Many institutes began to include a focus on the self of the therapist in the first year of training. Virginia Satir scheduled retreats with her students and their families, in which the students explored their participation at different stages of development in their families of origin, using the techniques of psychodrama. Carl Whitaker promoted the idea that therapists should access and utilize themselves in the therapy room, and that to do this they’d need to come to terms with their own thoughts. Murray Bowen stated in his 1974 book, Toward the Differentiation of Self in One’s Family of Origin, “I believe and teach that the family therapist usually has the very same problems in his own family that are present in families he sees professionally, and that he has a responsibility to define himself in his own family if he is to function adequately in his professional work.” In other words, all these master therapists believed that training to become a family therapist started with an exploration of one’s own self, which would then aid the trainee inside the therapy room.
The university training programs of today, it seems, have shifted from a focus on the self of the therapist to a focus on what has become known as core competencies. These competencies are concerned primarily with how to conceptualize cases and how to structure and engage in therapy sessions. There are several competencies that refer to the therapist’s awareness of the impact the family is having on him or her, but, overwhelmingly, the trainee is expected to be thinking about what to do, rather than who they are.
Throughout my professional career, I’ve considered the therapist’s awareness of an intervention to be an essential part of the formation of an effective therapist. In our program, the students started their presentations by describing relevant aspects of their own life and the ways in which these experiences molded their therapeutic style. Only then did they describe the characteristics of the family they were presenting. After that, they examined the techniques and strategies they’d used. In our discussions throughout the training, I continuously invoked the metaphor of a therapist who has formed, on his or her left shoulder, a homunculus who’s engaged in observing the therapist’s mental processes and is involved in silent dialogues with the therapist as she or he works.
All therapists need a range of tools in order to master their craft, but tools are just that—a means to accomplish an objective. When the carpenter begins with a piece of wood, he has an end goal in mind: to change that wood into something else. The saw, chisel, hammer, and nail are a means of transforming what the carpenter first sees into what he wants it to become. The effective family therapist also uses tools as means to an end, not as ends in themselves. The craft of family therapy lies in how these tools are used to produce a difference in the family—a useful change. An enactment on its own doesn’t move the family. But a therapist who understands that the enactment is a way to view the family’s interaction is able to help shift the process.
The most important tool is the therapist’s use of self in guiding the process of change; and understanding how to use that tool is the biggest obstacle for beginning therapists. Ultimately, learning how to use the silent dialogue with the homunculus on one’s shoulder is central to mastering the essential craft of family therapy.
Mary Sykes Wylie, PhD, is a senior editor of the Psychotherapy Networker.
Minuchin, S., Reiter, M., & Borda, C. (2013) The Craft of Family Therapy: Challenging Certainties, Routledge, NY. Reprinted with permission.
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