Individual Counseling

The Unconscious And Asking Clients About The Why Of Their Behaviors

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Freud’s greatest discovery, that much of human behavior is motivated by unconscious forces, has resulted in an unintended detrimental consequence for the therapeutic endeavor. This is that many therapists believe the real reasons for thinking and behaving are outside of conscious awareness. If these reasons are unconscious then they are necessarily inaccessible to clients, placing the responsibility for interpretation and cure squarely on the shoulders of the professional. The irony is that most therapists are unaware of what their own bias means for where insight should come from and who should be responsible for what in the therapeutic relationship.

The result is an unfortunate situation where those working within a psychoanalytic paradigm rarely if ever ask their clients the ‘why’ behind their thoughts, words, and actions. The underlying assumption is that they don’t know why. A lot of the time they don’t, if people had access to all the ‘whys’ they wouldn’t have entered into therapy in the first place, but a lot of the time they do know and neglecting to ask means unnecessarily fumbling around in the dark.

I loved something I read by the great psychologist Karen Horney, who said in a lecture that when she supervised psychoanalysts in training they would often come into the supervision hour with the lingering question of ‘why’ regarding some pattern of thinking or behaving of their clients, hoping she could provide the answer they were searching for. She would respond “Have you asked them?” And of course they hadn’t because they tacitly assumed their clients wouldn’t know.

But one of the main goals of therapy is to increase conscious awareness, which means that as time goes by clients should have increasing access to the ‘whys’ of their behaviors or the therapist is doing something wrong. Simply asking why often opens up fruitful avenues for further exploration while clarifying things. It’s a concrete way to make the therapeutic endeavor a partnership where both points of view are equally respected and equally weighted. And most importantly, it places the ultimate responsibility for cure back where it belongs, which is on the shoulders of the client.