Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Reflection on Praxis: Authenticity and its limits

One of the chief reasons people tell me they are in therapy is to "work on relationships." And often, we find that the people who want to work on relationships are really working on addressing the anxiety that comes from being in relationship with other people.

There is a vulnerability in relationship that cannot be denied: If I am my authentic self when I am in relationship, I run the risk that I will be rejected. If I play the role of someone else in a relationships, then I am never giving anyone a chance to connect with me on an authentic level, and my relationships are less real because of it.

Ideally, when we are young, we have families and caregivers that model balancing the need to fit in and be accepted--which is a real human need--and the desire to be ourselves. Sometimes, these models do not do such a good job, and they emphasize one over the other. Other times, they actually harm our ability to find this balance by actively encouraging conformity or exceptionality.

In therapy, the general idea is that the client learns to be authentic with the therapist, and then translates those skills to others. One difficulty here is that no one can have an authentic relationship in a vacuum (or to quibble about verbiage, anyone can have an authentic relationship in a vacuum, since that tension I mentioned earlier does not exist). So the therapist needs to provide some kind of feedback of authenticity as well--and there is the difficulty for the therapist.

As a therapist, I find that the balance between therapeutic authenticity and clinical stance is one of the most interesting challenges of the profession. I am not just talking about self-disclosure (what the therapist tells the client about the therapist's life); I am talking about the ways that the therapist reacts to the client's presentation of the client's self.

The question that comes to me today is this: Is it really possible to have an authentic relationship in therapy, when therapy itself is seen as a relationship intentionally constructed to be artificial? In fact, some of the most significant benefits of therapy come by very nature of the fact that it is in a very specific kind of constructed relationship. So, then, how can a therapist be truly authentic?

I suppose that the answer to this situation is the obvious one: The therapist can be authentically a therapist. The relationship is defined by contracts, policies and informed consent agreements. But in that is the authenticity--no one is under any false pretenses that the relationship between the therapist and the client is anything other than a clinical relationship. We are not friends; we are not companions. And, in order for the relationship to be authentic at all, this must be in the awareness of both parties.

Maybe this does not seem like much of a revelation, but I think that many therapists who practice "authentically" would rather blur this distinction. I hear "We are fellow travelers," or "I am a wounded healer" and similar refrains that are designed to reduce the distinction between the client and the therapist.

As I practice, I cannot help but think that there is something fundamentally misguided about the attempts to minimize the demarcation between the two roles. Rather, I think it is essential to recognize that therapists are like clients in all the important ways--therapists are human and have all the accompanying human failings and frailties, of course. But these must stay outside of the therapeutic relationship not because the therapist needs to occupy a special position, but because the therapist needs not to. The therapist must be honest about her/his own relationship to the client--which should be, at core, a professional relationship. The therapist can still model ways of addressing the dilemma I mentioned earlier--fitting in vs being yourself, but in the context of a professional vs a humanistic role.

This honesty, I believe, leads to more authentic relationships, not less.

(Also... Greater minds than mine have written about this subject--see Carl Rogers and Irvin Yalom, for a start.)

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