Jonathan Simons, Psy.D.
Psychotherapist, Woodland Hills, CA
I must admit that I get nostalgic for the “heady” days of psychotherapy as practiced in the 1960´s and 1970´s, many years before I entered the field. Before insurance companies got involved and before this endeavor became “medicalized,” psychotherapy was an intimate relationship between two people, one serving as guide while the other explored whatever it was that brought him/her into therapy. It wasn´t about mental illness, it wasn´t about diagnosis, it wasn´t about justifying to the gatekeeper at XYZ Insurance Company why so-and-so needed X amount of additional sessions to reduce symptoms.
It may have been about developing insight, a humanistic exploration into what made someone “tick.” It may have been about digging deep into a person´s past to figure out how he/she got where he/she was. Or it may have been dealing with the existential angst of making a decision, which I believe is the root cause of most people seeking guidance. Nevertheless, it wasn´t about so-called mental illness and it was an endeavor that was highly valued and respected. I believe that in our quest to turn the most basic of human explorations into a diagnostic category, complete with lots of powerful medications, the field of psychotherapy has done, and been done, a disservice. By eliminating outside parties, perhaps we can reclaim the sanctity of human exploration.
There are literally hundreds of different schools of psychotherapeutic thought, from old-fashioned Freudian analysis (lying on the couch) with a dispassionate clinician, to straightforward, emotionless behaviorism laden with techniques. Some of these theoretical orientations are as different as night and day, while others are only slight variations of a similar theme. Nevertheless, disciples of various perspectives naturally claim that theirs´ is the best, offering the greatest result.
However, when pondering the notion of different theoretical orientations, I am often reminded of a quote I read many years ago while in graduate school from esteemed Stanford psychiatrist, Dr. Irvin Yalom. After years of practice, Dr. Yalom rather humbly realized, “It´s the relationship that heals.” I also remember quite fondly asking a mentor of mine about his theoretical perspective and he said, “I listen analytically but practice humanistically.” I liked that, too.
Humanistic psychology is rooted in Existential philosophy, those forces that literally drive our existence and are the cause of so much suffering and angst. While exploring one´s past may unearth fertile soil regarding how one currently functions, the mere fact remains that the past is indeed the past. It cannot be changed or corrected. What people seek is meaning in their current lives and a greater ability, a greater freedom, to come to grips with life´s many decisions. Instead, we have gone down a very dangerous path. Were he alive today, the very prescient Aldous Huxley, author of Brave New World, would perhaps be saying ´I told you so´ when confronted with the millions of Americans taking very powerful, albeit legally prescribed, brain altering drugs, addressing a myriad of diagnoses and often just medicating away very normal human feelings.
However, as a culture, we have shied away from the normalcy of these feelings and because of our hyper-scheduled lives don´t have time to experience them, learn from them and grow from them. So we opt for the quick fix of the cheap (and sometimes not-so-cheap) little pill. Never mind the monetary cost, sleep disturbance, sexual dysfunction, weight gain/loss; just make me better… and fast. But as these medications have proven, there is no such thing as the proverbial free lunch. What people need, perhaps more than anything, is to re-claim their precious time and allow themselves the indulgences of being human.