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Therapy, Personality and Chaos Theory

3 minute read

Sigmund Freud, the founder of modern psychotherapy, was nothing if not ambitious: He aimed to explain the entire human race. His theories would tell us why this man had a fear of horses, and that woman had a paralyzed hand. He could explain why some people love the opposite sex and others love their own sex. He knew why one person was a workaholic while another was an alcoholic.

Freud put behavior into biological boxes. Everyone, he said, had certain conflicts that were hardwired, and depending on the family situation and the experiences of the child, those conflicts would play out in this way or that, giving rise to this neurosis or that. His theories, however, were impossible to test, because they were never used to predict the future, merely to explain the past. Despite his claims to being scientific, Freud was really just a story teller, someone who created explanations for the problems that we have.

His treatment, psychoanalysis, unfortunately took a long time, showed mixed results and was very expensive. As a reaction to that, along came the cognitive and behavioral therapy (CBT) proponents who said, essentially “It doesn’t matter what caused your problem, if we change the way you think, and we change the way you behave, you’re going to feel better.” CBT explained our problems in simple terms: We’re anxious because we mistakenly can’t tolerate uncertainty; we’re depressed because we don’t get enough exercise; we have a dog phobia because we’ve never learned that dogs aren’t dangerous…and so on.

Every couple of years, there’s a new school of therapy popping up that claims to explain human suffering and presents the golden road out of such suffering. But when each school is subjected to rigorous testing, it turns out that pretty much every bonafide method of doing therapy works as well as every other method. (You’ll find plenty of individual studies that show School A is superior to School B, but you’ll also find that the study was conducted by researchers who themselves prefer School A. When the study is repeated by adherents of School B, surprise surprise, School B turns out to be better than School A!)

These schools of therapy offer widely differing, and very useful theories of human suffering. But they are also breathtakingly arrogant because they claim to be able to decipher human behavior. Let me explain why that is arrogant through a little detour into typhoons and chaos theory. (Yes, I know how odd that sounds!)

It was thought for a while that with enough data we could predict the weather accurately for weeks or months into the future. But then it was discovered that very tiny variations in conditions caused huge differences in outcomes. It became a cliché that a butterfly flapping its wings in the Amazon could result in a typhoon in the Pacific. The tiniest breath of wind leads to something, which leads to something else, which eventually leads to a massive storm. No matter how much data we collect, we’ll never be able to accurately predict future weather more than a few days in advance — and sometimes not even that. And it turned out that it wasn’t just the weather that couldn’t be predicted. So many systems turned out to be unpredictable that a whole new branch of science was created to study what became known as Chaos Theory.

And what’s the relationship between Chaos Theory and human beings? I would suggest that humans are far, far more complex than the weather, and any attempt to predict how we will behave, think and feel in anything but the very short term is doomed to failure. And any psychological theory that claims to have the answer as to how we develop, what problems we’ll have and how we’ll overcome them — well, that’s just whistling in the dark.

Let’s look at a practical example: A child grows up with a very critical mother. One might expect that child to become an insecure, self critical adult with low self esteem. But what if one day that child was feeling good for some reason: perhaps a teacher had praised her, or she’d done something she was proud of. Just as she was feeling good, her mother criticized her unfairly. And instead of feeling like a failure, she saw the criticism as unjustified and became angry at her mother. Perhaps that anger made her feel powerful, and she preferred that to feeling like a failure. She held onto that anger the next day, and the next, and became rebellious, rejecting her mother’s criticism and seeking out instead other adults that would provide more positive feedback. Perhaps the child would then become a confident adult, rather than an insecure, self critical one.

Tweak this scenario just a bit though, and you get a different outcome. If the mother was loving as well as critical, it might be harder for the child to reject her mother’s criticisms, and she might not become rebellious after all. Tweak the scenario in a yet another way, and get yet another outcome. Small differences, yet enormously different results. Something like a butterfly’s wings spawning a typhoon.

So does this mean that therapists should all just pack up and go home? After all, the fancy theories we’ve learned in graduate school explaining human behavior are about as accurate as the weather bureau telling us that it’s going to rain six weeks from today.

Obviously not. (After all, I’m a therapist and I’m not trying to talk myself out of a job.) But what it does mean is that therapists have to be humble. We don’t know what made our client the way they are today, nor do we know how they’re going to fix themselves. We are not experts on our clients. But we do have the ability to ask questions, to listen without judgment, to be curious, to help our clients be equally curious, and to suggest things that might help.

I tell my clients that they are the expert on themselves. I have ideas about what has got them into difficulties, and ideas about how they might get out, but they are just that: ideas. If my ideas don’t resonate, then I’m happy to abandon them and together, we try something else. I explain that we are together, lost in a forest, and we’re trying to find a way out. I have a flashlight, and that will illuminate a path here, and a path there. But it’s up to my client to decide which path will lead them out of the forest.

Very often, it turns out that what led to my client’s troubles is something I wouldn’t have imagined, and the solution to those problems is also something I couldn’t have come up with myself. Because everything they are, and will become, depends on the beat of distant butterfly wings.


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