Therapy as Art

A Beautiful Truth: Why Good Therapy is Like Art

The Beauty of Therapy:

My many years of experience as a therapist have taught me that therapy is a beautiful experience.  People change by finding connections between memories, thoughts, and feelings, forming beautiful new patterns out of the fragments of their life.

Suffering on the other hand is ugly. It is a sign of a pattern that has not yet emerged, of a thought has that been severed from a feeling, or a feeling that seems isolated and without meaning.

Beauty has flow; suffering is disharmonious.

Good Therapists are Artists:

Good therapists are more like artists than technicians. They don’t seek to produce a predetermined outcome through their interventions, but seek to join with the client, to help the musical harmony of the client’s life come to expression.

I often think of myself as a jazz musician who has to jump into a musical piece that is already being played, the goal being to add a guitar string here, and add a drum there. I think of my therapeutic interventions as producing resonance, along the lines of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who said, “You should not try to find whether an idea is just or correct. You should look for a completely different idea, elsewhere, in another area, so that something passes between the two which is neither in one nor the other”.

What is needed in therapy is not an accurate interpretation of facts, but movement in a client’s capacity to think new thoughts and access new experiences. The words and observations of the therapist have to make new connections possible. The most skillful way to do this  is to insert a new element into the client’s speech or experiences that makes something resonate in a way that wasn’t possible before.

The therapist must hear something between the lines or outside of the client’s conscious awareness; something that has fallen outside of the structure of the clients conscious story line.

A client might be speaking in a way that repeats the significance of the word “eight”, which seems to pop up in multiple contexts unbeknownst to the client. The client has been in a relationship for eight years, the client likes the brand of mint chocolates After Eight, and the client complains of being overw-eight. The therapist hears the refrain that has fallen out of the clients awareness, and asks the client to talk about what happened around the age of 8. If this question resonates, the client will be able to access new important memories or feelings. Maybe his parents got divorced when he was 8. Maybe she was eight when her cousin sexually abused her. Or maybe nothing at all comes to mind, in which case the intervention would fall flat.

The point is that the therapist’s job is to listen for the music that is being played, and to re-introduce elements that might make new thoughts possible. When such connections are made, beauty or harmony is the result.

A Joint Master-Piece:

The therapist is not some master mind who offers universal truths and prescriptions, but someone who knows how to jam with the client. The therapist must receive the beauty from the client’s life story, and help the clients play their music.

Good therapy is never about applying eternal truths and knowledge to universal problems, but about creating something unique and new from out of the always particular elements of a particular person’s life.

As a result, good therapy happens not as transfer of knowledge from the therapist to the client, but as a veritable co-production.

Therapy as Creation:

In therapy, as in life, there is no clear sense of the end goal from the outset. One must discover what is possible by being open to what happens. What happens is never something that can be predicted in advance; it represents a possibility beyond one we can control and plan for. Turning towards this “unknown” happening, and cultivating it by paying attention to it, is probably where the real work of therapy happens. It is where client and therapist each become capable of receiving something new, which they had not known before. It is the place of pure creation: therapy as art rather than science.

Therapy as art allows us to receive a future that is not conditioned by the past, and to envision new goals of which we were not in possession prior to the actual therapy.

If you would like to read more about the connection between therapy and art, read my article: On Cultivating the Therapeutic Moment. To schedule a therapy appointment please visit my therapy website.

 

3 thoughts on “A Beautiful Truth: Why Good Therapy is Like Art”

  1. Rune,

    I very much enjoy your take on therapy as more of an art than a science or technique. Rollo May talks about existential therapy beginning with understanding, out of which any technique must emerge. Your reference to jazz, too, reflects my personal feeling of being in the room with patients. We certainly are co-participants in some kind of music together.

    Much as I agree with the overall spirit of your piece, I want to challenge one statement you made regarding suffering as ‘ugly,’ as representing ’emotional severance,’ and as ‘disharmonious’: I think it would be more congruent with everything else you are saying to include suffering as an integral part of the overall artistic co-creation.

    Reading your thought that ‘suffering is disharmonious’ harkened back to my reading of Rollo May and Carl Rogers’ open letters to one another, regarding the problem of evil. What impressed me about May’s position is his appreciation of the daimonic: he saw it as a stock source for both suffering and violence, and conversely, intense joy and creativity. This is what Rilke captured in saying “If my devils are to leave me, I am afraid my angels will take flight as well.”

    As therapists, I believe we must cultivate a love for cavernous darkness, so that we can comfortably dwell in uncomfortable spaces with our patients. The moments of flow and connection are easy enough to celebrate, for they are often the resolution of many measures of dissonance; but the dissonance itself is worth the candle too, and must be given its due, unsung and unpleasant as it may be.

      1. Likewise, Rune–I very much enjoyed reading your piece. I think what you’re writing about is incredibly important to our field. Psychotherapy as art is unfortunately an underrepresented position in this day andage, so thank you for representing it.

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