In Networker editor Rich Simon’s introduction to the conference, he likened it to a deeply stimulating marketplace of ideas, where clinicians get an expanded opportunity to embrace a fuller range of therapeutic identities. Check out photos from Symposium 2018 here.
Last year, we celebrated the 40th anniversary of this conference, which turned out to be a grand lollapalooza of an event. We heard from the innovators in our field, we danced, we sang, the conversation flowed like Niagara Falls. And as I watched the excited crowds explore the array of keynote topics and workshops and booths at the Exhibit Hall, it occurred to me that I was watching therapists on a kind of professional shopping spree. Here was a unique opportunity to try on and sample a dizzying range of therapeutic methods, and even identities. This may sound like a bit of a stretch, but allow me a moment to indulge this line of thought.
We spend a lot of time in our consumer society shopping in one way or another. But what is it we’re really looking for? Rarely these days do we shop exclusively for what we need to get along in life—a hunk of meat and some bread to keep starvation at bay, a heavy Soviet-style coat that has no other function than to ward off cold. No, we shop for all kinds of reasons, and chief among them, even if we don’t often acknowledge it directly, is a chance to explore new ways of being and new identities to embrace.
I have to thank my wife, Jette, for introducing me to this powerful insight. Of course, I have my own consumer preferences, but mostly shopping wears me out, particularly shopping for clothes. It’s something I’m reluctant to do unless my wardrobe situation is truly dire. But with Jette guiding me (prodding me, really), I find myself taking a stab at becoming the kind of urbane, sophisticated guy who has the self-confidence to buy, let’s say, a fancy leather jacket. With her encouragement, I’ve discovered the inner journey that can take place when, within some private corner of my imagination, Richie from the Bronx can transform into a dim likeness of Jean-Paul Belmondo in his New Wave prime.
The point is that when undertaken in a spirit of psychological adventure, shopping in whatever form, especially with the right companion, can be an opportunity to embrace a fuller range of the multiple selves that live within us. It can be a chance to tweak or magnify a particular version of who we are, or, for the most fearlessly creative among us, to take ourselves in entirely new directions.
For me, there was something suddenly liberating about seeing our Symposium not only as a deeply stimulating place of ideas, but as a creative space populated with invisible fitting rooms in our imaginations, in which we can feel free to explore a fuller range of therapeutic identities and new directions for our practices. Regardless of your training, background, or professional orientation, you can try on dozens of innovative therapeutic practices you weren’t taught in graduate school, some of which might’ve had our clinical ancestors deeply puzzled. Neurofeedback? Polyvagal Theory? Hakomi? Cryptic acronyms like EFT, IFS, DBT, ACT, EMDR?
When this Symposium began, four decades ago, there were only a few basic kinds of therapy, but since then, the field has grown so capacious, so rich in possibilities for thinking about and helping people, so astonishingly inventive that, in fact, it’s become harder and harder for many of us to say simply and directly what we do anymore.
So what is the thread that gives us some kind of common identity as psychotherapists? In many ways, that’s our theme this year. It’s increasingly apparent that therapists today often struggle with what to even call themselves. Some of us have abandoned the term psychotherapist entirely and prefer to call ourselves coaches, educators, group facilitators, consultants, body workers, or at our most generic, change agents. Some who like more everyday language think of themselves as part repair-person, part teacher, part philosophical guide, part cheerleader, part buddy. If our field had a general motto today, it might be “let a thousand—let a million—interventions bloom!”
And yet for all this proliferation of therapeutic models and methods, attitudes and orientations, does there not remain some inner spark in our profession that stays the same? More than any other field I can think of, more even than any other helping profession, therapy’s essence—regardless of whichever item on the vast menu of clinical options you choose—depends upon connection, the ability to forge some sort of meaningful bond with another human being, often under trying circumstances. If all the different approaches to therapy were different languages, then the art of connection provides the voice that allows them to be spoken and heard, to resonate in the client’s deepest self.
Further, there’s something about being a therapist—of whatever stripe—that challenges you to acquire a core of fundamental human qualities that increasingly seem rare in our public discourse. Certainly, few other professions require the same degree of maturity, compassion, humility before the immense complexity of human nature, and—dare I say it?—genuine wisdom.
The soul of wisdom is to know that you never can know enough—that human depth, variety, changeability, mystery will always outpace your capacity to study, learn, observe, absorb. Which is why all of us well beyond our first years in practice still come to the party the Networker holds every year. No matter how much you know, or think you know, you just can’t know enough. And being a therapist, you just can’t get enough of trying to know more!
Photo by Sam Levitan
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