Philosophical Counseling And Hellmuth Kaiser On Successful Therapy

In Existential Psychotherapy (Basic Books, New York, 1980), Irvin Yalom writes:

The therapist healed, [Hellmuth] Kaiser believed, simply by being with the patient. Successful therapy requires “that the patient spends sufficient time with a person of certain personality characteristics.” What personality characteristics? Kaiser cited four: (1) an interest in people; (2) theoretical views on psychotherapy that do not interfere with his or her interest in helping the patient to communicate freely; (3) the absence of neurotic patterns that would interfere with the establishment of communication with the patient; (4) the mental disposition of “receptiveness”-being sensitive to duplicity or to the noncommunicative elements in the patient’s behavior. [p. 405; link added]

Note that Kaiser here specifies ‘personality characteristics’; these are not a matter of formal, professional qualification or training. Rather, these speak to the personal dimension of the interaction the therapist brings to her encounters with patient (or client.) They address, most directly, the question of what kind of person, what kind of human being, the therapist is. 

The first, ‘an interest in people,’ is considerably under-specified, but at the least we would expect the therapist to be in the trade because she is genuinely interested in the perplexity of the human condition, and find human beings’ problems to be worthy of sympathy, and generative of empathy. Without this minimal personal qualification (sadly missing in all too many supposed ‘healers’ today) the therapeutic process is doomed. 

Kaiser’s second requirement speaks to letting the therapist’s personal interest in the client trump any preconceived views of therapy; the client’s personality and problems are foremost, and if they do not fit an accepted template of treatment, diagnosis, analysis and prognosis, then so much the worse for the theoretical model.  This requirement means the therapist cannot be rigid and inflexible; the client cannot be shoehorned, brutally, into an existent mold of treatment. Theory is always trumped by the living testimony of the physically realized, concrete client present in the ‘clinic,’ not the abstract, blood-and-flesh-less ‘case’ of therapeutic theory. 

The third is a rather more direct claim on the personality of the therapist. Every therapist, as a human being, suffers from his or her understanding of their life; they often, if not always, require therapy themselves. These by themselves are not an impediment to therapy; however, an established, stubborn neurotic pattern of behavior (excessive, obsessive, selfish, self-interest being an obvious one) that would interfere with listening sympathetically or that results in intolerant, abusive responses to those seeking help, is an obvious disqualification. 

The fourth is an abstract claim but can be made more concrete by considering it an extension and elaboration of the first requirement: the therapist’s interest in people must entail a particular sensitivity–perhaps borne from acute observation, listening, and learning about humans and the human condition–that makes him or her alert to the complexities of a patient’s personality–such as lack of transparency, duplicity, intellectual dishonesty, lack of forthrightness–that can interfere with the therapeutic process.  

These personality characteristics are not designed to be eliminated or created by professional training. You cannot create an interest in people, for instance. In Kaiser’s view then, the therapist is not as much a qualified technician, as much as he is a sympathetic and engaged human being, committed to helping other human beings just like him. Imperfect, but hopeful of learning and reconfiguring themselves. 

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