Malcolm Welland MA, RP, CTP Dip.,Clinical Member OSP
Dupont-Spadina and Guelph
Stages of Therapy
We always need a map when we want to get a sense of direction in unknown territory. What landmarks are prominent? What do I need to keep in mind if I wish to travel this or that route? When people come to therapy, they usually want to have a map. This is evident in some of the questions asked in a first interview: How long does it take? What can I expect? Where do I begin? These questions and others show the very human need for wanting to get a sense of direction with respect to entering therapy.
C.G. Jung outlined four stages of therapy in an essay titled “Problems of Psychotherapy”. These stages constitute a kind of map giving an overall sense of the geography of the therapeutic process. What follows is a summary of Jung’s key ideas interspersed with some of my own observations. I have changed some of Jung’s language so it is more in keeping with a current and diverse psychotherapeutic situation.
The four stages, using Jung’s terms, are: confession, explanation, education, and transformation. Confession is the simple experience of being with someone you trust or feel comfortable with and getting something off your chest. This can offer a great deal of relief. We tend to feel lighter. We have been relieved of a burden we have been carrying. This experience is more powerful when we come to realize exactly what and how much we have been carrying. A person may come to the realization “I didn’t know I was so angry about that” , or “I realize now how much I’ve been dealing with.” These unknown or unacknowledged elements of our experience Jung likens to “secrets”. They are secret because they are concealed even from our own awareness. We feel better after talking about or explaining our concerns because, as Jung points out, the burden we carry in the form of a “restrained or unexpressed emotion” keeps us separated from others. What is unacknowledged acts like a “psychic poison” which “cuts off the unfortunate possessor from communion from his fellow-beings”. Expressing ourselves before another person can make us feel less isolated.
The next stage is explanation. Here one begins to explore the ramifications of what has been presented or revealed. We begin to get a fuller picture of our actions or non-actions and their impact on ourselves and others. Sometimes this brings us to a fuller understanding of the depth of our conflict within ourselves. Explanation is not a “shrinking” of our experience into neat little theoretical categories. It is rather an unfolding of our understanding. Jung has much to say about the sometimes too prescriptive or reductive approach by therapists. “ It is therefore wise of the [therapist] to renounce all premature assumptions… it is not the [therapist’s] task to instruct or convince his patient;”
The stage of education focuses on the power of choice . Having gained a fuller view of our dilemma, we are faced with the possibility of change. Jung points out it is not always enough to know the causes of our difficulties. “We must never forget that the crooked paths of the [stressful difficulty] lead to as many obstinate habits, and that, despite any amount of understanding, these do not disappear until they are replaced by other habits.” We must commit ourselves to using our new understanding to enact change. Jung uses the metaphor of a newly planted tree being trained. He writes: “But then comes the period of education, which makes us realize that no confession and no amount of explaining will make the ill-formed tree grow straight, but that it must be trained with the gardener’s art ”
The fourth stage, transformation, focuses not so much upon the problem, but on the transformation of the person as a whole. This is happens through the interpersonal dynamic between therapist and client. Jung often uses the metaphor of a chemical reaction to explain this process in therapy: “ The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed. We should expect the [therapist] to have an influence on the patient in every effective psychic treatment: but this influence can only take place when he too is affected by the patient. You can exert no influence if you are not susceptible to influence.”
Therapy does not necessarily proceed in a neat, sequential, progressive series of steps nor are the stages a predictable length. To view therapy in stages is only a way of highlighting some of its landmarks. Jung does not see any one stage, especially the fourth, “to be the finally- achieved and only valid truth.” We measure the usefulness of therapy in the way it aids us in dealing with the demands, obligations, joys and frustrations of our everyday lives.
© Malcolm Welland September 2008
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