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Murder Mysteries and Psychotherapy

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I recently used a variation on this title elsewhere to introduce a short article discussing the need for certainty which seems to exist within western culture.  I was suggesting that the drive to always find a single answer to any issue is almost irresistible.  Once found, that solution is then expected provide a consistent and universal explanation.

In the article I provided examples of this in science, religion and sport but I also suggested that one of the most obvious places where this approach is ever present is within the genre of murder mysteries which dominates the television schedules.

In what I termed the popular killing fields of middle England, from the mythical Midsomer villages to Morse’s Oxford and into Whitechapel, there is a set formula which provides for a final denouement at the end of the programme.  The identity of the murderer must be revealed with a full explanation of the crime provided. It seems almost impossible for the script writers and producers to think of any other outcome for the programme.  

That approach seems to reflect our way in the west of dealing with any difficult situation. A disaster requires a scapegoat and a tragedy a reason.  We must have a reason why.

If I look within the world of therapy I am suggesting that this drive for certainty is often reflected in counselling work.  Traditional therapists have since the time of Freud looked to explain the emotional challenges faced by the client, by referring back to a single event or relationship which continues to adversely impact on the client’s emotional wellbeing.  The theory is that once this happening is recognised and acknowledged within the therapy room then balance and harmony can be restored. 

In practice I wonder how often real life actually follows that rather neat scenario.  I have argued in the paper that clients are complex individuals who are exposed throughout life to a myriad of different influences.  Even with the help of a therapist some of those influences may be beyond our memory recall.  That suggests that rather than just rely on this almost archaeological approach we probably need to use a variety of counselling strategies to assist clients.

My view is that within the counselling world that notion of universality crumbles before the complexity of the individual.  Different clients will have different needs and we should not just look to the one universal remedy to help clients deal with difficult emotional situations.

A recent report ‘Commissioning Effective Talking Therapists’ has been very critical of what is termed the monoculture where one form of counselling (probably in this case CBT) is seen as dominating the various therapies which could be on offer.  I certainly believe that we should be wary of generalising solutions from the individual to the group in a way that is too overbearing. It is important to be aware of carefully conducted research which indicates that certain therapies may be particularly useful but we should also be cautious of that constant drive to find that universal panacea.

I have argued that to try to force through a single approach as the way of resolving individual emotional challenges is to again be seduced by the lure of the universal. That seduction can take different forms and have different imperatives. For example the economic reality of current service provision is there may well be cost reasons which can underpin a stated preference for one particular therapy.  We should acknowledge that those financial drivers can impact on clinical issues.

A more persuasive argument is that individuals are complex beings who have been affected by the many different events and relationships which have shaped their emotional interactions with the world.  As counsellors we should reflect that diversity in the way in which we approach our work with clients.   

That suggests that rather than looking for that one size which fits all, we should respect each client by viewing her or him as a unique individual.  This necessitates working in the therapy room in a way which best fits with the overall needs of that client rather than trying to accommodate a designated clinical model. 

The thrust of the article is that in counselling there are no constants and no universals.  As counsellor and client we should tailor our work together using that approach which is most likely to be of real lasting benefit to each individual client.




Geoff Boutle

added on 25th May 2012

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