Psychotherapy Isn't What You Think: Bringing the Psychotherapeutic Engagement into the Living Moment

Psychotherapy Isn't What You Think: Bringing the Psychotherapeutic Engagement into the Living Moment

by James Bugental
In this exclusive excerpt from his book, renowned existential-humanistic psychologist Jim Bugental reflects on his philosophy of psychotherapy.


Get Endless Inspiration and
Insight from Master Therapists,
Members-Only Content & More



Psychotherapy isn't what you think. It isn't a healing of an illness. It isn't guidance from a wise counselor. It isn't the mutual sharing of good friends. It isn't learning esoteric knowledge. It isn't being shown the error of one's ways. It isn't finding a new religion. Psychotherapy isn't what you think.

Psychotherapy is not what you think. It surprises many people because it is not primarily about your childhood . . . or about what has hurt or traumatized you . . . or about the germs in your body . . . or about destructive habits you've acquired . . . or about negative attitudes you carry . . . .

Psychotherapy is not what you think. It is about how you think. It calls attention to unrecognized assumptions in how you think. It makes a distinction between what you think about and how you do that thinking. It is less concerned with looking for causes to explain what you do and more concerned with discovering patterns in the meanings you make of what you're doing.

Psychotherapy is about how you think. It is about how you live with your emotions. It is about the perspectives you bring to relating with the people who matter to you. It is about what you aspire to in your life and how you may unwittingly make it harder for yourself to reach those goals. It is about being helped to see that the change you seek is already latent within you. It is coming to recognize and appreciate the spark of something eternal that is your core.

Psychotherapy is not what you think; it is about how you live with yourself right now.

Psychotherapy Freshens How We Perceive Our Living

. . . It is appropriate to take several steps back in order to view in broader perspective what it is that is the focus of our concern. When we do so we are demonstrating the very theme we are expressing: Life is lived as a perceptual experience. How we "see" or define our own nature and the nature of the world in which we find ourselves is a crucial element in determining what our lives will mean to us and to those with whom we share this epoch of living.

The opportunity, necessity, and challenge of living is that each of us must create and live out a life. Ultimately this is an individual responsibility—even though that often may not seem to be the case. Many influences press us to disavow or, at least, to try to delegate this responsibility.

Recognition of this basic life truth of our ultimate self-responsibility is sometimes misunderstood as a kind of "blaming the victim" philosophy and in other instances is thought to be an absurd "Pollyannaism" which promises that anyone can do anything if only he will set his mind to it. Of course, neither of these is sensible, and certainly neither is accepted by the stance here presented.

It is obviously and irrevocably true that we live in a multifaceted reality which profoundly affects what we experience and what opportunities and obstacles we encounter in carrying out this basic responsibility for our lives.

When and where one is born, whether female or male, healthy or ailing, intelligent or of limited potential, into what sort of family, society, and times; and much else influence our lives' courses. Yet each of these factors—and the many others, including some of which we are only partially aware—open out into further arrays.

Literature, both popular and technical, provides many accounts of individuals who overcame crippling environmental and chance-inflicted handicaps to live rich and contributing lives. To be sure, often such stories also recognize how exceptional native talents were called into action and in turn facilitated the exceptional outcomes. But it would be naive to attempt to so dismiss all such instances as simply products of random gene combinations. Indeed there is the real possibility that the exceptional talents were in some measure the products of human will as it confronted those very handicaps.

Candidly, almost any of us who soberly examines his own history is likely to discover occasions on which he failed to use his powers effectively and other times when he stretched to go beyond what were his usual life patterns. Popular idiom says it, "If life hands you a lemon, make lemonade."

Yet by no means does this homily assure a happy ever-after outcome. We simply don't know the stories of unnumbered men and women of great potential who were overwhelmed by circumstances and never realized their potential.

The Therapist's Mission

Our work, as we view it in this book, is to engage with the client's way of grappling with his life, or in other words, with the patterns through which the client seeks to be safe, fulfilled, in relation. "To engage" not to learn about them; "engage" signals a more experiential process. That, in turn, implies that the therapist cannot simply be a detached observer but needs lived experience of how her client grapples with her life.

Those patterns constitute the client's implicit conception of his own nature, powers, vulnerabilities, and all else that is implicit in his way of experiencing his own being and employing his powers in life—i.e., the client's self-and-world construct system as it is structured to deal with possibilities, hazards, resources, and much more.

What underlies this stance is the recognition that the self is always defined in terms of its interaction with the environing world, and the world is always perceived in terms of its actual or potential effects on the self.

Another aspect of this conception needs to be made explicit: We are speaking here of perceptions, of how the self and its attributes and the world and its many aspects are perceived. Of course, perception here does not mean only visual or even sensory perceptions as independent existents. Although the sensory facets of our perceptions may prove of great importance at times, they always do so in larger contexts.

We live in a perceptual world—that is, in the world which our perception reveals. As we experience our lives we form percepts about this world's elements and aspects. These become de facto definitions, and rightly or wrongly they do much to determine how we will relate to that which they name.

Is the world a safe place? Can a woman deal with this kind of problem as well as would a man? How will this art authority respond to my paintings? Must I cultivate the big shots to get promoted in my job or will doing a good job be enough?

The Omnipresence of Death

The disease which results in 100-percent fatalities is called "Life." Life is lived between the brackets of birth and death, and that very stark reality subtly or openly affects much that we think and do. In earlier years we implicitly claim immortality, but even then the shadow falls from time to time. As we age, that warning is more frequent and demanding.

Death accompanies life day by day, moment by moment. It isn't an event that will occur in the future; it is an actuality in each moment now. Each moment's life lives on the dead corpse of the previous moment. My lover today dies in tomorrow's kiss.

Recognizing this, anticipation, apprehension, remembrance, and regret are appropriate but not if they obscure what is in this present moment. The very fact of ending can give vitality to that which is in fact now and therefore in some measure accessible, and it counsels action rather than delay.

Psychotherapists need to be aware—and to help their clients be aware—that the resistance is an attempt to delay the death of possibilities. Becoming genuinely aware of that inexorable fact may impel one to claim the life of what is immediately possible and avoid the death of inaction.

Searching is the life force (chi) being its own nature. Case formulations can so easily become like butterflies impaled on pins and put in display cases.

Psychotherapy and Changing

It is time to try to bring together the chief elements of the existential-humanistic perspective on life-changing psychotherapy, as I envision it. Other psychotherapists will, of course, have points of difference, and that is as it should be. We are considering an art form, and by its very nature, all art is not to be captured by any one artist. Thus each person must, perforce, produce a masterwork, and no explanations can ease that responsibility.

Effective Ingredients in Psychotherapeutic Change

To begin with a synoptic statement of this existential-humanistic perspective: Essentially and experientially, life is subjective awareness. Without awareness, we are not truly alive. The conditions for which we seek therapy (e.g., anxiety, impulse control, meaninglessness in life, difficulties in relationships) may usefully be thought of as likely to be the products of shrunken and distorted ways of being aware—that is, of being alive.

The range and depth of our awareness constitute the settings of our self-and-world construct systems. When that system is too confining or too poorly corresponding with the consensual world view, we experience anxiety, pain, futility, or other symptoms which may lead us to seek psychotherapy. The task of such therapy is, then, to explore the client's self-and-world construct system and then to facilitate the client's making needed revisions in it.

This system is the way in which the client survives, seeks fulfillment, and avoids harms; yet it is this same system that must be investigated and in which changes must occur as a result of the therapeutic work. Understandably, the work of therapy inevitably encounters resistance from the client's way of being in the world (i.e., that same self-and-world construct system). Thus psychotherapy must encourage and support confrontation with the negative effects of this system while supporting its positive contributions to the client's life.

The two chief ways in which the therapeutic process carries out this work are through (a) intensive attention to the actual way the client explores and utilizes her/his own capacities as manifested in the client's self-presentation in the consultation room and (b) coaching the client to improved skill and range in self-exploration in order to better understand his/her own self-and-world construct system. These tasks are best carried out in a setting of mutual respect and dedication.

This approach to the therapeutic work may be called life-coaching to contrast it with notions of psychotherapy as repair of injuries or curing of diseases. Coaching seeks to increase the positive life skills of the client rather than focusing on negative patterns as such.

Restating the Central Thesis

From Freud on we have been governed by the myth of historic determinism. This implied emphasis on the need to try to discover what happened in the past has brought us to today's information-centered approach. In so much of our work as therapists we tend to be caught up in collecting and disbursing information about the client. Such information may be the client's history, his current concerns, her relationships, and what she hopes to gain from the therapy. Our clients soon get caught up in this information about process.

However, all information is abstracted from the flow of time—i.e., the flow of life. The only truly actual element is the process of the moment in the client; yet clients and therapists have come to discount the momentary and seek "the long view."

What is advanced here is that therapists need to give greater attention to what is, in fact, actual. This means the subjective experience of the client in the moment. This means (in line with Hillman's views) abandoning the notion of finding causes. This means disclosing to the client her/his immediate experience.

I do not reject the notion of historical sources of much in our living, but I do insist that while history equips us with habit systems that can be useful (speech, social intercourse, and much else), these habits are at a level similar to muscle habits—available, repetitive, continually evolving, incompletely conscious, and only semi-voluntary. I can and need at times to adapt or override some habits to type these words, to drive a car, to do most of the physical activities of daily life. I can change and override emotional patterns when I am aware of them in the moment of their activation. However, so many of my emotional habits I only know about incompletely and after their functioning—i.e., as information about myself and information about what is past.

An emotional habit is a set or predisposition to respond in patterned ways to certain situations
What is here proposed is that pointedly identifying in the moment that which is activated but unregarded introduces a new element in one's internal governance. When this is done, a change process is initiated which can have far-reaching results.

What Is Life Coaching?

Life coaching is a mode of psychotherapy. It is, as the name suggests, a combination of concepts and practices through which a trained and dedicated person may provide a facilitating and renewing perspective and experience to another person. The recipient of this aid may be termed a "client" or "patient," but what is important is to emphasize the centrality of this person's own responsibility and self-direction.

Central to this conception is the conviction that many—perhaps most, possibly even all—the distresses which bring people to psychotherapy are at base the product of ineffectual and counterproductive life assumptions and the patterns of action and reaction deriving from them.

A similarly central assumption insists that relief or recovery from such distresses is only to be had when the distressed person comes to fresh perspectives on her/his life—its assumptions, patterns, and internal conflicts.

Reflections About Our Work

  1. The people with whom we are engaged are living all the time they're with us. They bring that-with-which-they-are-not-content to us. They live it out in our offices.
  2. We are not physicians, repairmen/women, or substitutes available to direct others' lives.
  3. We are coaches for those who are not satisfied with their experiences of being alive.
  4. The only change agency which produces lasting results is a change in a person's perception of her/his self and world.
  5. That change will only occur when we help them see more fully how they are living their lives right now, right in the room.
  6. The only reality about one's self is that which actual in this moment. All else is static, is without power, is only information.
  7. Recognition, insight, interpretation, and similar, familiar therapeutic products that are often mistaken for the goal. They are useful to the extent they evoke or express an immediate experiencing.

The Central Drama of Depth Psychotherapy

I will sketch here, in greatly over-simplified terms, the core processes as they are conceived in this orientation. This will permit reviewing key terms. It will also, I hope, foster a more energetic or dynamic sense of the therapeutic engagement than I (quite biasedly) think of as the "whodunit" approach to therapy—i.e., those modes in which primary attention is given to seeking cause-and-effect relations among elements of the client's history and complaints and then to teaching those connections to the client in the hope that the complained-of conditions will be eliminated or at least radically modified.

The basic drama of depth psychotherapy is carried out as a struggle between two opposing forces: on the one hand is a sense of possibility in combination with feelings of concern. These impel each of us forward in all venues of our lives. On the other hand, these positive impulses come up against other subjective elements in the form of forces or structures which seek continuity and predictability. These latter influences can be lumped together under the name resistances. As we explore them further it becomes manifest that they are chiefly expressions of our self-and-world construct systems, the very ways we define our own nature and the nature of the world in which we live. Obviously threats to these definitions, at the most extreme, are experienced as threats to our lives.

What is evident from the foregoing is that our lives are lived at the level of perception. How we see ourselves, our world, our needs, our powers, our potentials—this is the key to our living.

It follows then that psychotherapy must be concerned with perceptions. And, of course, that concern must not be limited solely to the conscious and verbalizable perceptions. Thus in the therapy work described in this book, we attend scrupulously to implicit perceptions as they are manifested in the living moment.

The phrase, "in the living moment," is particularly important. It is no exaggeration to say that the only reality we have is that of this living moment—the moment in which I write these words and the quite other moment in which you read them.

Even were we talking together in the same room, we would not have precisely the same "living moment" because of the multiple and contrasting histories we would bring to our engagement. Another implication of this recognition is that when the client tells about his experience, it is always a different experience than it was when it occurred.

The particular merit of the perspective I'm presenting here is expressed by references to "the actual." What is actual is what is at the very moment; therefore therapeutic attention and efforts need to be focused at the immediate now.

A Semi-Final Recognition

This book has attempted to summarize my thinking and experiencing about psychotherapy as of early 1998. It has fallen short of doing so. Thank the good lord!

Psychotherapy is concerned with life, with living. That means it is concerned with what is going on, what is changing and evolving, what is about to be recognized. A book is much more static than is actual, vital psychotherapy. What I have written has taught me about what I have written. When I rewrite the account of some point I want to express clearly, the point has changed somewhat. When I try to capture the new perception, it has already gone on ahead of me.

That is the way with life. That is the way with our thinking about life. Therefore that is the way with psychotherapy. We are—and we should be—always running to catch up.

You must excuse me now. I've got to hurry to find out what is next.


Life isn't what you think. Life is.

Does the yolk know the shape of the shell?
Does the foaming crest know the power of the wave?

Life isn't what you think.
Life is going on . . . now.
Life is impending even as I write
and as you read.

Life is experiencing, but not experience.
Life isn't what you think.
Life isn't future, past, or even now.
For even that now is now past, now-past.

Life isn't what you think.
Life isn't what will be in the future
for when that future has become now
it will be now and not the now we foresaw.
Life is what is before it becomes what was.

Life isn't what you think . . . or what I think . . .
or what ever it might be.
Life is.

Copyright © 2001 All rights reserved.
Order CE Test
$15.00 or 1.00 CE Point

CE points are a great way to save if you need multiple CEUs. Get up to 45% discount when you buy packages of 10, 20 or 40 points. Your CE points will be redeemed automatically at checkout. Get CE packages here.

Earn 1.00 Credits
Buy Now

*Not approved for CE by Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB)

CE Test
James Bugental James F.T. Bugental, PhD (1915-2008) was a leading spokesman for existential-humanistic psychotherapy since the publication of his ground-breaking book The Search for Authenticity. He followed with classics such as Psychotherapy and Process, The Art of the Psychotherapist, and Psychotherapy Isn't What You Think. Recipient of numerous awards, and influential trainer to thousands of psychotherapists, he truly made a substantial and enduring contribution to the field of psychology.

See all James Bugental's videos.

CE credits: 1

Learning Objectives:

  • Discuss the Existential-Humanistic basis for therapeutic change
  • Explain how psychotherapy concerns itself with perception and the present moment

Articles are not approved by Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) for CE. See complete list of CE approvals here