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Mutual Therapy

 

When a therapist’s own issues or emotional sensitivities threaten to intrude upon his work with a client, this is called “countertransference,” and it’s a major professional no-no. Therapists are thus trained to monitor and “bracket” any such personal emotional stirrings, to prevent them from contaminating what is supposed to be an entirely clinical, i.e., objective interaction with the client. Nevertheless, some clinicians might admit, perhaps cautiously, that this same self-monitoring also occasionally guides them to the client’s underlying issue. For by noticing that their own emotional network has been triggered by something the client has just said, the therapist may also be intuiting (not just deducing) what is going on with that client.

Controversial as the above statement might be at a meeting of professional therapists, if Dr. Peck is right that “any genuinely loving relationship is one of mutual psychotherapy,” the management of countertransference is something we must all now come to grips with. For it is inevitable, indeed desirable that we become emotionally engaged in our loved-one’s process; a process in which we, unlike the therapist, have both a personal and an ongoing stake.*

But things get devilishly complicated the minute the therapeutic conversation becomes a two-way street. For unlike the detached clinician, the mutual therapists are called not just to monitor their emotions but to voice them. And it is precisely such two-way emotional give and take that tends to bring people to a therapist or marriage counselor in the first place. In short, it's much easier to counsel someone about their relationship than to work effectively (but without the neutral third-party) on our own!

That said, objectivity and emotionality need not be at cross-purposes, much less mutually exclusive. What the conventional wisdom overlooks is that maintaining objectivity once the emotional dust has been kicked up is a spiritual, not just a clinical challenge. It is about keeping the ego, not the emotions per se, in check.

Ego is the mother of all defense mechanisms. When a conflict erupts, it circles like a vulture, hoping to subvert the parties’ will to communicate. And when ego penetrates our emotional field, defensiveness is the behavioral product. Defensiveness is our neurotic stasis, energized by projection, then commandeered by ego. It is emotion gone bad.

Our very reactivity to someone else’s communication thus alerts us that objectivity is, to that extent, at risk. But the interaction may yet prove a blessing depending on what happens next. If we hand ego the reins, our relational work-in-process degenerates into defensiveness, sabotaging the communication. But if ego can be contained, that same emotion will eventually ripen – into the very intuition (psychospiritual insight) on which effective therapists have always relied.

In this sense, all emotion is nascent intuition. Intuition, in turn, is emotion, inuring itself to ego so as to attain its wisdom. And such wisdom -- born of emotion, not intellect -- lights the way to our eventual healing.


   *I’m a big fan of Carl Rogers, but his famous claim of “unconditional positive regard” for his clients has always baffled me. When the very regard is metered out in 45-minute sessions, going for $150 per dose, I don’t know how anyone can call that “unconditional.”

                                               NOTE TO READERS

For more discussion of the implications of "mutual therapy" in both the relational and the corporate, management-consulting contexts, see the author's personal correspondence with Dr. Peck and the chapter on "Community-Building," both accessible via the Navigation Bar.