In the wake of the publicity around Prince Harry’s book ‘Spare’, and the allegation that Prince William accused his brother of being ‘brainwashed by therapy’, I’m tempted to say ‘if only!’.
On the other hand, I have some sympathy with Prince William’s alleged viewpoint.
Let’s unpack this subject. Firstly, why do I say ‘if only’? I’m being facetious by saying if it were so easy brainwash our clients perhaps we’d save them a lot of time and money.
It isn’t easy sitting for weeks, months or years at a time whilst a client purports to desire a change in behaviour whilst doing the opposite. But having attended therapy for years, I know my own changes were not easy. And I’m so grateful that my therapist never exhibited frustration at my resistance.
Just as you wouldn’t push a little child into the deep end of a swimming pool without arm bands and lots of encouragement, nor would any therapist worth their salt try to crash through a client’s defences - developed for good reasons, usually in childhood - and attempt to force a change before they were ready.
When change happens, it often happens incrementally. This is due to the nature of the brain and the ego (who we believe ourselves to be) and the ego’s astonishing will to survive intact. Making change is difficult. Period.
Good psychotherapists put aside their own agenda and take the view that they don’t know what’s best for the client. The client knows what’s best for themselves. At some level they know. And although it might sometimes appear that wrong choices are being made, therapists must hold a position of humility and curiosity.
We may wonder with the client what might happen downstream if they were to make this or that decision, and so on. But we need to remember that the client has a soul and that soul has its journey and what may look like a mistake to us might be the perfect healing journey that client needs to undertake in order to develop a particular quality or set of qualities to help them become more whole. To individuate.
Gestalt therapy refers to the process of individuation (or becoming whole) as ‘selfing’. Selfing is a dynamic process. So, when we respond in the same old way to challenging situations (choosing to avoid confrontation, for example, or choosing full-scale confrontation as opposed to calm dialogue), we are in a very real sense avoiding our wholeness. When we take a leap of faith and choose a different way of responding to challenges, we are ‘selfing’ - taking a step towards becoming whole.
So, back to Prince William’s alleged viewpoint - can therapists brainwash clients? Can they influence their clients? Of course! People can be influenced by many things - nature, nurture, our experiences, our friendship groups, what we choose to read and so on. So when we are in crisis and reach out and find a therapist in whom we place our trust - yes, of course there is the potential for undue influence.
Psychotherapy training is about not influencing our clients. It’s about providing the right environment, holding space and allowing clients to find their own, best way forward.
Ideally, we therapists are like Sherpa guides - we know the terrain, we have plenty of experience of the territory in all kinds of weather, we can to some extent suggest the best paths to take. But we don’t direct or decide. The route, the speed, the stops en-route, changes of direction - all these are the client’s decisions. We assist the explorer as best we can.
In the therapy process, we do this by asking open questions (questions not requiring a yes/no answer) and allowing the client to explore their inner and outer worlds without interference from outside influences.
However, some people are very receptive, searching for somebody authoritative to make decisions on their behalf. This can be alluring for some therapists and there’s a need to avoid being unconsciously recruited by clients wishing for this.