The Metatherapeutic Current in Pluralism
Nicola Blunden, BSc Person-Centred Pluralistic Counselling, Metanoia Institute, London
Terry Eagleton, one of my favourite philosophers, has written that, ‘For much of the time, our intellectual and other activities bowl along fairly serenely, and in this situation no great expenditure of theoretical energy is usually necessary. But there may come a point when these taken-for-granted activities begin to falter, log-jam, come unstuck, run into trouble, and it is at these points that theory proves necessary.’
When our team at Metanoia Institute decided to turn our person-centred undergraduate therapy training into a person-centred pluralistic therapy training, we experienced a log-jam: a pressure that squeezed us time and again when we tried to explain the practical and philosophical basis of the course. At the time, there were two main ways of understanding pluralism: as a pragmatic framework for integrative practice; and as a broad philosophical stance (implicitly for single-modality therapists). Our training does not really fit either of these descriptions. We are not an integrative training, unless you count the many and varied ways of being person-centred. But we do not just hold a philosophical, or abstract position either. We are engaged in something that is distinctively both pluralistic and person-centred, and deeply rooted in practice.
Trainers, supervisors, and students ask us, ‘How can you be both a single-modality training, and pluralistic?’ Our answer is that the pluralistic way of being has something unique to offer therapists of many orientations, and of one orientation: that is the co-creative, reflexive metatherapeutic current.
Alongside the therapy space, pluralism establishes and maintains a continuous current of reflective activity. We form it in the first session, when we ask clients about their preferences and aspirations for the therapy. But it is not a discussion that only happens at assessment, or at periodic review. It sits constantly alongside the therapy, like a flowing stream, always available to both persons. I experience it as another space, not the therapy space. It’s a parallel current, a metatherapeutic current, in which we work together as a team. It is a creative, ongoing discussion, in which we fine-tune our approach, and generate a new, unique, and innovative way of working, that suits the particular needs of the relationship, and the moment.
Either the client or the therapist can step out of the therapy space and step into the reflexive stream. In this illustrative, anonymised example, the therapist (Shay) initiates a move to this metatherapeutic current. The client (Sam) has been talking about how difficult it is to access his feelings in the moment.
Sam: I know I’m supposed to be feeling stuff in here, but I just can’t. I feel kind of numb. It’s frustrating.
Shay: Hmm. Yes, I feel the stuck feeling with you. Can we pause here for a minute, and think about how we are working together? Maybe there is something we can do differently. Or maybe there is something I’m doing that’s not helpful.
Sam: I don’t know if you’re doing anything wrong… I think I’m trying too hard?
Shay: Well, maybe we’ve both assumed something here about what you ‘should’ be doing, as a client.
Sam: …I feel like I’m supposed to be crying and feeling all these feelings. I know I am grieving, underneath. I just can’t get to it.
Shay: I’m not expecting you to cry. I think my job is to be here alongside you, whatever you’re feeling. I also think it’s important not to try and force your feelings. Perhaps it will come when it’s ready.
Sam: But I do want to try and get at the feelings. I haven’t cried in years. I think it would help me to let it out. I just don’t know how.
Shay: Okay. Well, maybe the way we are approaching it isn’t working for you. Do you have a sense of what might help?
Sam: I don’t know… I was thinking, maybe we could do something different? Like, when I try to speak, that’s when it shuts down. Is there anything we can do that isn’t about speaking? That sounds stupid.
Shay: That doesn’t sound stupid at all to me. Um, there are a few things we could try instead of talking. We could do something creative – sometimes it helps to describe the feelings in colour, or with music. I have lots of creative stuff here we could use. Or we could try connecting more to the body. Your emotions might not have many words attached to them, but we could approach the feelings as sensations. That’s a technique you can learn and use outside of the room as well.
Shay: What are you feeling or thinking about those ideas?
Sam: I like the idea of using music. I do use music when I’m feeling crap. I do feel things then, sometimes, in the car.
Shay: That feels like something we could work with, and try out?
Sam: There’s this song that always makes me think of my mother. It came on the other day, while I was driving…
At this point, the client moves naturally back into the therapy space. Sam and Shay go on to weave songs and then poetry into their work, as a way of symbolising Sam’s feelings, without the pressure of having to vocalise them. This helps Sam to contact his feelings of grief and pain, in a way that feels comfortable.
It’s important to note that at the beginning of the above extract, Shay could have stayed in the therapy space, sitting with Sam’s feeling of pressure and frustration. But she sensed that they might be able to adapt their approach, or re-orient it somehow, to support Sam in his feeling of stuckness. An integrative or single-modality practitioner who hasn’t established this metatherapeutic current would not have had this choice.
This metatherapeutic current is a space that keeps developing, empowering the client to be proactive in co-creating the therapeutic approach. In the next example, from a few sessions later, it is Sam who initiates a move into the metatherapeutic stream, right at the beginning of the session:
Sam: I was thinking we might do something different today.
Shay: Sure. What are you thinking?
Sam: You might think this sounds weird, but I’d like us to swap seats.
Shay: Oh, you sit here, and me there?
Sam: Yes. Obviously not if you don’t want to.
Shay: I am happy for you to sit where you like. What are you guessing will happen when we do?
Sam: Okay, it does sound weird, but I want to know what it feels like to sit where you are. I want to… see myself through your eyes?
Shay: You know, I never really find your ideas weird. They are always interesting to try out. Let’s swap now?
[They swap seats]
Shay: I’m very interested to know how it feels over there.
Sam: [laughs] Yes that’s how I felt when I sat there! Very interested in how you were feeling! I feel… more powerful somehow. I feel kind of warm about you, over there, in the client seat. You seem a bit more vulnerable, but… I like it.
Again, Sam moves back into the therapy space. Having negotiated a new method in the therapy, Sam begins to process his feelings about their relationship, where the power ‘sits’, and perhaps how Shay feels about him. This subsequent discussion is full of immediacy (the therapeutic skill in which two people talk about their direct experience of themselves and each other in relationship), but is now firmly back in the therapy stream, with the intention of having direct therapeutic benefits for the client.
So, there is a difference between the metatherapeutic current (which is concerned with the negotiation and co-creation of the processes of therapy), and immediacy (which is therapeutic discussion in the here-and-now of the therapy as it happens). Both are a form of metacommunication, but they have different purposes. Metatherapeutic conversation is intended to support the therapy but it is not intended to be therapeutic, per se. Metatherapeutic communication is a distinctive feature of pluralistic approaches—whether integrative or single modality.
In summary, the metatherapeutic current is a collaborative, creative, and joint relationship that sits alongside the therapy space, like a stream. It supports and upholds the therapy space in at least five important ways:
- It enlists the client as an explicit co-creator of the therapeutic approach, leading to innovation, diversity of practice, and personalisation.
- It demystifies the therapist’s intentions and knowledge for the client, enabling the client to make use of the therapist’s knowledge in explicit and client-led ways.
- It demystifies the client’s intentions and knowledge for the therapist, enabling the therapist to tailor the approach more sensitively, and make use of client feedback about their way of working.
- It horizontalizes the therapy, sharing power and responsibility for the therapeutic approach, taking seriously and acting on the client’s style, aspirations, ideas, evaluations, and preferences.
- Because it is continuous and concurrent, it creates a deepening coherence and consistency in the work, centred in the unique, unfolding relationship.
How do you experience and facilitate this metatherapeutic space with your clients? I’d be very interested to hear your comments!