In honor of a dear old friend who visited me over the weekend, I’m choosing to write about something a little more esoteric than usual this week. His visit reminded me of why and how I got on track to become a psychotherapist in the first place; he called to memory the philosophical grounds of the work I try to do in every session with my clients.
My friend David is deeply committed to living life in such a way as to do more than survive it, but to understand why he is here and how he can thrive in his incarnation as a Human being. Over the past year and a half, he has given away everything he owned and travels the world in gratitude for the kindness of those who help him. He feels it’s the best way to be open to his own innate wisdom and freedom. And in this way, he perfectly illustrates the role of the psychotherapist: as a form of guidance to the wisdom always already present within a client.
Now, this is a bit of a personal viewpoint. A lot of perfectly capable therapists describe what they do as a much more skills-oriented technique, and they’re not wrong to do so. By spending time in a health-oriented field, we therapists can’t help but pick up a lot of useful skills along the way, and it’s very kind and helpful to pass these along to clients. And for me, this marks the beginning of what I can offer to a client, not the end.
I have noticed that I tend to work with people suffering from addictive behaviors, severe anxiety, and powerful shame. I don’t think this has been entirely random - these are all patterns that, in my understanding, develop out of a fear of really inhabiting who we are. It can be awfully scary to be yourself in this transactional world, but I also guarantee that freedom and joy exist within that self.
To this end, I often tell my clients that I can’t help them. Really, I can’t - I have no information to offer them about who they really are. What I can do is be with them through the often terrifying process of self exploration, and try to reflect what I see of them. This is nothing more than an effort to jog their memory into remembering that they are always already perfect, free, and complete.
The philosopher Plato writes about this in The Meno. In this foundational work, he records his own tutor, Socrates, demonstrating how people learn. Socrates takes an uneducated boy from a crowd and, in a few short minutes, teaches the boy advanced mathematics simply by asking him questions. He never supplies answers or ideas, and in this way claims that all learning, and thus all knowledge, comes from memory.
Socrates presents the whole thing as a myth (the myth of recollection), but I’m inclined to believe him. In my own life, I’ve noticed a striking pattern: I can weigh the rational pros and cons of big decisions for months and even years, but the final decision usually comes from an internal and decisive sense of knowing. As if some part of me already knew. Clarity and resolve have a way of reminding me they’ve been there all along, as soon as I quiet my worrying.
I try hard to leave my biases at the office door, but I will admit that for me this is the gold standard of psychotherapy. When I can sit with my client and playfully engage with them in their inner journey to their own wisdom, that is when I let myself stop worrying about them. When a client can locate that inner sense of safety, of being enough, of being exactly what they themselves need, then they won’t need me much longer. And there’s nothing better than that.