Gazing out over a record-breaking crowd of 3,200 therapists gathered for the 24th annual Networker Symposium, "Shaping the Future of Psychotherapy," keynote speaker Gloria Steinem spread her hands in a gesture of welcome. "Never," she told the crowd on that chilly March morning, "has Washington, D.C., needed mental health professionals more."
Knowing chuckles greeted her remark, but Steinem was utterly serious. The harmful policies perpetrated by our nation's powers-that-be, she went on, arise from a hazardous absence of empathy, which she called "the world's most revolutionary emotion." Because empathy is an inborn part of our survival equipment, Steinem pointed out, it requires a truly soul-stifling experience, most notably childhood abuse, to choke it off. Those who damage others, be they Beltway bigwigs or violent spouses or school shooters, "have been made to feel they have only two choices--to be the abused or the abuser."
Though Steinem was addressing the audience in the vast ballroom of the Omni Shoreham Hotel, she managed to speak as though she were talking with a friend over coffee and muffins. Her voice full of quiet passion, she asked the assembled clinicians to plot a future in which they would act as both private healers and public advocates for a society that nurtures its natural empathy. "I believe that therapists and those of us in the social justice movement have a profoundly shared purpose," she said. "It is part of our mutual role to administer therapy to the larger society.
"If the 21st century does anything," she added, "I hope it will enable us to not only stand by the side of the river to pluck out those people who are drowning, but also to go to the head of the river and stop them from falling in."
This enlarged vision of therapists as public and private healers captured the spirit of this year's Symposium, "Shaping the Future of Psychotherapy." The mission of the conference, said Networker president Richard Simon in his introductory remarks, was to "expand your sense of possibilities as therapists" in a dauntingly complex but still intrinsically rewarding field. "We all have the good fortune to have chosen to devote our lives to pursuing something that is inexhaustibly fascinating, something more than an art, a science, an occupation or a personal marketing opportunity," he said. "Therapy is truly a calling, a path of service."
At the same time, he noted, this path is shifting under our feet, creating new challenges that we must master in order to thrive. To that end, this year's Symposium offered a wide array of workshops exploring the frontiers of clinical practice, including sessions on the impact of the genetic revolution on families, the future of "energy psychologies," the changing face of couples therapy and therapists' emergent role in knitting together splits between mind, body and spirit. This year, the Symposium also launched a pair of well-attended luncheon programs that highlighted some intriguing developments in the profession.
In Friday's program on "Charting Your Career Path," 600 clinicians lunched on baked chicken and strawberry shortcake while learning about trends and opportunities that are reshaping therapists' career choices. Charles J. Peek, a consulting psychologist at HealthPartners of Minneapolis, spoke of how the growing movement to consolidate health care may prompt more therapists to work in partnership with medical professionals in integrated care delivery systems.
"Life coach" Patrick Williams observed that "we are on the verge of a fundamental shift in how people get help for their lives." Increasingly, clients are seeking support in nurturing their untapped potential, and not simply help in remedying emotional ills. He encouraged therapists to position themselves for this shift by exploring the fast-growing realm of personal coaching as a complement to their clinical work. Meanwhile, therapist and business coach Lynn Grodzki noted that as therapy consumers become increasingly knowledgeable and sophisticated--what she dubbed "the Oprah Effect"--clinicians need to make their practices more user-friendly. …