Sir Isaac Newton invented gravity in 1687 when he failed to pay attention while sitting under a tree and got bonked on the noggin by an apple. Before that, gravity didn’t exist, and everyone just floated around.
What can the writer possibly have been thinking? The mistake in the statement is so profound that it seems to go beyond just not knowing what the word ‘invented’ means.
If you need a fuller explanation, you can read the whole article: Boning Up (Er, Down) on Gravity
How can anyone be unaware of the difference between human inventions and natural phenomena, or think that the difference is unimportant? Or, how could anyone think that such a fundamental thing as gravity could be a human invention?
It was first said as a joke, I suppose. The sad thing is, I have just come across a real example of the same profound error.
At this time of year the autumn term is starting, and with it courses in counselling and psychotherapy all over the country. A colleague’s patient enrolled on an introductory counselling course and showed my colleague the book: Introduction to Counselling
Can a patient who is having psychotherapy take part in a counselling course? Stupid question. Can someone with a broken leg in plaster take part in a first aid course? Obviously they both can. A process of healing is under way, and there is every reason to believe that both will recover fully and be able to make use of the skills they have learned.
Anyway, my colleague told me that she thought the book was far too detailed and heavy to be useful to students who just wanted to learn the basics.
Coincidentally, the same book turned up when blogger Lola Snow described, in Late Expectations, the first session of her introductory counselling course. I had a quick look at the book myself, as far as Amazon would let me.
Here’s the first sentence of the first chapter:
Counselling is a wonderful twentieth-century invention.
What can this author possibly have been thinking? Can he really believe that throughout the whole of human history, from the first evolution of language until around a hundred years ago, people never got any benefit from talking things over with each other?
What an idiot! Oops, he’s a professor in Dundee. Well, he’s a professor who writes idiotic things, then.
Next, he provides a couple of statements of the completely obvious:
We live in a complex, busy, changing world. In this world, there are many different types of experience that are difficult for people to cope with.
But then there’s a statement that reveals a subtle bias. I wonder if you can detect what it is:
Most of the time, we get on with life, but sometimes we are stopped in our tracks by an event or situation that we do not, at that moment, have the resources to sort out.
The bias here is the thought that having something you cannot sort out immediately is not part of getting on with life, that you’re only really living life if your life is problem- free. If you think about it carefully, it’s a crazy statement to make.
Life is full of problems all the time, and many of them are problems we are never able to sort out. We live our lives in spite of all our problems, wriggling through them and weaving around them. We are never “stopped in our tracks” (except by severe illness, which is beyond the scope of this book). Life goes on.
Something quite disturbing, and worse
After that subtle hint, there’s something really quite disturbing:
Most of the time, we find ways of dealing with such problems in living by talking to family, friends, neighbours, priests or our family doctor.
Again, think about it carefully. Think about a problem that you have had. Although you might have talked to someone else about it, the likelihood is that you spend at least as much time thinking about it by yourself. We do most of our processing of problems internally, not in conversation with other people. This professor doesn’t appear to know that.
Finally, here is where the argument is leading:
But occasionally their advice is not sufficient… Counselling is a really useful option at these moments.
This guy believes deep down that counselling provides advice.
My own view, and it’s the view of most informed people working in counselling and psychotherapy, is that problem-solving occurs through internal processes in the mind. It is a natural process that no one invented. It is not dependent on conversation, although it can be enhanced by conversation. The purpose of counselling is to enhance and facilitate a client’s own internal mental processes, not to provide advice.
Of course, the rest of the book might be different, but these first few sentences give me little hope for it.
A further indication of the professor’s biased view can be found in the examples he gives of people who have experienced counselling as clients. One of them (in some editions of the book) is Anita, who is devastated by the death of her husband:
Anita only attended the counselling on two occasions, and did not find it helpful. When asked afterwards about why she thought that the counselling had not been useful for her, she said: ‘he was a nice man, but he just sat and listened, and I felt worse and worse. I couldn’t see any point in it.’.
That example is quite contrary to the experiences of many clients, who discover that talking with someone who is able to just sit and listen (without trying to give advice) has a dramatic, almost magical, positive effect for them.
Indeed, it happens from time to time in CBT that you see a patient for an assessment, and you just listen to their story. Then you say goodbye expecting to start the actual treatment next time. But at the start of the next session you can find the patient virtually cured. Just being able to tell their story to someone who knows how to listen is sometimes enough.
What’s happened in a case like this is that the patient’s internal mental processes have been freed up by the experience of being listened to. It doesn’t happen very often with patients who have been referred for CBT (and who mostly have been diagnosed as mentally ill), but it happens often enough to be a sobering reminder of the power of listening.
What’s this author really about?
The table of contents reveals what this author is really about.
First, a simple example. Suppose you look in a book about furniture making. Some of the chapters are:
- Traditional wood designs
- Aluminium and steel designs
- Composite wood and plastics designs
- Recycled cardboard tubing designs
- All-plastics designs
What do you notice about the chapters? Have you ever seen recycled cardboard tubing furniture? That chapter sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s obviously what the book is all about. The entire book has been written to give the impression that recycled cardboard tubing furniture is of equal status to other types of furniture.
In Introduction to Counselling, the chapter that stands out in the same way is the one about the narrative approach. That is the author’s personal hobby-horse, an almost unheard of technique, except in this book. The entire book has been written to give it a false appearance of equal status with mainstream approaches.
I was not able to evaluate the book’s treatment of CBT. An earlier edition seemed to confuse CBT with behaviour therapy. It’s not clear whether the most recent edition continues in that error. The chapter has certainly been moved, and I would hope that it has been rewritten, but I have little confidence that this author has sufficient grasp of the basics to understand what CBT really is.
This post has all been very negative. Soon, I’ll make some positive suggestions about how a beginner might approach the literature on counselling and psychotherapy, avoiding books like this.