My last post was very negative. Here’s a more positive slant on the same topic — what to read, as a beginner, to get an overview of counselling and psychotherapy.
The most important thing, as I see it, is to realize that everyone who writes a book incorporates their own point of view, and they might not fully understand the subject they are writing about, even if they appear to have good academic credentials. Many of the best counsellors and psychotherapists never write books, and many of the people who write books turned to writing because they were not very good as counsellors and psychotherapists.
Therefore, to arrive at your own understanding of counselling and psychotherapy I think you have to go to original sources. If you rely on second-hand or third-hand descriptions, you can easily be misled. Read the originals and make up your own mind.
The following original sources are some of the ones I have used myself. My knowledge of the wide field of counselling and psychotherapy is pretty limited, but I have dabbled in some of its more significant corners, and I happen to have ended up right in its present-day centre — CBT.
None of these books (except, perhaps Rogers’) is a ‘how-to’ guide that tells you what to do to become a counsellor or a psychotherapist. All of them are just starting points for exploration.
If you were limited to just one book, the one to choose would be Beck’s, below, only because CBT is where the centre of things is at the moment. But CBT is not where I started.
I probably started trying seriously to understand psychotherapy by reading Jung, although I found him mystifying and still do. My interest in Jung was accidental at the time, as I had no intention until much later of working in the field.
For anyone who just wants a broad understanding of the subject, Jung is a silly place to start. It happens that it’s where I started, but I don’t recommend it. “Do as I say, not as I do!”
I only began to grasp what Jung was about by reading his biography, Memories, Dreams, Reflections (full text online), which was written with Jung’s collaboration so as to read like an autobiography. Here are the first few paragraphs:
My life is a story of the self-realization of the unconscious. Everything in the unconscious seeks outward manifestation, and the personality too desires to evolve out of its unconscious conditions and to experience itself as a whole. I cannot employ the language of science to trace this process of growth in myself, for I cannot experience myself as a scientific problem.
What we are to our inward vision, and what man appears to be sub specie aeternitatis [from the perspective of eternity], can only be expressed by way of myth. Myth is more individual and expresses life more precisely than does science. Science works with concepts of averages which are far too general to do justice to the subjective variety of an individual life.
Thus it is that I have now undertaken, in my eighty-third year, to tell my personal myth, I can only make direct statements, only “tell stories” Whether or not the stories are “true” is not the problem. The only question is whether what I tell is my fable, my truth.
Jung, quite obviously, would have been a blogger.
Although I was fascinated by Jung’s approach to life I was not convinced by it, and fascinated but not convinced is how I remain to this day, but I can heartily recommend the biography.
As a way to understand Jung better, I (foolishly) turned to Freud. Freud was worse. Whereas Jung was openly and defiantly unscientific, which I could respect, Freud seemed merely pseudo-scientific, which I could not. I have remained suspicious of his ideas.
Freud’s central idea of an inaccessible unconscious, with a structure that only he has direct knowledge of, makes his theories seem like the nearest of all the orientations to being a religion. To understand Freud, it seems to me that you have to become a Freudian, to devote your life to it, to take part in the rituals, to adopt the dogma as your faith.
Those who have themselves adopted the dogma don’t see it like at all like that, of course. They see themselves as set free by their understanding, and the rest of us as enslaved by our ignorance…which to me only serves to make it seem even more like a religion.
However, there was one of his books that I found much more accessible. This was because it does not deal with severe mental illness, but instead with ordinary things we all have experience of: The psychopathology of everyday life (full text online)
Here are a couple of paragraphs to give you a taste of the style. He is writing about the common experience of forgetting someone’s name:
I was led to examine exhaustively the phenomenon of temporary forgetfulness through the observation of certain peculiarities, which, although not general, can, nevertheless, be seen clearly in some cases. In these there is not only forgetfulness, but also false recollection : he who strives for the escaped name brings to consciousness other substitutive names which, although immediately recognized as false, nevertheless obtrude themselves with great tenacity. The process which should lead to the reproduction of the lost name is, as it were, displaced, and thus brings one to an incorrect substitute.
Now it is my assumption that the displacement is not left to psychic arbitrariness, but that it follows lawful and rational paths. In other
words, I assume that the substitutive name (or names) stands in direct relation to the lost name, and I hope, if I succeed in demonstrating this
connection, to throw light on the origin of the forgetting of names.
For anyone who just wants a broad understanding of the subject, Freud is just as silly a place to start as Jung, but I certainly think it is useful at some stage to read Freud for yourself to see how much or how little sense you think he makes.
After a long period during which I only read dull and unmemorable books (actually I remember the very dullest of all but I would not wish it on anyone), I discovered Rogers’ On Becoming a Person.
This book gave me my first understanding of how psychotherapy works. For the first time, it made sense. As I write this now I can remember the public library where I first found it — the card index, the issue desk, the table in the reading room where I sat and thought, “Wow!” I can also remember the first client I tried my new understanding out on — after the session, his amazement at what had just happened, not knowing that I was as amazed as he was.
So this, definitely, is a place that anyone might start to find out about counselling and psychotherapy. I suspect that a potential problem with it is that it’s unbelievable, and I don’t have a cure for that. By the time I read it, I had quite a lot of background knowledge and training, so I was in a position to understand what it was telling me and also to try it out there and then with real clients.
It’s autobiographical, and put together from talks and papers written for other occasions, making it highly personal but somewhat disjointed. Here’s a passage from near the beginning of Chapter 2 (original emphasis):
It has gradually been driven home to me that I cannot be of help to [a] troubled person by means of any intellectual or training procedure. No approach which relies upon knowledge, upon training, upon the acceptance of something that is taught, is of any use. These approaches seem so tempting and direct that I have, in the past, tried a great many of them. It is possible to explain a person to himself, to prescribe steps which should lead him forward, to train him in knowledge about a more satisfying mode of life. But such methods are, in my experience, futile and inconsequential. The most that they can accomplish is some temporary change, which soon disappears, leaving the individual more than ever convinced of his inadequacy.
The failure of any such approach through the intellect has forced me to recognize that change appears to come about through experience in a relationship. … If I can provide a certain type of relationship, the other person will discover within himself the capacity to use that relationship for growth, and change and personal development will occur.
Rogers’ approach served me well, and still does, but it runs out of steam in cases of mental illness where the patient’s capacity for inner change is impaired. Something else is needed, not to replace the kind of relationship that Rogers described, but to overcome specific obstacles to change and allow the relationship to act in the intended way. I think I slid into CBT gradually, and it was quite a while before I decided to take it seriously and read the original source.
Beck’s Cognitive Therapy and the Emotional Disorders is based on a simple discovery that makes a wide range of mental illnesses, including some severe and long-term conditions, treatable by using ordinary common sense and logic in the context of the kind of therapeutic relationship that Rogers described. However, at the time Beck wrote it he knew that there was already strong disagreement between other schools of thought. This sometimes makes it difficult for the reader to disentangle Beck’s thinking from his defences against other orientations.
Here are a couple of paragraphs from near the start of Chapter 1:
When the authorities disagree among themselves regarding the correct approach to psychological problems, where does the troubled person turn for help? In view of the opposed and apparently irreconcilable views represented by the different schools, he faces a serious dilemma: He is trapped between choosing a therapist blindly and trusting to luck or trying to cope with his psychological difficulties by himself.
The solution to this dilemma may be found in an obvious, yet substantially neglected area: the rich data available in the person’s conscious ideas and in his common-sense ways of defining and coping with his psychological problems.
Although Beck distinguished sharply between his own approach and the behavioural approach, many behaviour therapists responded by incorporating cognitive elements into what remained essentially behaviour therapy. This has created widespread confusion about the term CBT.
Beck seems to have felt that his own approach did involve behaviour to some extent, and he called it “the cognitive-behavioral approach” in one place in this book. The general view is that the term CBT refers to therapy based on Beck’s work, yet there are “CBT” therapists who seem to use few of his ideas.
The original source of the behavioural approach was the work of B.F. Skinner. Here are some paragraphs from Chapter 1 of his Science and Human Behaviour (full text online):
If we are to use the methods of science in the field of human affairs, we must assume that behavior is lawful and determined. We must expect to discover that what a man does is the result of specifiable conditions and that once these conditions have been discovered, we can anticipate and to some extent determine his actions.
This possibility is offensive to many people. It is opposed to a tradition of long standing which regards man as a free agent, whose behavior is the product, not of specifiable antecedent conditions, but of spontaneous inner changes of course.
My own view of behaviour therapy is that, like therapy based on Freud’s ideas, it is pseudo-science that runs contrary to experience, but there is no doubt that both approaches remain popular and influential.
Writing this list makes me wonder whether there is a connection between where I started and where I am now. Or rather, it makes me sense that there is indeed a connection, and that it would be interesting to understand what it is. (That movement from sensing something inner to understanding it being at the heart of much psychotherapy.) Perhaps, as I learn more, this is a subject I’ll return to.