Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy Clients as Human Phenomena

Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Psychotherapy Clients as Human Phenomena

Article excerpt

In this article, clients of psychotherapy are viewed as human phenomena. Viewing them as such reestablishes the true subject matter of psychotherapy. The psychotherapy project includes understanding as opposed to explanation, as one of its essential components. As psychotherapists engage in understanding their clients, they find themselves focusing on subjectivity and interiority, both their clients' and their own. Viewing psychotherapy clients as human phenomena to be understood, in contrast to viewing them as cases to be explained, shifts the therapist's focus to a more complex and interpersonally engaged process, which includes the therapist's interior life as well as the client's. Phenomenology provides the means for articulating the true subject matter of psychotherapy, and shifts the focus from a medical model approach to a human science approach.

We never approach a human phenomenon-that is, behavior-without projecting upon it the question, what does it mean? And the true method of the human sciences is not to reduce this behavior, and the meaning it bears, to its conditions-and so dissolve it-but ultimately to answer this question, using the conditioning data clarified by objective methods. To really explain in the human sciences is to understand (P. 99)

Jean-Francois Lyotard, Phenomenology (1991)

Psychotherapists are observers of human phenomena. One of their primary tasks is to understand human beings, usually at deep levels, sometimes they do this without being aware that this is what they are trying to do. Ever since the practice of psychotherapy has come to identify itself as a clinical practice (and in America as a medical or quasi-medical practice). I argue that psychotherapy as a profession has lost sight of its interest in what its true subject matter is. We often think of psychotherapy as "the cure" or "the treatment" rather than the practice and discipline of attending to, noticing, and understanding the human subject. Too often, clinical psychotherapists rush to pinpoint the illness or syndrome, and they proceed to apply a treatment according to some formula, manual, or technique a priori in hopes of a cure or at the very least, symptom relief. In our rush to treat, we often overlook the human being we are attempting to help. This has the effect of focusing on and intervening at the surface levels while leaving the deeper levels unnoticed and untouched. We go on ignoring that which is truly psychological in our clients, inadvertently regarding them as objects. The danger here lies in the tendency to equate the illness or symptom with a narrowly delimited problem or trait or surface behavior being manifested, reducing the very complicated to the over-simplified. Another danger is present in the push to label client distress as a manifestation of a vaguely conceptualized medical syndrome. Besides having the effect of precluding exploration and investigation, labeling psychological pain and discomfort as a medical disorder can lead to muddled and problematic thinking. Our impatience with the uncertainty regarding the nature of the client's complaints may have us rush headlong into false sense of security of a diagnostic category. Because we think know the name of the problem, we may think we understand both the nature of the problem and how to proceed to fix it.

What then does observing human phenomena have to do with either understanding at a deeper level or with the practice of psychotherapy? What is the target of the activity or work of psychotherapy? What is being observed? The answer to these questions depends on the therapist's focus of attention, what she views as her subject matter, and how she conceptualizes her tools or methods for carrying out her goals. It is my belief that many, if not most, psychotherapists are not explicitly aware of the answers to these questions. Indeed, they may not be aware of the questions themselves.

An example may help to illustrate the confusion that can occur when psychotherapists are unaware of their implicit presuppositions regarding their practice objectives. …

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