Unlearning to Learn

Unlearning to Learn

by Pooja Gala, MA & Urvi Paralkar
Clinicians Pooja Gala and Urvi Paralkar reflect on the challenges of unlearning cherished notions about therapy in order to be fully present for their clients.
Filed Under: Psychodynamic

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Eternally inspired by and forever indebted to the philosophy of Wabi Sabi – Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, nothing is perfect


Being young in the field of psychotherapy, does not really permit us to share lofty professional insights or postulate what this monumental field entails. If psychotherapy were a person, then we would recognise ourselves in the early phase of courtship. Nonetheless, we believe that our shared inspirations are worth documenting, and it is certainly worth acknowledging what this field has given us and how it has shaped our being.

Wabi-Sabi

Psychotherapy as a school is a development of the Western world. Alongside being introduced to the nuances of counselling and psychotherapy as a part of our academic adventure, we have also been influenced by Eastern philosophies from our birthplaces and neighboring lands. One such ideology that has had a deep impact on our personalities and perspectives is the Japanese philosophy of Wabi-Sabi. In its essence, Wabi-Sabi emphasizes impermanence, incompleteness and imperfection.

In many ways,
Wabi-Sabi embodies authenticity, beauty in fallibility and transience
Wabi-Sabi embodies authenticity, beauty in fallibility and transience. It also entails appreciating the ordinary, that which we may easily overlook in our pursuit of the extraordinary, or in the case of psychotherapy, the abnormal. We are still absorbing the learnings that Wabi-Sabi has bequeathed us. However, there has been a beautiful and serendipitous confluence in our learnings from this philosophy and our pursuit of psychotherapy as a profession. Though this article is not so much about Wabi-Sabi, we cannot deny those occasions in our therapy sessions where we have had delightful Wabi-Sabi encounters. We hope that through this article, even though discretely, this trail of our psychotherapeutic unlearnings and the Wabi-Sabi learnings will converge for you as well.

Awe and Authenticity

Psychologists and therapists often describe their profession as a holistic enmeshment of the personal and professional, an experience in unadulterated authenticity and a dynamic narrative of its own. The more hours we spend working with clients, the more we are amazed at human strength, potential, resilience, growth and adaptability. Also, the more hours we spend working with clients, the more we are amazed at how much we can change. It is precisely this sense of awe, and several reflective conversations, that compelled us to give clarity to and expression of our thoughts.

By the very nature of the profession, therapy involves, if not demands, almost continuous self-reflection—a positive yet strenuous occupational hazard. Just like the surgeon finesses her skills through experience, the therapist becomes more present through practice. Psychotherapy is a unique space that provides the therapist with daily, challenging life-altering perspectives. At the same time, it also allows for a renewed appreciation of the mundane, the ordinary, and that which we take for granted.

Clients may underestimate the profound impact they have on their therapists
Clients may underestimate the profound impact they have on their therapists. Therapists are neither blank slates nor are they “experts.” Do therapists know the human mind, theories of normality and abnormality, and modes of treatment? Of course, we spend years studying them. Do we know to “fix” every problem for every client? No, we do not. The point of therapy has never been to “fix” anything, at least from our subjective standpoint and theoretical orientation. Even though “doing” therapy is often easier than “being” a therapist, “doing” does very little for the natural process of healing. Therapy after all is a healing relationship that facilitates reduction of overt symptoms and enables psychological well-being. It took us both considerable time to understand and acknowledge that it is the therapeutic relationship between the client and the therapist which is one of the many pivotal healing points. The therapeutic relationship may catalyse significant shifts in the way a client may perceive interpersonal relationship outside of the therapeutic space. This relationship in some ways is the vehicle that helps the client carry their changes from within therapy to outside of therapy.

Power and Fallibility

Media, unfortunately, has done little to promote the profession and benefits of psychotherapy. Instead, it has mystified the process of therapy (you must be crazy to go to a therapist!) and sensationalised the role of therapists—therapists can read minds and pick up impossible micro expressions. We do painfully regret the lack of these superpowers. What happens in reality is that very fallible human beings called therapists stumble, and doubt, and learn, and then learn even harder in order to best help their clients. It is this very ambiguity in the nature of the profession that makes the therapeutic journey both rich and adventurous for the therapist to embark upon. We have grown to recognize the ambiguity of life in general—not just for our clients but for ourselves. Ambiguity is defined as a situation that is complex, novel and insolvable. It makes drawing concrete interpretations difficult and may imbue a person with uncertainty. It’s not pleasant for most people, but tolerating ambiguity might just be the ticket to being a more grounded therapist. If therapists were to have a superpower, it probably would be tolerance of ambiguity.

If therapists were to have a superpower, it probably would be tolerance of ambiguity
We believe that at the very essence therapists are people, with beliefs, values, opinions and personalities. They are also people who have biases, needs, faulty assumptions, and introjected patterns of thinking. Therapists, just like their clients, are fallible beings. Irvin Yalom, our personal hero, in his book The Gift of Therapy¹ notes that the therapist and the client often trade places in the therapy room, each learning from one another. Yalom’s view of therapy, as a journey that two fellow travellers take together, is supremely reassuring to us novices. Therapists always place the client’s needs before their own. However, this does not mean that the therapist is unaffected by the therapy process. Rather, we believe it is impossible to not be affected by the suffering and pain that is contained in the room and subsequently not rejoice in the victories and potentials of our clients. Therapy entails a very real human connection.

Curiosity and Trust

The client–therapist alliance is that of trust, fidelity, and curiosity; a fascinating blend. The client entrusts the therapist with painful or ambivalent information from the “real” world. The therapist attempts to soak in this information, remaining curious at all times about the client’s life without projecting anything from their own. Thus, the attempt is to maintain objectivity by seeing the information in itself. This provides the therapist with a formative playground to test and retest their own existing belief systems as the objective lens aids them to see the previously recorded data in a newer light. It is this genuine curiosity that helps a therapist look beyond their own preconceived notions, beliefs, and knowledge.

the client–therapist alliance is that of trust, fidelity, and curiosity
Therapists are cognizant of the notion or at least attempt to be conscious of the idea that people see the same situation differently and from their own frame of reference. The therapist must be reverent of that. This is comparable to an octagonal prism. When white light passes through, the prism separates it into spectrum of different colours. These colors are similar to the varied human perspectives that we hold at different points in time. This prism metaphor gives us the solace that in the therapeutic set up, one reality can be perceived in many ways.

therapists are cautious in assuming and careful in hypothesizing, and amidst all that, authentic
All human beings are subjective in their interpretations and analyses of issues, therapists included. The world looks pink when we wear pink glasses. Thus, our core values as humans remain phenomenologically ours. We recognize that everyone has their own subjective world. Therapists specialize in recognizing these intricate subjectivities. It’s what helps them remain non-judgemental. Therapists are cautious in assuming and careful in hypothesizing, and amidst all that, authentic.

Unlearning to Learn

It is our fundamental premise that both clients and therapists learn and unlearn in therapy. For the client, learning can be anything from forming a trusting relationship to altering destructive actions. For the therapist, the process of learning might in fact be a process of unlearning. It is our personal belief that has its roots in early psychodynamic theories that during the early stages of our development we learn or rather introject without careful evaluation, a number of beliefs and values. Some of these beliefs are adaptive and others are not. These beliefs help us operate in society and we cling to them like an infant to their primary caregiver. When we attempt to change our maladaptive beliefs, we face resistance from within. This is because of our inability to tolerate cognitive dissonance (holding two or more clashing thoughts at the same time). We often stick to our more maladaptive beliefs even in the face of contrary evidence to maintain equilibrium. This is where the tiresome, yet fruitful, process of self-reflection comes in. Self-reflection helps us unlearn our introjected beliefs that hamper our own growth and progress. Because the “personal” interacts with the “professional,” for therapists, unlearning in personal life affects professional development and vice versa.

Self-reflection is an active, arduous vehicle in this grand process of unlearning. Many other aspects of the art of psychotherapy facilitate this unlearning automatically. One of these is learning the power of narratives.
When we try to view the client as a storyteller, we appreciate the complexity of their characters and the power of those complexities
When we try to view the client as a storyteller, we appreciate the complexity of their characters and the power of those complexities. As we help them weave their otherwise fragmented life episodes into a meaningful journey, we learn from their stories. This process of stitching the disjointed pieces into a meaningful narrative often mechanically diffuses some of the previously held pre-conceived notions. For example, imagine working with a real world “bully.” Now imagine that this “bully” presents as unruly, aggressive and oppositional. What would our natural reaction be? How understanding would we be of that behavior? How difficult would it be to propel our empathy wagons? Now imagine that this “bully” tells you why they have chosen this role. They explain to you their story, their family, their parents, their life. How would you feel after learning about their phenomenal world? Would your feelings change? Would it be a little easier to empathize?

Knowing and understanding that the “bully” had a story to tell, that they were influenced by the negative experiences in their life, and that those negative experiences invariably propelled them to assert dominance and a grip over self might have mitigated the negative feelings that some of us held towards them in the beginning. Interestingly, as much as we attempt to maintain an objective lens to avoid biases, narratives help us unlearn objectivity in order to appreciate the client’s phenomenological realities. And this dual process functions simultaneously and rather beautifully. The key unlearning here is that no absolutist response really exists.

The Power of Witnessing

As therapists, we also use the technique of paraphrasing and summarizing to the client about their own narratives. Oliver Sacks³ has eloquently postulated that “We speak not only to tell other people what we think, but to tell ourselves what we think. Speech is a part of thought.” Hence, paraphrasing has double edged benefits. On the one hand, it gives a newer perspective to the client about his/her own problems and at the same time it gives both the client and therapist the opportunity to stay on the same page and to postulate that the story is being understood from the lens of the client. This helps the client to unlearn his or her cognitive fallacies associated with the story, and at the same time aids the therapist in creating a renewed understanding of why the client behaved in a certain way. The technique of paraphrasing/summarizing by the therapist, gives clarity and opportunity to reframe our thoughts, check our biases, and better understand narratives.

The process of witnessing change and resolution in another human being is powerful and overwhelming
The process of witnessing change and resolution in another human being is powerful and overwhelming. Also, as therapists we are constantly utilizing ourselves as a resource to bring about progress. The therapist by default experiences shifts and alterations in their own worldview further reiterating the notion that nothing lasts. On rare calculated and sometimes spontaneous occasions, depending on therapist preference, we use the technique of self-disclosure with our clients or admit our fallibility to them and share the human connection. This is our attempt at normalizing vulnerability, treating the client as an equal. This vulnerability is also utilized as an instrument of moral support for the client. This self-investment on the part of the therapist is another step to assure the client that they are being viewed as both unique and normal. Often, once a human invests a little in a joint process, it is hard to operate independently from one’s own prejudices. We unlearn the shame in vulnerability and instead embrace it. Or like Brene Brown suggested, we learn to believe in the power of vulnerability.

One of our most treasured learnings in this process so far has been that an “average” life is worth living. To come to this realization, that what has been termed “average” by the larger society is in fact normal and fulfilling, is a big one for us. We have unlearned that purposeful life exists only in the extraordinary life path. We are trying to normalize average, both for ourselves and our clients. Better yet, our vision is to glorify average. Reciprocating to the client that their so-called average lives filled with failures and anxieties are not just normal but also acceptable, gives us average beings the courage to bask in the glory of our own average narratives.

We have taken it upon ourselves to unlearn as much as we can and to stay true to our authenticity and curiosity during this process. As we attempt to disentangle the web of the distorted learnings we have accumulated in life so far, we are learning to engage in compassion toward ourselves. As Noam Chomsky said, “I was never aware of any other option but to question everything”². This is perhaps what this profession is doing to us—inciting us to question the most scrupulous nuances of our present being.


References

(1) Yalom, I. (2002). The Gift of Therapy: An open letter to a new generation of therapists and their patients. New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers

(2) Chomsky, N. (2004, November 30). Question Time [Interview by T. Adams]. Retrieved April 27, 2019, from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2003/nov/30/highereducation.internationaleducationnews

(3) Sacks, O. (1989). Seeing Voices. New York, NY: Vintage Books. 

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Bios

Pooja Gala, MA holds a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology from SNDT Women's University and a B.A. in Psychology from St. Xavier's College, both in Mumbai, India. At present, she works in Mumbai in Dhirubhai Ambani International School as a counselor for children with social, emotional and behavioral needs, and conducts psycho-educational assessments for students with special needs.





Urvi Paralkar, MA is a second-year Ph.D. student in counseling psychology at Southern Illinois University, Carbondale. She holds an M.A. in Counseling Psychology from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, an M.A. in Clinical Psychology from the University of Hartford, and a B.A. in Psychology from St. Xavier’s College, India. Urvi's research interests lie in studying the constructs of tolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty.