In her life-changing book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, Alice Miller’s chapter about psychotherapists is titled, “How We Became Psychotherapists.” It is one of the most damning yet potentially enlightening explorations of the profession that I have read anywhere. It identifies just exactly how lost children are trained by their mothers or fathers to abandon themselves in the service of the parents and are able to so develop their intuitive and other capabilities that they later become excellent healers, confidantes, comforters, advisers, and supporters. “No wonder,” she explains, “they often choose to become psychotherapists later on. Who else, without this previous history, would muster sufficient interest to spend the whole day trying to discover what is happening in other people’s unconscious?” I smile wryly every time I read those sentences, for no truer word has been spoken about the practice of psychotherapy. Miller continues:
But the development and perfecting of this sensitivity—which once assisted the child in surviving and now enables the adult to pursue his strange profession—also contains the roots of his emotional disturbance: As long as the therapist is not aware of his repression, it can compel him to use his patients, who depend on him, to meet his unmet needs with substitutes (8).
Several readers have pointed out the obvious problems of finding competent help when healing is needed. One reason I listed a variety of means of obtaining help yesterday was that I know all too well how difficult it is to find therapists who aren’t likely to meet their unmet needs by using the client or whose own interpersonal relationships aren’t in shambles. During my practicum and internship as a psychology student, I was surprised to discover just how many therapists were themselves separated or divorced, alienated from their children, or had obvious signs of other interpersonal difficulties in their lives. One hardly cares that one’s dentist has been married twice or that his daughter has run away from home and hasn’t spoken to him in three years: his personal life has little effect on his skills as a dentist. Not so with a psychotherapist, priest, pastor or rabbi to whom one goes for healing one’s relationship problems. You want psychological help from someone who has been successful in his or her own intimate relationships. Even Saint Paul instructed new converts to Christianity to be careful about who they followed, and to “consider the outcomes of their lives” imitating only the worthy.
Certainly, one of the most robust signs of health is when a person outgrows an attitude of resignation or complacency toward being used or abused; in such relationships, the healthiest choice a person can make is to create distance, even when the movement will be away from a spouse, or one’s child. In general, though, as clients we want to look at what a therapist is doing with his or her current relationships. We must ask ourselves, is this the sort of person I’d like to become?
The Goal of Getting Help
The goal of good help is not to heal the past in such a way that it disappears as if it never happened. Rather, it is “to enable the patient both to confront his own history and to grieve over it” (Miller 106). The goal is to render a person free from inner bondages so that one can develop his own best potentialities. The goal is to acquire the tools of healing and the skill to use them so that a person can straighten out her relationship to herself and others.
The entire goal of being helped is robustly healthy, balanced, and honest relationship to others. It is also to gain an awareness of when others unconsciously manipulate or use contempt or shame to try to control you or get their own needs met. If you can do that after receiving help, you have arrived.
Sadly, all too often wounded people grow up and don’t get true help for themselves. They put band-aids on their gaping wounds or slap an attractive veneer over a psyche no more substantial than cardboard, and they call themselves “whole.” Just remember the old adage that all that glitters is not gold, and look for substance. We know it when we see it; we just don’t always know that we know.
When intelligent wounded people who are lost to themselves grow up without actually dealing with their wounds on anything more than a superficial level (if that), they inevitably find and use dependent others for self-gratification. They keep paying forward that dubious inheritance given them by their own families of origin. The dependent others they use will be their own children, other people’s children, or dependent adults. It should come as no surprise, then, that many of the walking wounded go into helping professions (psychology, social work, nursing, medicine, teaching) or have children—or both.
The particular form of their objectification and use of others depends on what their particular loss was. What appears to be good and loving parenting can be anything but that to the discerning eye, giving the hapless victim the psychic gift that keeps on giving. I have met some of the most unconscious, wound-inflicting and wound-identified people among highly regarded therapists, adoptive and foster parents, birth mother activists, and home schooling mothers than I have met among clients who knew they had a problem. Eventually, it became so unbearable to watch what such people did to their clients or children that I stopped associating with such groups almost entirely. As Buddha said, “Travel only with thy equals or better; if there are none, travel alone.”
Finding Good Help
Although I’ve already stated that a therapist isn’t necessary to recapturing one’s true self, a good therapist can certainly speed one along the way, if only one can be found. I favor depth or analytical psychologists and Jungians, obviously. Failing access to such help (and depth psychologists are hard to find in many areas), I’d settle for an analyst with a psychoanalytic frame of reference—a Freudian or neo-Freudian or some such framework. My reason is that psychoanalysts and analytical psychologists are not only trained to help search for, find, and develop the true self, but also are supposed to be in analysis themselves. They are accountable helpers, and most other types of helpers in the mental health field are not accountable in the same way. I truly believe that the humility required by such psychological accountability is essential to honest practice. I would not settle for less for myself or for anyone whose healing I hoped to support.
The most typical other sort of therapist one finds is the Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), the Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT), the Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) or MSW, or the counseling psychologist. If it’s life skills one wants, any of this type of helper should be competent to help if he or she has a degree, completed hands-on training such as an internship or practicum, and has some sort of certification or licensing or works under someone (including an organization) that does.
Much research has been done on the link between professional certification and competence as judged by the consumer. Licensing and certification mean next to nothing, empirically speaking, when it comes to the effectiveness of the professional. Much research suggests, in fact, that the introduction of licensing merely increases bureaucracy and gives incompetent professionals a bigger edifice to hide behind. However, with licensing comes the proof of basic competence: an accredited degree, knowledge of the basics in that field, and accountability. I tend to favor licensure or certification or other ways of proving that a helper has at least the fundamentals in a field before hanging out a shingle.
Training and credentials are important, but they do not insure interpersonal competence, good fit, or that a professional will be able to help you successfully reassemble the fragmented, missing, and wounded parts of your true self. Because analytic psychologists and psychoanalytic psychologists (Jungians and Freudians) are required to undergo a rigorous analysis themselves and to maintain an analytic relationship with their own analyst as they render help to others, my personal bet is always on the professional who has to regularly drag his own skeletons out of the closet in addition to helping you drag yours. I would not trust a therapist who didn’t—and, to be clear, most working therapists are not required to undergo their own therapy, nor are they required to submit to ongoing analysis or therapy.
Magicians, Shamans, and Other Oddballs
The last group of helpers I would consider if I wanted or needed help would be the non-traditional helpers who, rather ironically, are actually the most traditional helpers of all, if one considers the pre-modern era. By this I mean shamans, energy healers (including energy psychologists), priests, rabbis, psychics, and intuitives of other varieties. I’ve worked with a variety of such folks myself and find that when they come recommended, they have been as reliably helpful as many licensed, certified professionals I know.
Energy psychology is a growing field that is trying to gain legitimacy by offering certification now. I was undergoing the certification process myself, but finally dropped it because I could not bring myself to depart from my orientation to analytical psychology. I noticed, too, that energy psychology began to devolve into a cluster of techniques rather than training professionals to use the powerfully intuitive, spiritual practices at its roots. Though this evolution is necessary when one wants to certify people and give a field professional legitimacy, it also tends to snuff the life out of its effectiveness. Energy work does have its place, though, and I point it out for this reason. I would certainly consider using an energy psychologist when talk or behavioral therapy were not indicated, as in work with children, one’s own inner child, or in attempts to reclaim missing parts of the true self.
It is difficult to find a helper with clear inner vision. I think that having clear inner vision, an intuitive gift, a robust spiritual life, and a calling to help heal people all combine to make the best healers. One might find a healer like this in any of the professions I’ve mentioned, or in none of them. When I need help with something, and no one immediate comes to mind, I keep my eyes open and I pray. I search with my mind’s eye daily or regularly, and I hold the intention in my heart, until the helper or the answer appear. And they always do, even if it takes a long time.
“Therapy,” American Psychological Association
Making Sense of Psychotherapy and Psychoanalysis is a thorough, excellent and helpful 17-page introduction to psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, and, best of all, it’s free.
Miller, Alice. The Drama of the Gifted Child. New York: Harper Perennial, 1997.