About Psychotherapy in General

I use the term “psychotherapy” to refer to a particular type of powerful interpersonal relationship.  This relationship in intended to promote healing and growth in the client and to a lesser extent may have the same effect on the therapist. It works by addressing the unconscious. 

There are two levels and four types of psychotherapy.  Generally speaking the first level has to do with healing and the second level has to do with growth.  The four types are individual therapy, group therapy, family therapy, and couples therapy—sometimes called “marriage counseling.”

Most people initially enter psychotherapy at the first level, motivated by something that is causing them pain, such as depression, anxiety, addiction, guilt, grieving, or unrewarding interpersonal relationships.  At this level the client usually thinks of the situation in medical terms.  He or she is a patient who has a symptom or an illness and the therapist’s (doctor’s) job is to alleviate the symptom or cure the illness. Hence this level is thought of as intending to promote healing in the usual sense, and when done carefully it is usually quite successful

The second level of psychotherapy has to do with growth, and most people do not even realize that this is possibility until they have had a successful experience in therapy at the first level.  In fact many therapists have little or no experience, training, or belief in the second level, and are therefore unlikely to mention it as a possibility at the end of a successful course of therapy at the first level. The idea that psychotherapy could have ongoing benefit in terms of enhancing one’s life even after the initial symptom or illness is no longer a problem has only come to be accepted in more recent years.  In this context is it sometimes compared to a healthy diet, exercise routine, or meditation practice—something that continues to provide meaningful benefit beyond simply having lost the weight, gotten in shape, or glimpsed nirvana.  It is also something that is not for everyone.

I mentioned above that psychotherapy works by addressing the unconscious.  While this statement is true for both the first and second levels, there are important differences. 

At the first level the goal is to address what Freud considered to be the unconscious—thoughts and feelings caused by experiences early in life that are painful and are therefore pushed out of conscious awareness into the unconscious.  Though outside of conscious awareness they continue to influence how one experiences and engages the world.  In both cases, experience and engagement, the influence is a negative one and is beyond the person’s control.  Addictions and compulsions are prime examples. At the first level of psychotherapy one attempts to bring into conscious awareness the early life experiences that have been pushed into the unconscious so that, once they have been made conscious, they no longer have the power to exert a negative influence that is beyond the person’s control. 

If one chooses to go on to the second level of psychotherapy, both the frame of reference and the goals change a bit. 

At the second level of psychotherapy the frame of reference for what constitutes the unconscious is basically expanded from Freud’s concept to Jung’s.  Jung agreed with Freud that each person has what might be called a personal unconscious based on early painful life experiences and that this must be addressed, and in some sense defeated, in order to alleviate certain kinds of psychological suffering, This personal unconscious is essentially what Jung called “the shadow.”   However Jung saw the shadow as only a small part of the unconscious.  The much larger part he called “the collective unconscious.”  The collective unconscious transcends individual humans beings and is shared by all of us.  It is not a result of individual experiences in one’s personal life history.  Like the personal unconscious or shadow, the collective unconscious can exert a great influence on how a person experiences and engages life.  However this influence is not always negative, so that the intention of therapy at the second level is not so much to regard the unconscious as an enemy to be defeated, but to befriend it and to come to know when and how to surrender [link to surrender article] to it.  When it is possible to establish such a relationship with the collective unconscious, then one has a chance to find one’s own answers to existential and spiritual questions about the meaning of one’s life and how to go about living a deeply fulfilling life.  

Needless to say, the first and second levels of psychotherapy are not always neatly differentiated.  Material from the collective unconscious may come up early in the course of one’s first experience with psychotherapy when the goal is simply to address the personal unconscious in order to alleviate suffering.  Similarly, material from the personal unconscious may still arise from time to time after one is quite advanced in psychotherapy at the second level.  


About Individual Therapy

About Group Therapy

About Family Therapy

About Couples Therapy

Psychotherapy Outside the Office