The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool.
I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy.
That was good advice. Good advice costs nothing, and it’s worth the price.
I’m going to try to explain why I try to avoid giving advice. And to do this, I will need to start what may be a blog long meditation on what a therapist truly knows, and what he doesn’t.
First let me be clear about a number of things:
- I don’t avoid giving advice because I’d be dispensing my services for free.
- I’m not afraid of being sued.
- I enjoy giving advice as much as the next person.
In a nutshell, the problem for me is that people think my advice would be “expert advice,” that I somehow, by virtue of my profession, know “more” about people and relationships than other people.
(This is, of course a belief shared by many psychotherapists, psychiatrists and psychologists.)
Here, I’m going to try to explain why the general public, and psychotherapists, are wrong in this shared belief.
To do so, I’ll have to confront the thorny issue of what it is that psychotherapists know, or are good at. (Because I do believe, and of course perhaps I must, that psychotherapists do have something to offer, are good at something.)
The analytic hour is a very unusual construction. Two people, in a room, both attending to the words and actions of one of them for 50 minutes. In a psychotherapeutic relationship, these hours occur regularly, at least once a week, often 3 to 5 times a week. Inevitably, as a result of this very special and unusual situation, a relationship develops, one which dispenses with much of the ordinary stuff of conversation.
Through their training, therapists learn the idiosyncrasies of this very special situation. This learning occurs both from their training analysis (psychotherapists usually undergo a long therapy themselves) and from their teachers and supervisors. The theory they learn (Freud, Bion, Klein, Lacan, etc.) is mainly written by therapists who have spent most of their lives practicing, and who have gained most of their understanding from reflecting on what happens in the analytic hour. It helps give the trainee therapists a language and frameworks within which to understand the phenomena that occur between them and their clients.
(Of course psychoanalytic theorists do not just draw from their experience in the consulting room — they bring ideas from many other disciplines to shape and illuminate their thought.)
So far, so uncontroversial.
Often, the theory is written as though it will help create an understanding of everyone, or as it’s frequently conceived, the human mind. So, though based on the practice of sitting in a room with someone for an hour (with particular constraints on the therapist, and a very specific take on how what happens should be understood), the knowledge is generalized to all of humanity. Stages of development, growth, aspects of mind, etc.
This is one reason why psychotherapists are prone to mistake themselves as experts on the human mind, human behaviour, even human being. The theory they study lends itself to this confusion.
But I don’t believe this is the crucial reason that psychotherapists so often end up “fooling themselves.” That is to do with another peculiarity of the therapeutic situation. The way in which clients come to regard their therapists as wise, intelligent, exceptional human beings.
Some of this is transference, of course. (That is, clients project onto therapist the wise, emotionally intelligent parents/mentor/holy man they wish they’d had in their lives.)
And some of it is because in this very particular situation, in which:
- they are constrained not to speak of themselves,
- all their attention is focused on the other (except as their own responses might illuminate the actions, unconscious or otherwise, of the client)
- they have the space and time to be thoughtful, to think before they speak, and
- their training and the contractual relationship with the client means they are not relying on the client to satisfy their own needs,
a therapist can be thoughtful, wise and emotionally intelligent.
In other words, in the analytic hour, a therapist can be a true mentor, not because they give advice – therapists are warned against this – but because they help their clients articulate their difficulties, their desires and their goals.
The way Lacan puts it is that the therapist is in the position “of the one supposed to know.” That is, for the purposes of the analysis, a therapist allows him/herself to stand in the place of the wise/intelligent/holy other, a focus for projection.
The trouble with this position (and this problem is not unique to therapy) is that someone standing in it, can begin to believe they are indeed wise/intelligent/holy, that they truly understand the human mind and human behaviour, rather than, as I would argue, at best, they have a profound understanding of a very particular human situation, the analytic hour.
In the Meno, Socrates talks about the knowledge of virtue, and how, you would expect that if someone truly understood virtue, was truly wise, they would be able to pass it on to their children, or teach it. He concludes that no one truly understands virtue, because even those who are virtuous or wise, have children who are most certainly not.
I believe the same argument applies to therapists. If they did truly understand themselves and others in the way they sometimes imagine, you would expect their relationships with those with whom they are intimate (partners and children) and colleagues would be relatively straightforward, perhaps even virtuous.
This is clearly not the case. As a field, psychoanalytic organizations are as prone to schism, bullying, arrogance, envy, contempt for colleagues, disregard of inconvenient truths, as any other group of people. (There is, of course, also generosity, sympathy, respect for true learning and understanding, etc.) Neither is it obvious that the children of psychotherapists are better adjusted than those of say plumbers or policeman.
To return to the question of advice, I would therefore say that outside the area of their expertise, the consulting room, a therapist is in the same position as a scientist looking at non-scientific problems – just as dumb as anyone else.
I know this. And while I believe I’m competent, even in my more fanciful moments, gifted, in the practice inside my consulting room, I have no illusions about my “expert knowledge” outside it.
That’s why I don’t like to give advice, especially if it is understood to be “expert.” But if you have a problem with Microsoft Word, well, ask away!