Psychotherapy (counselling) uses words to change things. This is quite a remarkable proposition, when stated bluntly. So, why words?

In many ways, we readily admit that words change emotions. A Hollywood movie can leave the audience in tears, or a politician’s speech can inflame a crowd to the madness of genocide. A man can say ‘I love you’ and the woman can realise that he is the one. But we have to be careful. While we cherish the third, we know that the tears at a movie are a little fake, and that the politician’s words can be a danger. So then, it seems that if words are to be used to change human suffering the kind of language employed needs to be considered. The first systematic development of words to change things can be found in the rhetorical schools of Greece in 5th Century BC. By speaking well you could change the opinion of the crowd. Psychotherapy is also about speaking well.

You also have in those Greek writings an early theory of ‘what is human suffering’. For Plato, the people of Athens were depressed because they had lost sight of what was good for them and were alienated by the pointless life that they were leading. For Plato the answer was to develop philosophers who who did know what was good for the people. The project would then involve the injection of those good ideas into the citizen by means of words – rhetoric. The effect would be that the citizen would stop being depressed as he energetically pursued the good-life. Anxiety is when you don’t know what you are doing, and depression is when you are doing the wrong thing.

The modern equivalent is the Self-Help book, the talk-show and some therapeutic programmes that focus on the development of ones control of things. These are all projects where someone knows what is good, not just for themselves but for everybody, and seeks by words to persuade the other person to give up an opinion that is what is causing all the suffering in their life, and to adopt as their own the more helpful opinion being peddled to them. Fortunately, this is not the only rhetorical game in town!

In the fifth century BC there was a conference held to decide whether Helen of Troy was guilty, or whether love can excuse the abandoning of ones husband for a lover-prince in Troy. Every Sunday, the popular press carries on this investigation.

Gorgias (Encomium of Helen) had a novel proposition. His text is also the founding text for psychotherapy. Helen was innocent!  The words of her suitor, Paris, had had effects upon the goodness of Helen’s soul in the same way that poisons introduced into the body have toxic effects upon the neurological system.

So, he has a theory of language that if one person uses words upon another in order to persuade them, then this is intoxication and a poisoning. We are back at the idea that words can change emotions, induce love in this case, and that in the case of the Trojan War then words can literally bring chaos to the whole world. Against Plato and his philosopher Kings, the Socratic school had a different version of what is depression. The people of Athens were depressed not because they lacked the good idea, but instead precisely because they had been poisoned by swallowing someone else’s idea of what was good for them. What was called for, then, was a rhetorical programme that would not merely substitute one opinion for another (better) one.

The implications for psychotherapy of this proposal are enormous. For starters, while the psychotherapist might know a thing or two about language and about love, he is no philosopher king and cannot know what is good for another person – let alone inject that good idea into another’s psyche using words. It is up to each person to know what is good for themselves! A psychotherapist, unlike a friend, doesn’t give ‘good advice’.

Secondly, what price human suffering? If you have written a self-help book or if you are promoting a therapy of managing things better rather than changing things, then you do not actually need to hear the particular way that a person is suffering, nor the particular history of how that suffering has happened. You just have to know what they are supposed to do!

But if you are a psychotherapist, in the Socratic fashion, then you must get to know the individual history and the particular suffering at stake – as they say ‘what is your poison?’. This is what Sigmund Freud started when he asked his patient’s to talk to him about it, rather than just describe their symptoms as a patient does to a Doctor when they need the right pill. That is why psychotherapy takes a little more time than a directive therapy, like CBT.

This then leads to the third result. Against a return to some sort of normal, or standard, where you are only considered returned to health if you are just like everybody else (you suffer ‘normally’) – against all of that you have a result where each person comes to an individual and unique resolution of the difficulties of being a human being. There is no right way; there is only your way.

The fourth and last point to mention here is why be bothered to do it with a psychotherapist – why can’t one cure oneself?

You need to look at why telling bed-time stories puts children to sleep. If you think about it, it is not obvious that telling children fairy tales should make them go to sleep. The common-sense idea is that if you use words to produce images of heads flying off and small children being eaten by goblins, then that this would awake dormant fears and you could bet upon a sleepless night. But no, they go to sleep. So, instead of the common-sense notion that talking about what one is scared of will stir things up, you have the result that the naming of difficult emotions and the putting of these into words has a quietening effect. The construction of ones story and the putting of it into words that takes place with a therapist enables a perspective – literally a mental distance – from ones emotions and problems.

Rather than having them in your face, by talking about it with another person emotions can be diffused and you can take up a bit more of a distance from them. Between yourself and the difficult emotion, you now have many words.

Psychotherapy is just talking about things  – but that doesn’t mean that things can’t be changed by such a simple thing as words.


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