The Case for Energy Psychology: Snake Oil or Therapeutic Power Tool?

By Feinstein, David | Psychotherapy Networker, November/December 2010 | Go to article overview
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The Case for Energy Psychology: Snake Oil or Therapeutic Power Tool?


Feinstein, David, Psychotherapy Networker


The Case for Energy Psychology Snake oil or therapeutic power tool? By David Feinstein 

Newly appointed to the Department of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins in 1970, I wasn't sure what to expect when the department chair called me into his office to discuss a special assignment. "I keep hearing about these Ônew' therapies coming from the West Coast," he told me. "Are they just more California fluff or developments worth knowing about? Go find out." As a young therapist-researcher who was already pursuing personal improvement with the passion of someone convinced he needed a lot of it, I approached the assignment with the zeal of a young knight in search of the Holy Grail.

At the time, traditional psychoanalysis and behaviorism had been rapidly losing their "market share." More than 200 new brands of therapy were popping up on the workshop circuit, promoted in the alluring new language of "peak experiences," "personal growth," and "self-actualization." During the next seven months, I investigated 46 of these new therapies, studying their uneven research studies, conducting extensive telephone or in-person interviews with their primary proponents, and directly experiencing more than a dozen in weekend workshops or other formats. I focused on some of the brightest stars in the pop psychology firmament of the day--Transactional Analysis, Bioenergetics, Gestalt, breathwork, sensitivity training, Rolfing, Reevaluation Counseling, LSD-assisted psychotherapy, and even a memorable nude encounter group. Many of the approaches have now faded or disappeared, some leaving a lasting mark on clinical practice, others just embarrassing memories.

The more closely I examined these therapies, the more apparent it became that doing something that feels like it's bringing about lasting therapeutic change is much easier than actually producing such change. I didn't conduct formal outcome research, but I did do dozens of follow-up interviews with my fellow participants after the immediate excitement of the workshops had subsided. Their reports were sobering. Just as years of psychoanalytic insights don't necessarily lead to greater happiness or success, I found that dramatic interventions and intense experiences didn't necessarily lead to lasting change. Participant enthusiasm during a workshop didn't guarantee clinical benefits following the workshop. A fervent "primal scream" might feel like a powerful emotional breakthrough, and it might indeed provide a deep release, but evidence that it produced enduring psychological change was hard to find. Despite my hope for wonder cures, I had to admit that utopian clinical models, unshakeable therapist conviction, and even emotionally thrilling experiences didn't necessarily yield better ways of processing emotions or experience.

I did, nonetheless, witness therapeutic moments that seemed absolutely brilliant and saw positive changes that people were still describing months later. While I wasn't able to connect such results to a particular method, theory, or type of client, I came to some conclusions about what increased the odds for fortuitous therapeutic outcomes. The roots of enduring therapeutic change seemed grounded in strong emotional, interpersonal, or somatic engagement, shifts in self-understanding and behavior that extended beyond the clinical context, and a readiness in the client to approach life differently. Although none of these observations was remarkable in itself, together they gave me a much clearer appreciation of the complexity of change and the difficulty of the therapist's task. This awareness stood me in good stead for much of the next 40 years.

Beginning about a decade ago, however, something came along to challenge some of these bedrock beliefs. Energy Psychology, a method based on tapping on selected acupuncture points to address psychological problems, called into question some of the more cautious conclusions I'd drawn from the Hopkins study.

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