Climbing to the Mountain Top: Debunking the Myth of the Therapist Guru.
Socrates taught by asking questions. Therapists have the great privilege of being asked questions every day. A general assumption in society is that therapists possess some wisdom and that wisdom can be imparted to clients for an hourly fee. That assumption is not so much a problem when it is held by the client, but the idea is toxic when held by the therapist. Therapy is something you create together with your client. It is not merely the dissemination of information, facts, or techniques. It is a way of being with a person that makes most of the impact. And if the Socratic method of teaching is to inform us, it is the person asking the questions that is the teacher—the one answering is the student. Perhaps this is why so many therapists report learning so much from their clients.
Naïve or young therapists do their best to answer the questions put before them. They long to be helpful and their empathic heart eagerly offers each client their best. They often quote “evidence-based research” to ensure their information is reliable. The new therapist is deathly afraid of being found out a fraud, so they devour scholarly journals and good books on depression and addiction so they will not be found without something worthwhile to say to the desperate client. This acquisition of knowledge soothes the young therapist because in the event that their advice does not work, they have the research to fall back on. They recruit experts and evidence and are ready to blame the client when things do not go as promised. The evidence based treatment, after all, does not guarantee success. Even the best interventions, when studied, don’t come anywhere near 100% efficacy. But therapists are relieved by the idea that these practices are not theirs alone. They are the property of the proverbial “they” and this distance removes ownership of the therapist’s contribution to the process. Of course, the last resort is to blame the client when things don’t go well.
After some time, the attentive therapists notice that many of their answers do not work and the subsequent pain experienced by the specific client is not lessened by the fact that it works with many others, even if that many is a majority. A therapist may begin to consider that while they may know some truths, they do not know the client’s truth. The therapist's education and training is framed by concepts and ideas that inform them on the process of therapy. The client's truth is to be discovered as the therapist looks for it and invites the client along for that discovery.
Some young therapists imagine they are good people and point to their life as proof, “I am happy. I have a good life. I have figured it out and I am here to teach you how to do it like me.” I see this a lot in my particular field. I work with a lot of young people, adolescents and young adults who are clearly suffering and struggling. And I see therapists teaching their clients about right and wrong, often using guilt and shame as the guide. That is not therapy. This is not the process of enlightenment. From Adyashanti,
“Enlightenment is a destructive process. It has nothing to do with becoming better or being happier. Enlightenment is the crumbling away of untruth. It's seeing through the facade of pretense. It's the complete eradication of everything we imagined to be true.”
Becoming an effective guide to someone who is struggling isn’t so much about imparting our goodness on them, but as Jung suggested it is about learning to know our own darkness which increases the capacity to see and deal with it in the client.
If we fall into the practice of advice giving, we take on the responsibility for someone else’s life. We can talk about ideas, share stories where we have found something to work for us in similar circumstances. But the minute we start telling them what to do, we rob them of the privilege of living—the discovery and development of their unique self.
"I did what you said and look how it turned out." …
"I told the truth and he just got mad at me.” …
"I did as you said and told him I was sorry, I told her how I felt, and she still left me." …
"He's not talking to me anymore." …
"I went to Alanon, went to therapy, held my boundaries and he died."
Therapists who allows themselves to look at the problem of the guru therapist and be honest with themselves come to the conclusion that none of the answers work if one of the answers doesn’t work. When I was newly out of graduate school, I was a clever therapist. I thought that meant I was wise—it didn’t. I was bright and had a capacity for dialogue, story telling and complex clinical vocabulary. But after many of my suggestions failed to produce the client’s desired result, I came to understand that I was being asked the wrong question. Or maybe it was the wrong person (me) that was answering the question. A therapist who is learning from his therapy comes to understand that the questions of "What should I do?" are less helpful questions. The only helpful questions are the ones the therapist can't answer. The only helpful questions are the ones the client can answer and these are the questions the therapist must ask the client:
"What do you want?"
"What do you feel?
"Who are you?"
When we adopt a curious posture with our clients, we help them to look at themselves without judgment. My therapist told me, “If you came in here and told me you were in love with a chicken, I would assume you would have a good reason and I would want to understand why.” This position suggests to the client that their defenses are there for a good reason. They came by all of them honestly—that is in the context in which their defenses developed, their family of origin, it made perfect sense. It may be true that the defenses are now unnecessary or have ceased to become useful, but they make sense. Good therapists embrace the defenses; they don’t try to break through them. When a good therapist feels the resistance, they use it to find the client—to find the original context in which that response made perfect sense.
In the end, the real guru is the one who embraces not knowing. The real guru asks more questions and gives fewer answers. The real guru learns while they are teaching because the real discovery is of the Other in the session. When we can find the child in our clients, they can find themselves and heal. And when the client idealizes their therapist and calls them Guru, they are just seeing the beautiful parts of themselves in the therapist.