The double betrayal at the heart of becoming a psychotherapist

This blog is about the implicit betrayal of traditional psychotherapy training, and how it lays the ground for a further necessary and explicit betrayal on the part of the nascent psychotherapist.

The traditional route to becoming a psychotherapist involves several years – usually five – spent in training, hundreds of supervised practice hours, years of personal therapy, all culminating in an ongoing accreditation process.

Though training is an important part of the process, when someone does eventually become a psychotherapist they do so in spite of their training, not because of it. This says nothing against trainings per se, though we might wonder how else a person could become a psychotherapist. Nor is it a comment about the relative quality of any given training, though there are better and worse trainings. 

The betrayal is in the delivery, and what is delivered. Any traditional training includes, amongst many other things, teaching theory, instruction of skills, assessment protocol, ethical values and guidelines, and an inculturation to the norms of practice, and of the profession.

Trainees want, expect and pay for this and more, and yet they are likely unaware of the implicit betrayal they buy into.

***

The word tradition comes from the Latin, ‘tradere’ meaning ‘deliver’, ‘hand over’ or ‘betray’. To observe a tradition is to hand yourself over to it. Traditional theories and modes of training are in themselves a betrayal: we betray the present as we hand it over to the past. Ironically even those modes that aim to work in the ‘here and now’ belong to a tradition.

A tradition is an anachronism. It is, as it were, a surrendering of the present to the past; the past becomes invader and occupier. Though traditions are often welcome, they can only belong by virtue of not belonging.

A tradition is the representation of believed events in symbolic form; a transference of values from the past into the present.

Good analysts, gestaltists, Jungians, Rogerians, Adlerians, Laingians and so on, are steeped in their own tradition. They are, as it were, caught up in a repetition compulsion of values, theory and practice. 

Rather than refining their transference, they might instead see their tradition for its potential to become a fertile void; a rich compost out of which something new could emerge.

There is value in composting, and there are many established therapists content to be curators of tradition, in doing so they themselves become manure for the next crop of therapists. In this sense, becoming the best you can be at what you trained in, is to reach the limits of the pot you planted yourself in.

To not live in a pot, one must see tradition for what it is; a repeating pattern of betrayal that is loyal only to itself. In order to preserve a tradition, its curators will discard what they cannot use, and assimilate what they can. If one wants to create beyond the confines of a pot, the first betrayal must be met with a second.

Unlike conventional hostage situations, the captive is also the captor. Breaking free does not involve a second handover, or handing back – so to speak; the second betrayal has to be a taking back. Although the primary conflict is internal, it might result in an irreparable rupture with those still within the tradition: people often take such betrayal personally.

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Trainees who have invested so much into their training all too often feel insecure challenging the underlying values of what they are taught, or perhaps the quality of the training itself. Rather than challenging the organisation they are now dependant on, they often stay quiet or worse, turn their criticism and doubt inward.

We might wonder about our relationship to a profession that advocates the importance of ‘cultivated uncertainty’ for its members, and yet is surprisingly knowing about what their values, standards, ethics and practices should be.

The accreditation and reaccreditation process exemplify this; rather than being an opportunity to explore, reflect and challenge themselves and the profession, for most practitioners it is little more than an inconvenient exercise in box ticking and saying the ‘right thing’. I suspect many therapists do not say what they really think for fear of the possible consequences.

For a profession that is largely geared toward addressing the fears and anxieties of the people it serves, it could do a better job of looking at the various ways it contributes to its members’ fears and anxieties.

There are a many fears trainees and experienced therapists can have in common. They often fear not being good enough, not getting clients, not holding clients, not knowing enough, the esteem of colleagues, professional complaints, being struck-off, sued, not making a living and messing people up. They fear being labeled unethical, not very good or not good enough, incompetent, mad, bad or perhaps too different. All of these fears are common and understandable.

I recognise some of them myself, that said, I loved my own psychotherapy training. I count myself as fortunate to have been taught by, and continue to work with a small number of people I still consider to be the best in the field.

Nonetheless, betrayal is implicit in all traditional trainings, and, if anything, love for a training or trainer can become a major obstacle.

***

One repays a teacher badly if one always remains nothing but a pupil.

Friedrich Nietzsche

An apple that does not fall far from the tree does not become a tree.

If mimicry is, as they say, the highest form of flattery, it is also a refined (and barely disguised) form of self betrayal. With a good teacher at best one may learn to become a good impersonator; this goes a long way, though not far enough, and not in your own way.

The teacher that rejoices at their student’s betrayal does so because their student is no longer a student. A teacher or training that can guide a student to the brink of betrayal, is both worthy and deserving of it. Such a teacher sees this apparent betrayal for what it is: a gift.

The teacher who suffers at their student’s betrayal, suffers not from the betrayal itself; their pain comes from an inability to rejoice.

***

You have your way. I have my way. As for the right way, the correct way, and the only way, it does not exist.

Friedrich Nietzsche

A tradition can help you along the way, at a certain point it can take you no further.

To find your own way you need to free yourself from tradition, which is of course not entirely possible, and perhaps not wholly desirable. Nonetheless it is necessary to lose yourself; your traditional self, if you are to find your way.

If you have freed yourself from tradition and are still not yet lost, you have not gone far enough; or perhaps you are still sidetracked in someone else’s path, in which case you are lost, but not in your own way.

***

Beyond a certain point there is no return. This point has to be reached.

Franz Kafka

If the idea of betrayal does not sit well with you, do not worry, you are already adept at it. Any will usually has a counter-will, desire or drive expressing themselves against your determined will; we are often, as it were, in (at least) two minds. In this sense, we play ourselves off against one another, and are always betraying ourselves while remaining true to ourself.

Self betrayal is by far the most common betrayal, though we tend to call it self sabotage, perhaps because it sounds less Machiavellian.

Taken together with the many traditions we sit within (and that sit within us) internal conflict can be so amorphous and familiar that betrayal can become a barely registered daily activity.

So it is not a question of whether you will or won’t, it is only a question of who and what you betray.

***

The possibility of a School of Nietzschean Psychotherapy is as unlikely and absurd as trying to herd cats. It is an oxymoron. Far more likely (and less absurd) is the Unschool of Nietzschean Psychotherapy.

In any event, what metric for assessment would it use? What code of ethics? What qualitative outcomes? How would, or could equality, inclusion or political correctness feature? What would its selection criteria be? What of the power dynamics? What would teacher student relationships look like? Who decides what goes on the curriculum? Would there even be a curriculum? How would you know when someone has qualified?

All good questions, though not that relevant; they are too traditional. So what questions could be asked?

I mistrust all systematizers and avoid them. The will to a system is a lack of integrity.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Despite the unlikelihood, and the undoubted appeal of an Unschool of Nietzschean Psychotherapy, we are stuck, at least for now, with the traditional ways of becoming a psychotherapist. Though they lack a certain integrity, they do at least quite neatly have an upside that is also a downside: it is clear where we all stand, unless we choose not to see it.

All rights reserved © Copyright Glenn Nicholls 2022. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author of this post is strictly prohibited.

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