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The Limits
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Page Contents: Introduction / Desire / Social Desirability / Politics / Counseling / The Desire of the Psychotherapist

 

 
ALTHOUGH many individuals and organizations might try to tell you otherwise, the science of psychology, and its clinical application in psychotherapy, have their definite limits. Here are some of them.

 
Desire

Psychotherapy can reveal to you what you unconsciously desire, but it has no right to tell you what you should desire. Even the concept of “reprogramming” is just psychobabble and has no place in psychotherapy. Who, after all, will do this reprogramming? What will be the basis for and substance of this reprogramming? And by what authority will this all be done? The psychotherapeutic encounter must be just that: a genuine encounter with the unconscious through free will and personal responsibility.

 
Social Desirability

Psychological research might be able to describe what happens when a person experiences a particular event, but neither psychology as a general science nor any psychological organization has any authority to say that anything in particular does no harm morally or that it should be advocated politically in society.

 
Politics

Politics is an adversarial system in which individuals obstruct their opponents’ goals with the hope of eliminating the opponents altogether. Psychology, however, must be based in the hope of making peace with your internal “enemies” so as to find healing; it’s not about “getting rid” of pain or blaming others. Therefore, nothing in psychology needs to be expressed in political terms because psychology is about helping you find out what you want to do, not about telling you what to do. Or, to say it another way, whereas politics tries to dictate the behavior of others, psychology helps you willingly change your own behavior.

So remember that it’s simply not possible to use blame, hatred, and aggression to make someone else—or yourself—act with kindness. And for that very reason, “political correctness” has no place in the consultation office. There’s room only for three persons: you, your psychotherapist, and the unconscious.

 
Counseling

Counseling (or “counselling” in British English) should be distinguished from psychotherapy because the two processes are different aspects of psychology and have different “ethics,” or underlying philosophies. Neither ethic is “better” than the other; you should, however, understand the difference. I, in fact, have an MSE in Counseling as well as a PhD in Clinical Psychology—and I sometimes mix the two approaches of counseling and psychotherapy when I provide Spiritual Direction. So the difference between counseling and psychotherapy is not just a simple matter of more or less education or training.

A counselor—whether a school counselor, a drug and alcohol counselor, or any other counselor—is, in the end, trying to “get you” to do something. Are you using drugs? Then the drug counselor will try to get you to stop. Are you disrupting the corporation? Then the job counselor will try to get you to obey the regulations. As such, a counselor’s ethic is about getting you to adapt to and function smoothly in a particular social role.

Although a poorly trained psychotherapist is not much different from a counselor in terms of ethics, a well-trained psychotherapist should have an ethical system directed to helping you to disentangle yourself from the desires of the world around you, rather than adhere to the psychotherapist’s desire. (Note, however, that certain forms of brief psychotherapy, as in Managed Care, are not much different ethically than counseling.)

  

AN EXAMPLE

The differences between the approaches of psychotherapy and counseling can be subtle, and sometimes the counseling approach may be preferred, and even necessary, as in beginning substance abuse treatment.
 
But let’s suppose a person is having problems dealing with the death of a close family member.
 
A counseling approach would attempt to lessen the symptoms in order to get the person back to work as soon as possible.
 
A psychotherapeutic approach would focus on stabilization, at first, but it might also be led (by the client’s dreams and other associations) to work on underlying (and often unconscious) issues such as old guilt feelings or long-standing personality and relationship problems. In this approach, the client might discover issues that have been “hidden away” all these years and are now becoming more troubling. In learning to acknowledge them—to be more honest with his or her limitations, and to trust his or her creative potential—the client might end up discovering a whole new way of living. And—ironically (who knows?)—there is always the risk that the client might even decide to quit his or her job in the process of finding a more meaningful life.
 
But let’s not be deceived into thinking that psychotherapy can reveal to you some deep, inner mystery of a “true self.”
 [1] Psychotherapy can show you how to live your humanness with honesty and integrity. What you do then is anybody’s guess. Psychotherapy simply makes a gamble—a bet on the unconscious—that the therapeutic journey into the “unknown” will be worthwhile. The ethic of counseling, on the other hand, relies on the proven limits of a safe and well-known party line.

  

 
The Desire of the Psychotherapist

The practice of psychology is, after all, a job, and your psychotherapist should have only one desire: to help you get close to your unconscious motivations, and to change them if they are causing you problems. Your psychotherapist should want nothing from you except fair payment for a job well done—and this demands a well-defined therapeutic neutrality.

  

NOTE WELL

Sometimes a psychotherapist works for an agency or in a government setting that is more concerned with its own needs than yours. You would be well advised to recognize this and to understand exactly whose desire your treatment is fulfilling.

  


 
You have a right to know how your psychotherapist or counselor thinks about these points. I, myself, would not want to entrust the guidance of my life to anyone who wasn’t perfectly clear about the nature and limits of his or her job.

Remember one thing: the world is unfair, and your psychotherapist or counselor should be helping you to cope with an unfair world, not to pretend that he or she can make the world less unfair.

 


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Notes:

1. Jacques Lacan, “The signification of the phallus.” In Écrits: A selection, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W. W. Norton, 1977). See p. 287:
    “In any case, man cannot aim at being whole (the ‘total personality’ is another of the deviant premises of modern psychotherapy), while ever the play of displacement and condensation to which he is doomed in the exercise of his functions marks his relation as as subject to the signifier.”

 
Additional Resources
 
Related pages within this website:
Consumer Rights and Office Policies
Dream Interpretation
Honesty in Psychotherapy
Managed Care and Insurance Issues
Psychology: Clinical or Counseling or...?
Psychological Testing
Questions and Answers about Psychotherapy
Types of Treatment
The Unconscious
 
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Psychology is a complex subject, and many issues are interrelated. And so, even though you may find a topic of interest on one particular page, an exploration of the other pages will deepen your understanding of the human mind and heart.

Psychological Practice
To Become a Psychologist
Choosing a Psychologist
Confidentiality
Consumer Rights and Office Policies
Honesty in Psychological Treatment
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The Limits of Psychology
Managed Care and Insurance
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Psychology: Clinical and Counseling
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Termination of Psychotherapy
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Throughout this website, my goal is simply to help you realize that although life can be painful, unfair, and brutal, it doesn’t have to be misery.
 
The practice of good clinical psychology involves something—call it comfort—which does not mean sympathy or soothing, and it certainly doesn’t mean to have your pain “taken away.” It really means to be urged on to take up the cup of your destiny, with courage and honesty.

 

 

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A Guide to Psychology and its Practice

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