After Therapy, Style

I’d like to ask whether therapy can be positive. And I’d like to answer yes. This answer leads us smack bang into the realm of values.

Everyone I know who has come to counselling or psychotherapy has done so to deal with personal pain. This can be extraordinary trauma or the more everyday kinds of frustration and misery. We usually come to therapy to alleviate emotional pain.

Usually, when people attend therapy voluntarily, this pain can be alleviated to some extent by the person acting differently. This can be a large thing like leaving an unhappy relationship or a more modest alteration of organising tasks differently (so that we don’t have that nightly fight over the washing up).

Alleviating pain is good and important. It is also (in some sense) negative: it is about removing distress.

I’d like to ask whether therapy can be positive. And I’d like to answer yes. This answer leads us smack bang into the realm of values.

Isn’t ‘the positive’ just a set of ‘shoulds’ being imposed on the client? Isn’t it just telling a client who they should be and what they should do? And isn’t this unacceptable? To me way of thinking, (part of) the task of therapy is to expand the client’s agency and choice, not to give them another set of shoulds to follow.

This is quite a tangle. I think the tangle is there because the question is put badly. There are a couple of assumptions that I think are mistaken. The first assumption is that acting on my values means they are imposed on the other person. The second (deeper) assumption is to believe that we could act in a way devoid of values.

Firstly, I think that it is possible to be genuinely welcoming to another person, with all their differences to me. This may be experienced as strange if someone is used to a competitive way of life, but I don’t think that this kind of hospitality imposes on the other person — it doesn’t force them into a choice against their preferences or values. I think it is possible to have values and not impose them on others.

Secondly, I don’t think it is possible to act without values. Counselling and psychotherapy are based on assisting others. This is a fine value. I can’t see this value as a problem. When we are in a relationship (and counselling and psychotherapy are certainly kinds of relationship), we behave in a particular way. We may be hostile, angry, kind, impatient… What we can’t be is in a relationship devoid of value. If we were to attempt to do this — not speak, not engage at all with the other person, and remain still — this too would affect the relationship. It certainly wouldn’t be ‘value-free’ in the sense of neutral. Counselling and psychotherapy, like the rest of our lives, are value laden.

It seems to me that the question is not whether we have values, but which ones. It seems to me that it is possible for counselling and therapy to be positive and not just about relieving pain.

Which means that I need to answer that question of which values. And why should my values be regarded as being more worthy than anyone else’s? Isn’t this just another imposition?

My answer to this is that counselling and psychotherapy (even in their ‘negative’/pain alleviation mode) embody values. The values are not an end, or something which counselling is meant to serve: the values are part of the doing of counselling.

To alleviate distress does not mean, in my view, valuing numbness. Rather it is a kind of equanimity and an elated calmness (if you called this ‘joy’ I wouldn’t object). The process involves the client making sense of their experience and gaining a sense that they have a role in shaping their life. (I’m of the view that this applies equally to the therapist — but that is another discussion.) Through counselling, we can discover that we have more options than we believed (even if it is only the option of leaving).

For me, this process embodies a whole range of positive values: joy, creativity, agency, and healing/wholeness, to name the most prominent. These values I think are inseparable from doing counselling or psychotherapy. That is, if one of these was taken away, we wouldn’t be able to do counselling or psychotherapy.

What is the result of this process? I think it is that the client develops their own style. As they develop a greater awareness of the range of their experience and take initiative in these areas, they develop their own ‘way of life’. Responding to past trauma and current challenges in their own way, they develop a gradually expanding style: who they are seems to ‘hang together’.

In this sense, counsellors are ‘style consultants’. People want to alleviate their pain — and they usually want to come up with a way of doing this that is right for them. They usually don’t want just to follow a recipe from a book or therapist.

So as well as the ‘negative’ aspect of therapy — alleviating pain, which is usually what brings people to a counsellor — there is a positive part: supporting the person in finding their own way of dealing with their challenges. After therapy, the person has a more developed style.

I’m keen to hear your views about this in the comments. Do you think that therapy has any business having values? You may think it is simply a way of conning the client into conformity. If you do think that therapy needs values, what values do you think these should be? I look forward to hearing from you in the comments.

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