think an important one, especially as psychotherapy is increasingly discussed as both a failed paradigm of care and potential panacea for all that ails us.

“Mainstream psychotherapy is complicit in our cultural blindness. Its rituals were established nearly a century ago according to Freud’s ideal of scientific detachment, the very same mentality that Western culture has been pursuing since the Renaissance. It pictures the encounter of therapist and patient on the model of two separate rational egos meeting to discuss dispassionately and to ‘analyze’ the unconscious forces that interfere with the patient’s attempt to live a rational life. The analyst is urged to be cool and emotionally uninvolved. In its most emphatic form, the ritual envisages an analyst who acts as a ‘blank screen’ for the projections of the patient. The patient is to learn as little as possible about the personality of the analyst. Rather the patient’s ‘projections’ recreate the neurotic structure of his life in the form of a ‘transference neurosis’ which can be dispassionately deconstructed.

“There is no place in such a scheme for the naked and disturbing encounter of soul with soul. In fact, therapy amounts to a ‘strange distortion of the human connection,’ where one party strives for objective distance while the other is urged ‘to become completely involved and entangled emotionally’. Psychotherapy as usual is an inhumanly structured encounter that blatantly repeats the injurious frustrations of the child whose parent refuses to engage with his soul. While the therapist is seen as a scientist/technician who coolly observes and measures, the patient becomes merely an object to be inspected, probed, and readjusted.

“In mainstream psychotherapy—as in our culture as a whole—the soulful human element is seen as a dangerous and destructive force that has to be held at bay. When Eros enters the space between therapist and patient, stirring up the terrible forces of soul meeting soul, we become convinced that something has gone wrong. We feel the overpowering draw to engage and the equally strong anxiety, shame, and confusion that Eros always generates. But we do not see it as an awe-inspiring mystery. It never dawns on us that this might be the first appearance of a healing and transformative energy. Rather we fall into a panic, terrified at the prospect of ‘sexually acting out’.”

Caginess often surrounds talk of love, soul, and psychotherapy. Where in our training do we learn how to deal with the first breaths of a long-dormant soul, let alone work with the formidable passion and energy that such deeply felt stirrings can release? Perhaps therapists should be a bit cagey, since therapy and sex should never mix. The impact can be so damaging as to lead to suicide.

Yet when therapists’ own wounds have led them to search the depths of their own souls, they often intuitively understand the path the client must take to fill a self that feels hollow, thus revitalizing the client’s self-love. This intuitive understanding may be the first meeting of the soul of the therapist with the soul of the client, even without therapists ever speaking a word of their own wounding. Such deep knowing can spark feelings of kinship and heartfelt compassion in the therapist, igniting a sense of commitment and containment that no doubt the client senses. This is part of the necessary crucible for healing. And if self-love is the goal of therapy, then it’s hard to imagine transformation and healing occurring without the therapist’s love and soul somehow in the mix.

References

Stein, Robert. 1998/1973. The Betrayal of Soul in Psychotherapy. Spring Journal Books: Woodstock, CONN.

Wallin, David J. 2007. Attachment in Psychotherapy. New York: The Guilford Press.

© 2014 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography). 

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