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Page Contents: When a psychotherapist desires to rescue clients.                    


I am . . . training [to become a psychologist] and wish to understand my own frustrations of feeling I had failed a patient I was working with; he didn’t want any treatment, yet he wanted a cure for his illness which I could not give him. I found myself wanting to “rescue” him.

This is a good question because it raises an issue that speaks not just to psychotherapists but also to all clients.

Years ago, when I was a student, a reading for one of my clinical psychology classes raised the question of whether or not a “borderline” client could be treated with psychoanalysis. Since I was in Lacanian psychoanalysis myself at the time, I asked my analyst for his opinion about that issue. Predictably, he didn’t answer. This was real psychoanalysis, and psychoanalysts don’t just answer any questions that the analysand happens to ask in the moment. Nevertheless, in one of our private seminars on Lacan a few weeks later, he gave his answer to the whole group: anyone who asks for psychoanalysis can be treated.

Of course, you have to pay attention to the carefully chosen wording of the answer. Anyone who asks does not mean “anyone who asks casually” but “anyone who seeks treatment by committing to do the work of it and is willing to pay for it.”

Now, this is a fair answer because it doesn’t rule out anyone for stereotypical reasons. Nevertheless, it does rule out many persons because only a few are willing to do the hard and rigorous work of psychoanalysis. And, by extension, this same principle rules out many persons from any form of psychotherapy in general. Only those who are willing to take responsibility for their own lives, and who are willing to work through the pain and darkness of their troubled psyches, can benefit from treatment. Or, as I say elsewhere on this website, when you want psychotherapy as much as you want to breathe, then you shall have it.

Therefore, someone who asks for a cure but refuses treatment—that is, someone unwilling to take responsibility for his own life and unwilling to work through the pain and darkness of his troubled psyche—simply cannot be helped by traditional psychotherapy. Furthermore, by extension, psychotherapists who are unwilling to take responsibility for their own lives and who are unwilling to work through the pain and darkness of their troubled psyches will feel the overwhelming urge to rescue their clients. Why? Because, in trying to rescue their clients, those psychotherapists will be unconsciously trying to rescue themselves from the pain and vulnerability they don’t want to see in themselves. And so they will bungle the psychotherapy.

Still, this isn’t the end of the story. Jay Haley wrote a classic book called Uncommon Therapy about the non-traditional hypnotic treatment provided by Milton Erickson. Erickson’s work demonstrates that, in some cases, even resistant clients can be helped in spite of their fear of treatment. Therefore, it could help all psychotherapists-in-training to be familiar with this work—and those capable of understanding its clinical significance would do well to appreciate it.


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Raymond Lloyd Richmond, Ph.D.
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