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A look at psychotherapy

Why the human givens approach is important for psychotherapy.


Psychotherapy, the modern term for helping people suffering distress by psychological methods, has an ancient pedigree. As a practice it must go back to whenever observant people first tried to alleviate the suffering of others. The term, however, seems to have been first coined by the great 10th-century Persian physician and polymath Al-Rasi.

When anyone suffers distress, if the situation persists, more serious emotional disorders can easily be triggered: anxiety, anger disorder, depression, obsessional or addictive behaviour, bipolar disorder (manic depression), psychosis etc. At this point, people often decide to seek help to alleviate the emotional pain they are suffering. That brings a new problem: where to go for effective treatment.

Psychiatry tends to concentrate on diagnosis and medicalising conditions, predominantly relying on drugs for treatment, with all their attendant risks — not least that taking drugs can be psychologically disempowering.

Increasingly talking therapies are where people look to for help.  But searching for a psychotherapist or counsellor is highly confusing. Estimates vary but currently there are at least 400 different 'therapy' models on offer throughout the world — which in itself indicates the general lack of shared perceptions about how best to help people.

This situation is clearly chaotic and bewildering for all concerned: members of the general public seeking help and those sincerely trying to provide it, like GPs and Primary Care Trusts.  

There is not even an agreed distinction, for example, between a counsellor and a psychotherapist.  And membership of organisations like the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) is no guarantee of competence. In fact anyone at all who helps a severely emotionally distressed person using psychological means can be said to be involved in 'psychotherapy', even if they have no training and are doing it intuitively, drawing on innate wisdom garnered from life.  Indeed, observation shows that some untrained people are more effective than some trained psychotherapists.

Just as human givens are interconnected and interact with one another, allowing us to live together as many-faceted individuals, it seems that different therapy approaches also need to interact if they are to be capable of addressing the different elements of who and what we are. Yet, there is a difficulty. As each new therapy for dealing with human distress is launched upon the world, it immediately begins a process of entrenchment, digging itself into a rut by developing a systematic philosophy that is then applied increasingly mechanically to every person with a problem.

All major schools of therapy — psychoanalytical, psychodynamic, person-centred, behavioural, biomedical, gestalt, cognitive, CBT, REBT, reality therapy, Ericksonian hypnotherapy, NLP, solution focused and so on — seemed wonderful to some people in their creative heyday. But then, so often, a mental thickening process happens. Despite the useful insights an approach may bring, the danger is that it becomes a closed systems of thought, unable to incorporate the totality of what it is to function as a human being in what it does. As complexity sets in, an approach may develop jargon that makes it incomprehensible to outsiders. Some become, in effect, therapy cults.

As a rule, when a model or approach starts getting really complex, you can be certain it is going wrong — it is trying to make up for what it lacks by inventing ever more complex jargon to explain away its failure to get results. An organic integration of the insights contained in each school then becomes almost impossible.

Some people, faced with this situation, declare themselves to be 'eclectic', endlessly studying anything and everything, picking up random techniques and ideas. But this can be equally calamitous, like someone going through a vast medicine chest and indiscriminately dishing out medications to all and sundry. That is why the human givens approach puts its emphasis on helping therapists to step back and see what to include and what to exclude, and learn why.

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