I love the parable of the blind men and the elephant. That’s the story in which six blind men are standing in front of an elephant and they are asked to identify what is before them. The one standing by the tusks describes a hard, bony creature; the one at the trunk insists it is long and snakelike; and so on with each blind man describing a different part of the elephant including the ears, the tail, the leg, and the side. As the blind men debate the nature of the elephant, they each become more and more adamant that only their view is the correct one and the argument becomes increasingly heated.
This is a perfect analogy for psychotherapists from different perspectives describing psychotherapy. The psychodynamic/psychoanalytic therapists believe that exploring the unconscious to gain insight into unresolved issues from the past is the answer. Cognitive therapists want to look at people’s thought patterns and beliefs while not having much of an opinion on the unconscious, and behaviorists also thumb their noses at traditional psychoanalysts by insisting that measurable behaviors are the only thing to be considered. Perhaps the most myopic view of all is that of the modern psychiatrist who does not even do psychotherapy, but rather, views emotional distress exclusively as the result of a medical, brain chemistry problem.
Everyone would agree that the blind men who self-righteously insist that only their view is correct are pretty damn silly. The same can be said of the shrinks who are true believers that think that only their view is valid. All of us humans are the products of our thoughts and feelings, and we were all shaped as adults by our childhood experience—not to mention our biological makeup. It is only commonsense that an effective approach to therapy takes all of these variables into consideration.
So in my psychotherapy practice I consider what thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors are creating problems for my clients, and I try to get a sense of what factors from their past created their fears and insecurities. Which of these factors I emphasize in therapy—thoughts, feelings, behavior, past experiences or any other psychological phenomenon—is determined on a case-by-case basis depending on the client’s situation and his or her perspective of the problem.
Contrary to the old-fashioned stereotype, most people who come to therapy are quite high functioning and do not suffer from severe psychiatric disorders. This is certainly true with my practice. Although some of them may be depressed or are excessively anxious, they hold good jobs and are responsible adults. Their intimate relationships are where they get tripped up and run into trouble.
Although I consider myself to be a crackerjack therapist, my unrequited dream is to be a great golfer. As such, I have the ability to make everything in life into a golf analogy. You can take some half decent golfers and put them on a driving range and their swing can look pretty good. However, if you take one of those same golfers and put him or her on a championship course with hills, sand traps, and water, the guy who looked like Ben Hogan on the range may now look like someone suffering from a serious muscular disorder. From a counseling standpoint, work and social relationships are easy . They are the driving range of life, but intimate relationships are our real life equivalent to U.S. Open-style golf courses filled with all of life’s greatest challenges. To make matters more complicated, the relationship is a “system,” an entity in and of itself that is more than just the sum of the two people’s personalities. Relationships have a life of their own that reinforce each individual’s good and bad personality traits. Check out my “Joe and Gina” entry on my blog and you’ll see a husband whose extreme need to be in the spotlight reinforces the wife’s unhealthy need to be in the shadows and vice versa. My counseling practice pays close attention to the qualities and characteristics of the relationship and the way that the individual personalities affect and are affected by the relationship. I believe that this “systems perspective” insures that I don’t make the same mistake that the blind men make with their elephant.