Interact Journal Integrative Ideas for the Process-Oriented Psychotherapist

Categories Supervision Dialogs

On needing a witness

Does psychotherapy always need a witness? With high motivation, can’t all this emotional work be done at home?

Most of us experience many enlightening moments from time to time throughout our lives. And although we integrate what we learn into our default behavior repertoire, we usually die long before we complete all our unresolved childhood issues, let alone the existential or traumatic ones that befall us as adults.

Certainly almost none of us would choose to wake up in the morning declaring, “Oh goody, I get to begin resolving one of my psychological dilemmas today.” The reason for that, of course, is because psychological healing in the real world is usually the result of a long slog through swamps of resistance and grief. Considering such a journey in advance, most folks take one peek and quickly back away, musing, “Uh . . . the ends don’t appear to justify the means, thank you. I think I’ll just get along the way I am. Good bye.”

Change is scary, and in scary emotional situations, most of us leave the scene or distract. In the psychotherapeutic arena, it’s way easier to distract from internal work when we are alone. Most of the time most of us need an outside “other” to invite us to go deeper into our work than we might otherwise go. I suggest you experiment with yourself and find out if that is true for you.

It’s the distraction bit that is the gist of needing a witness. That’s what we pay a professional to do. We give over our power to someone who can point our nose in a direction of our choosing, and who, when we distract a bit, will encourage us to return to our path. This is hard to do by oneself.

Consider a situation where a self-therapizing person is arguing with his inner self-therapist and stalemate is reached. The executive personality may tire of the argument, shrug, and say, “Well the heck with it then. Let’s go watch TV.” Under the same circumstances, an external psychotherapist might suggest, “Okay, now that you’re done distracting, let’s get back to work. Look there, where the light I’m holding for you is shining. That’s where you left off. Try it again. I’ll be here by your side.”

Should you do personal psychotherapeutic work at home, you can usually get more done if you will pull up an empty chair and imagine an objective but caring witness. If you get stuck, you can even ask it what to do. Should you then sit in the witness’s chair and clear your mind, the suggestion of other options or the answer to your question will often float up to consciousness.

On the other hand, the integration of new decisions appears to follow more certainly if a witness is available. After the full connected experiencing of emotion in any milieu, professional or not, most people find a way to tell somebody else about what happened and only then, as they listen to themselves, do they manage to teach themselves what it is they are trying to learn.

Therapeutically sophisticated or well-integrated clients will often do their work in session with no apparent need for therapeutic assistance. Seemingly they could do the same work at home alone, but they almost never do. Even when a guide is no longer needed, nearly everyone chooses to do their deepest work with a witness as part of the environment. During deep work, the organism wants to be protected. Perhaps an external witness is perceived by the psyche both as a reality check and as a possible rescuer, should either be necessary.

Think of the psyche’s first line of defense against imminent change in session as a metaphorical Guardian On Duty. This Guardian gives permission for the work to begin in the first place and monitors the Door Inward. Even in a person’s dreams, the- one-who-watches-and-sometimes remembers, is always on duty. In dreams, its usual mode of rescuing is to wake you up!

Ordinarily done by the organism itself, this Guardian role is allowed to be taken over externally under certain circumstances. Psychotherapy appears to be one of those circumstances. The more trusted the external-other is, the more the psyche is willing to relinquish aspects of guard-duty and therefore be available to attend to resolution duties. The greater the sense of safety, the deeper the potential of the work.

Psychotherapy is relearning at a deep level. Most of us appear to learn and relearn in what I call the Educable Child mode, a state of availability where power comes from an external some place else. When the Guardian is represented by a Completely Trusted Other, we can let go of our stranglehold on the illusion that we have control, regress enough to access the Educable Child, surrender to the urge to move towards resolution, and undistractedly involve ourselves in the unresolved material.

Along with the resolution of unfinished existential business, psychotherapy invites the re-introjection of a different sense of self. The working through of the transference is the name of the phenomenon whereby a person regresses enough to give their power away and then travels again along the infant to adolescent developmental path of taking their power back. The external witness provides a Primary Object substitute, an external source of value, worthwhileness, and permission. I like the succinct way Transactional Analysis puts this introjection process:
• I decide you are okay.
• You think I am okay.
• Therefore, I must be okay.

If the introjection of okayness did not happen in infancy, any external source will do such as a mentor, extended family member, neighbor, teacher, figure of fantasy, or deity. A major benefit of having the witness be a psychotherapist committed to holding a frame of unconditional positive regard, is that the introject is bound to be positive. And once power is given away, the competent psychotherapist will insist on inviting it to be taken back.

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