Recently I read an article about a budding new profession called “coaching.” A coach, it seems, finds out what you want to change about yourself and thereafter supports you in meeting your own goals by encouraging self-discipline and positively reinforcing the learning of new habits. Coaching is results-focused, the article continued, and more inclined toward success than making new year’s resolutions. Besides, the author suggested, as in psychotherapy, talking to an outsider might, on occasion, be a useful thing to do.
My impassioned response to this last sentence immediately transported me to philosophical wonderland, which is a semi-conscious place my mind often resides as my body goes about shopping and gardening. So I was more than ready when several days later one of my interns said, more or less, “Why am I doing all this work for a license when I could just set up shop as a coach and start supporting myself by this time next week?” “I dunno,” I replied, “I guess it depends on whether you want to work on the presenting problem or with the underlying issues.”
Off in wonderland, I had been mulling over how often it is that I feel seduced toward coaching in my own psychotherapy practice. “Family therapy” can morph so easily into teaching folks mostly basic stuff: communication skills, taking responsibility, parenting skills, how to listen for understanding, and generally how to behave in a relationship as if you cared about other people and valued living in community. People often come to psychotherapy hoping the therapist can prescribe the perfect fix for a mismatched relationship, help them overcome performance anxiety, rid them of addictions, stop peculiar and annoying habits, and cure post traumatic shock. Preferably in 8 weeks or less.
The whole idea makes me tired. My fantasy of psychotherapy has nothing whatsoever to do with me butting into somebody else’s business. It certainly does not involve me holding the agenda that when the client stops spending time in session, he’ll be different than he was when he started. Quite the opposite.
Well that’s not entirely true, because I don’t have the agenda that he won’t be different than he was when he started, either. I have an agenda all right, but my agenda is not for the client. It’s for myself. My goal is to hold the client in a container of unconditional fascination, to need nothing from him, to trust him completely, and to invite him to do the same, all with no investment in the outcome.
Here’s the metaphor I use: Whatever issues the client works on, whatever he experiences, however he relates to me, whatever he says or does or doesn’t do, whatever interventions I create, whether I reframe his antics positively, create physical enactments, invite him to attend to himself, or invite him into his unfinished traumatic, developmental and existential gestalts, there is always something else going on in the room. This is it what it is. His unconscious creates in the session a re-enactment, a re-dramatization of some primary relationship. We are both players on his stage. Usually, but not always, I get the role of parent.
When I’m designated the parent, I take my job to be doing the role of “parent” differently (more accepting) than the client experienced it his first time around. My observation has been that if he will allow his transference to open up the receiving, child-like, learner part of his psyche, the introjection of new options will naturally take place. These new options include the possibility of a new ego-identity, new ways of problem solving, and new alternatives both for perception and behavior. Most useful in my opinion, is the option for him to trust completely the miracle that is his mind-body. In effect, my self-defined job description is to provide an environment where the reparenting of the Self is possible.
So I have a confession to make. I’m not much interested in the presenting problem except for how it is an expression of unresolved trauma. Attending to my own behavior is difficult enough; I’m much too lazy to assist someone else to change theirs. Coaching seems like a good idea. But it is not for me.
I like the magic of psychotherapy. Nobody knows how it really works. I hold the view that somehow in an environment of unconditional positive regard, a human has no choice but to go sane. As far as content goes, I prefer dealing with the Really Big Issues. You know the ones: separation, control, purpose, attachment, acceptance – the list is slightly different each time someone names it. And as to process, I prefer working within the relationship between the client and myself, me providing unconditional appreciation and him struggling against the natural unfolding of himself, the laws of physics, and his own illusions.