As I prepared to write this article, I began thinking back on my experience writing the “Tools of Transformation section” for Newtopia Magazine over the last year. Something vaguely troubling began to emerge in my reflections. I sensed there was an underlying question starting to emerge in my writing, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was that was making me uncomfortable. It’s hard to write about something that you don’t have language for, so I kept trying to write this article from different angles. I tried writing an autobiographical account of my discovery of marital and family counseling when I was in high school. At that time, my father and stepmother had sought help from a Catholic Priest who had some training in the approach of Carl Rogers. I wrote up an account of my relationship with two priests in the Episcopal Church I grew up in, who listened to me, counseled, supported, and guided me in my high school years following my mother’s death. Then it dawned on me, I was composing an apology for psychotherapy. I wanted to show how valuable a resource psychotherapy is. Not only can it help you get through troubling times, I wanted to say, but it can affect and inspire significant changes in the person that you are, and the person you are likely to become.
The truth is that psychotherapy not only changed my life, it saved my life. It’s not that I was suicidal, but that I was becoming more and more numb inside. I had only two emotions, anger and happiness. I was living almost entirely in my head, while teasing and being sarcastic with my friends. So my years working on myself in therapy have helped me to become a kinder, more open, and more loving person. During my years as a client in therapy, and my years as a therapist in training, I learned to feel what I truly felt. I learned to say what I actually meant. I learned to be mindfully aware of my interior life. And finally, I began to learn what it meant to be intimate, to be able to fully disclose what I was experiencing, both during and after the experience. I emerged from each of my therapeutic relationships feeling that I knew myself and understood myself better than before. In addition to these accomplishments, I began to know more and more fully how scared and vulnerable I felt in relation to the people that I cared most about. As I grieved the losses of my mother and my aunt, and as I became aware of and worked through the troubled relationship I had with my father, I recognized the strength of the bond that I had with each of them, the richness and beauty of each relationship, and the terrible pain that accompanied my losses.
So I guess it’s not all that surprising that my section here, which attempts to translate many of the things I have learned, as both client and therapist, into tools that people can use for themselves, also insists that psychotherapy is a tremendously powerful learning experience; that it is a way of accomplishing what Socrates insisted was of ultimate importance, that we know ourselves. This knowledge, he says, creates the path that leads to a moral, compassionate life. So in writing “Tools” I have, without my fully knowing it, tried to straddle the great divide between the “do it yourself” approach of rugged individualism and the “it’s OK to need help” approach of the healing community. Many of my articles offer different therapeutic tools and approaches that people can master, and then end up suggesting that working on oneself is best done with the help of a therapist/guide who has training and experience with these methods. This is, in fact, what I believe; that in matters of healing and solving the problems of the psyche, there are tools that we can learn ourselves, but that healing work is best done with the guidance of a psychotherapist, a spiritual teacher, a coach, or an accomplished intuitive healer.
The good news here is that there truly is a community of healers in our present day world, and this community is growing in size and in competence almost exponentially. In my experience, as this healing community grows, it is becoming more inclusive, and simultaneously, more diverse. In my early years of private practice, it seemed to me that the emerging schools of psycho-therapeutic thought were very competitive with one another. Psychoanalysts claimed that psychoanalysis was the only effective method for healing neurosis, while at the same time declaring that only truly intelligent people were good candidates for their method of treatment. Behavioral therapists insisted that only their form of therapy was scientific and understood the neurology of the brain. All other methods were written off as fictitious voodoo practiced by people who subscribed to myth and fantasy. The schools of existential psychotherapy insisted that the psychoanalytic model was inhumane, and that a therapist needed to be an authentic person, not a blank screen for the patient to project on. I think you get the picture. These passionate conflicts between different schools of thought were very similar to the religious disagreements between people of different religious persuasions. Each school of thought insisted that they had it right and that everyone else was mostly, regrettably wrong.
Recently, I have had a set of learning experiences that have helped update me on how healers and healing practices have been evolving over the last few years. I have been watching streaming videos of interviews of psychotherapists of varying persuasions on a variety of topics ranging from the treatment of anxiety, approaches to healing traumatic experiences, and the importance of understanding the role of attachment in the formation of healthy relationships. These interviews are being conducted by Rich Simon, the Publisher of the “Psychotherapy Networker,” a magazine that has discussed the latest practices in psychotherapy for many years, and has now developed this series of informative online training interviews. These seminars can be purchased for CEU’s, or watched for free on a more limited basis, by practitioners of psychotherapy and counseling. The content of Dr. Simon’s interviews is useful and often inspiring. What has been most interesting for me, however, is the sense of respect and high regard that so many of today’s psychotherapists have for one another, no matter what school of thought they come from.
Credit for this more cordial and collegial approach to different schools of thought goes to other people and organizations as well. The Milton H Erickson Foundation, located in Phoenix Arizona, has conducted seminars and conferences for many years under the broad umbrella of “The Evolution of Psychotherapy.” These exciting gatherings give practitioners like myself the opportunity to spend time with the best and brightest among us, so that we can be brought up to speed on the latest developments in the practice of psychotherapy. Milton Erickson, the man for whom the Foundation is named was one of the most innovative practitioners of psychotherapy in human history. Recognized as the Father of modern hypnosis and strategic intervention, Erickson claimed to invent a new theory for every person he worked with. “You are as unique as your fingerprints” was his constant mantra, and the variety of strategies and methods that he used to help his patients is awe inspiring. When Dr. Erickson recognized that he was coming to the end of his life, he had the wisdom to train practitioners from different schools of thought in his multidimensional approaches to healing. In doing so, he created a community of psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, ministers, nurses, all masters’ degreed professionals, people who subscribed to a remarkably diverse philosophies, schools of therapeutic thought, and approaches to the healing arts.
Erickson, ever the master strategist, likely knew exactly what he was doing. The Foundation that bears his name has continued his work in the twenty odd years since Erickson’s passing, by bringing together therapists of differing points of view as both students and teachers. As a result, there has been a continuing process of cross-fertilization that has greatly increased the respect and appreciation that members of the psycho-therapeutic community have for one another. This has also influenced all of us to take a much more open and eclectic approach to healing. You can witness this for yourself by going to the Psychotherapy Networkers website and looking at the wide variety of topics and differing approaches to healing that are available there, and to the Milton H. Erickson Foundation web site.
If we look at the arc of the evolution of psychotherapy in my lifetime alone, we can see a number of significant changes in the way psychotherapy is practiced and changes in the disposition of practitioners toward their clients. One matter that becomes especially clear is the contemporary tendency toward the normalization of human problems. Though the diagnosis of what someone is experiencing as problematic is still regarded as important, as long as serious clinical symptoms are not present, depression, anxiety, mood swings, blocked emotions, and grief are seen as normal life experiences that all human beings have to learn to manage, work through, and transform. Rather than immediately tagging the client or patient as a case of some disorder, today’s therapists are more likely to assess the person’s situation, their beliefs and values, and their family of origin’s strengths and weaknesses, without labeling the person. This normalization of the human condition tends to help people get to feeling OK about themselves faster. Eric Byrne, the founder of Transactional Analysis, suggested some years ago, that healing in therapy begins when the person decides that they are an OK person with problems. This insight is widely accepted today by many practitioners of the healing arts.
For many therapists, this development points to self-acceptance as the indispensable centerpiece of the healing experience. The work of my mentor, Richard C. Olney, who I am certain, is holding court eternally in the happy hunting ground, provides the clearest and most cogent understanding of the importance of learning experiential self-acceptance. Dr. Olney firmly believed that learning to allow ourselves to experience whatever we are experiencing in the here and now, without judgment, criticism, analysis, evaluation, or comparison, is the precursor and catalyst for transformational healing and problem solving. He taught this experientially, so that each of us who worked with him would be able to feel how powerful this process is. My second “Tools” article from November of 2011 goes into great detail about this subject. You can gain access to the article by going to the Archives and scrolling back to that issue. The spirit of self-acceptance is alive and well in much of the healing community today, and continues to be passed from person to person by people who know nothing of its originator.
Another positive development in the healing community, I believe, is the acceptance of an interdisciplinary model of holistic healing that recognizes the importance of healing body, mind, and spirit. What I am referring to here is how common it is for me to be working in collaboration with various healers that my clients are seeing in addition to me. It is not unusual to be working with an acupuncturist, an energy healer, a massage therapist, and/or a psychiatrist for clients of mine that have major health challenges. That list can also include a life coach, a physical therapist, an astrologer, or a Zen Master. For someone who values collaboration, this new reality is exciting and enlightening. Among caring, committed healers, the opportunity to consult and collaborate with one another is valued and enjoyed. This situation is an incredible step forward from the days when I might call my client’s psychiatrist, only to find that he would not speak to me. This was not because my client had not given permission, but because the psychiatrist doubted that he could learn anything from me about his patient. For the last few years, I have been blessed by having a psychiatric consultant with whom I speak regularly about each of the clients we share in common. Our ongoing collaboration has been of great help to each of us in targeting cogent issues and strategies for each client’s healing process.
In this issue, as part of a new guest healer addition to the “Tools” section, you will find an exciting piece of writing by Gina Marotta, a wonderful life coach who is practicing in Chicago. If you are curious about what coaching has to offer, be sure to read Gina’s account of how she works with her clients. You will be more than pleasantly surprised.
In next month’s article, I will begin a series on some of the more esoteric tools I use in my practice of psychotherapy. In upcoming articles, I will take up the use of the I Ching, Astrology, the shamanic journey, Reiki, and the divination practice of dousing as therapeutic options. In addition, I hope to have a guest healer, like Gina Marotta, regularly writing a piece on their particular specialty. In coming months you can expect to hear from a massage therapist, a yogi, an astrologer, and an intuitive energy healer if all goes well, and if my Editor thinks this is a good idea. I offer my appreciation and gratitude to Gina Marotta for collaborating with me, and to Toby Landesman for her amazing photographic images. You can find Toby on the web here.
Until next time, I extend my thanks to all of you for your readership. If you have a minute, please let me know what you think and feel about this article in the space below.
Article written by Thomas Goforth
Newtopia staff writer THOMAS GOFORTH is a psychotherapist and pastoral counselor working in Chicago, IL. He was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in 1967 and served as Chaplain to the Cook County Jail and the Chicago House of Correction while working for St. Leonard’s House, one of the first halfway houses in the country.. He did draft counseling and community organizing during the Viet Nam War, and was one of the founding members of the Lincoln Park Therapy Collective, an all volunteer organization which provided free group therapy for people living on the North Side of Chicago from 1968 until the mid 80′s.He helped organize the first crisis phone line in Chicago, and later helped train the staff counselors for Kool Aide Youth Emergency Services and Metro Help. He was an actor in the Free Theater Company and Rapid Transit Guerrilla Communications, two groundbreaking political theater companies performing in Chicago during the late 60′s and early 70′s. In the 80′s he helped found the Milton H. Erickson Institute of Chicago and became its third president and a member of its teaching faculty. At the invitation of Charles Shaw, he became the acting “Pit Boss” of the New Poetry Collective, the poetry arm of Newtopia Magazine in its first incarnation. Follow him at Twitter @thomas_goforth.