A PERSONAL APPROACH TO PSYCHOLOGICAL PROBLEMS
by Allen Tate Wood
I draw my counseling approach from three sources: my therapeutic encounters, my life experiences and my academic endeavor. In this paper I shall sketch an outline of the practical, theoretical and ethical ground of my counseling method.
I approach clients from the standpoint of the content of consciousness. This includes memory, affective disposition, family history, cultural origins, language, social relations, occupation and personal cognitive set. For me, whether the client's presenting problem is cognitive, behavioral or affective, the task of the therapist remains the same. This task, loosely formulated, includes the following: to learn the language of the client; to enter into a genuine dialogue with the client, to assist the client in learning new affective, cognitive and behavioral languages, to join the client in exploring his or her distress, to assist the client in identifying and mobilizing resources in order to make developmentally creative life decisions. In general terms, I see exogenous psychopathology as constituted by a pattern of dysfunctional responses to a real or perceived threat from the environment. The goal of this form of counseling, seen from the perspective of the client, is to grow beyond the limits of dysfunctional behaviors, inappropriate affects and inflexible cognitive maps. ”
As stated in the introduction, this theory grows out of three realms of my experience: study, therapeutic encounter and life path. I see myself as a clear example of the notion that one can not separate the counselor from his therapeutic theory. My theoretical grasp of counseling is an objectification of my psyche. It is, in a sense, my psychic signature. My interest in psychology began to take formal shape back in the summer of 1971 at American University in Washington D.C. That summer while taking two psychology courses, I began reading the works of C. G. Jung . Reading Jung was a revelation to me. His interest in dreams and the unconscious mind, his theory of archetypes and the collective unconscious, his concept of individuation with its notion of withdrawal and integration of projections shone a clear light on my own life. In him I found a guide who could help me make sense out of the content of my consciousness: the dreams, aspirations, longings and intimations as well as the vicissitudes: abortive attempts at achieving independence from my parents, enmeshed relationships with women, a hidden agenda of self sabotage etc.
In addition to Jung I have been strongly influenced by two of his interpreters: Eric Neuman and James Hillman. Alongside my reading and reflection on Analytical psychology, I place my immersion in the writings of the family therapists: Salvador Minuchin, Jay Haley, Milton Erickson, Murray Bowen and Carl Whitaker. In one form or another these therapists draw on systems theory as a basis for therapeutic intervention, diagnosis and counseling strategy. Their work sheds great light on the behavior of human social systems, particularly the family as the primary matrix for growth and development and as the originator and sustainer of pathology. From these family therapists I get the notion that not only is it the job of the therapist to learn the language and world of the individual, but he or she must also learn the language of the family system from which in Minuchin's phrase, "the symptom bearer" comes.
Family Life: Crucible of Soul Making
For it is the individual's response to the family system, with its special language, elaborate transactions and subtle nuances of meaning, which forms the initial ground of the individual psyche. It is here that the therapist will find ground for both the strength and the pathology of the client. Analytical Psychology provides me with a connection to the history of individuation through its emphasis on mythology, religion and folk tales. The work of the above named family therapists has provided me with a rich variety of angles of approach to techniques of counseling as well as modes of accurately conceptualizing the etiology and transformation of intra and inter-psychic dysfunctions. These two approaches have been integrated into a third area of study: the field of addictionology, the study of addicts and the familial and social systems which sustain the practice of addictive patterns. In this area I have been informed by the writings of many people who approach addiction treatment from the standpoint of the twelve step fellowships of Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous and Alanon. These include Bill Wilson, Tim Cermak, Janet Gheringer Woitiz, Terry Gorski and others.”
I have worked in two psychiatric hospitals as a mental health worker, one home for the mentally retarded as a nursing assistant and three treatment centers for the chemically dependent as a drug and alcohol counselor. I have completed two masters level counseling internships: one in Texas and one in California. I have also worked as an adult education instructor for drug and alcohol education programs in county jails, state prisons and parole offices.
I have also worked for 25 years as a consultant to former cult members and their families. Former cult members and addicts often display behaviors and symptoms commonly associated with personality disorders and affective disorders. Like obsessive compulsives, addicts and others engaged in some form of ritual behavior, many cult members find themselves inexorably bound to an agenda which does not correspond to actual conditions around them. The addict is caught in a psychological cul de sac whose inner logic provides, at least for a while, a subjective escape from painful affect. This often includes having internalized a set of double binds which cannibalize the rest of the psyche and the body in its attempt to organize the person. The cult member displays similar features that appear to be the result of extensive environmental manipulation coupled with indoctrination. The fruits of this in the case of the cult member are a rigidly defined cognitive grid which effectively controls communication with the outside world by:
1) prescribing preset meanings to most experience; and by
2) forbidding the acquisition of new knowledge, i.e. knowledge which argues with or contradicts cult teaching by stating that such knowledge is false and, by definition, satanic.
The successfully indoctrinated cult member like the addict, is chained to a fixed internalized psychic structure . My work with cult members and their families has had two major components: counseling the cult member; and educating his or her family. The education of the family, inmost cases, is the sine qua non of counseling for cult members. The family, in order to provide nurturance and strength to the recent ex-cult member, needs to shed the kind of polarized posture which so often characterizes the families of cult members during the initial stages of their son's or daughter's involvement with the cult group. The shaming and blaming has to stop. The family and the cult counselor work together to design a mode of communication which does not degenerate into the extremes of smothering or ostracizing the cult member. In my experience the first skill required of someone doing cult counseling is a thorough going knowledge of the doctrines and practices of the group in question. Without the counselor's having a working knowledge of the cult group's special language and buzz words, it is unlikely that the cult member will let their defenses down long enough for an actual dialogue to begin.
The goal and technique of counseling for former cult members is dialogue. By this I mean working toward communication and interaction which establishes points of reference outside the closed polarized world view supplied by the cult. When a cult member begins to experimentally step beyond the borders of the rigid limits ordained by his or her cult in conversation, in behavior, in feeling and in thinking, this may signal the beginning of their recovery and perhaps the reacquisition of psychological equilibrium. My work with former cult members and their families has been guided and influenced by the writings of Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, in particular, ”Thought Reform and The Psychology of Totalism" and by Dr.Stanley Milgram's ”Obedience to Authority".
My life experience reads for me like a recapitulation of the "dragon fight" found in Eric Neuman's ”The Origins and History of Consciousness", and a case study from the annals of a family therapist a la Minuchin or Bowen, of a merged individual trying to fight his way free of the enthralling arms of a powerful and incestuous family. Among the signal events in this history I include: dropping out of college; hitchhiking across the country in an attempt to escape my family's expectations; getting caught up in an extremist cult, ultimately becoming a leader and teacher in the cult; breaking free of the cult; making a marriage which ended in two and a half years, getting my undergraduate degree in psychology; driving a taxi in L.A, tending bar in Dallas, working my way around the U.S. and Europe lecturing and counseling on the cult phenomenon, becoming a drug and alcohol counselor and educator, becoming a life long student of the human condition … etc.
Development and Learning
My counseling theory presupposes a developmental and learning model for personality and behavior. Both personality and its deformations are essentially learned conglomerates of interactions. The individual personality is the creative attempt of the individual to organize his or her perceptual, cognitive, affective, behavioral and interpersonal universe. Psychological illnesses or dysfunctions, which are not genetic or the result of physical illnesses or substance abuse, can be apprehended usefully as ruptures or imbalances in the communication flow between the individual and his or her environment, be it family, peer group, tribe etc. Such ruptures when internalized and generalized, form the intra-psychic chains which bind the individual or family system into a developmental cul de sac, a deviation amplifying loop or some form of compulsive behavior which focuses the mind and senses on an inner landscape which does not correspond to the reality and diversity of the actual environment.
The psychologically healthy individual is primarily one who is in dialogue with his or her environment and with him or herself: a man or woman whose language and symbolic structure are open to the acquisition of new language, experience and meaning.To borrow from the metaphor of religion the healthy individual is one whose life betrays a progressive incarnation of wisdom and value.
Counselor Behavior and Ethics
My conduct in counseling clients flows from my interactions with them, from my grasp of their presenting problem, their language and their world and from my personal ethical code. The fundamental premise behind my accepting a client is the belief that the chances are good that both of us will gain something through the counseling process. I hope to gain increased insight, the gratification of seeing my professional knowledge and training used to benefit another human being and money. Hopefully the client will gain insight, increased self esteem and an expanded repertoire of behavioral options.
Implicit in my approach to counseling is a respect for the rights and individuality of the client. I make every effort to carry myself openly, honestly, and with genuine empathy. This means not making a priori judgments about the clients motives and or presenting problems. It means being clear and specific about how I operate and about what they can expect from me. It means referring clients who are beyond my professional range. Three words th characterize this form of counseling. They are dialogue, contract and honesty. Typically this form of counseling will employ the following stages which are drawn from Evan's three stage model: alliance formation, problem exploration, goal setting and implementation of insight and role redefinition.
Again my assumption is that the content of consciousness is real. What it means, and what to do about it, are the tasks to which the counselor and the client address themselves . To rethink, to re-imagine, in James Hillman's language "to re-vision" one's problems and life through the lens of therapeutic dialogue is the essential task of the client. In working with clients I do not move too quickly toward providing insight. In the initial phase of counseling, I concentrate all my faculties on coming into contact with the client: listening, monitoring and reflecting their experiences and feelings to them. The rational for this is two fold. In the first place, I want to establish an alliance, and in the second, I want to hold my opinions at bay so that I may gain a solid grasp of the client without predisposing them toward some peculiarity in my particular notion of things. This is clearly a Rogerian stance. In the problem exploration, goal setting and insight implementation phases I take a more active role. However, I still take my lead from the client.