Jung on The Therapist’s Dilemma

A couple weeks ago, I finished C.G. Jung’s essay The Undiscovered Self. I found it an impressive but not wholly convincing work–great food for thought but painfully hypothetical (Jung, of course, argues that is precisely how it should be). Still, I find myself revisiting a few ideas that really peaked my interest. One of such is his explanation of what I will call the “therapist’s dilemma.”

The Therapist’s Dilemma

“On one hand, he is equipped with the statistical truths of his scientific training, and on the other hand, he is faced with the task of treating a sick person who…requires individual understanding. The more schematic the treatment is, the more resistance it–quite rightly–calls up in the patient, and the more the cure is jeporadized.” – C.G. Jung, The Undiscovered Self (p. 7)

I have read quite thoroughly into contemporary movements in psychotherapy, and the quote above proves timely–the debate over “schematic” treatment tailored for the masses versus “individual[ized]” treatment tailored for the just you or me exists today–and fiercely. So fiercely, in fact, that the merited psychiatrist Irvin D. Yalom, in his book The Gift of Therapy, laments the current direction of talk therapies, encouraging prospective therapists to continue tailoring therapy for the individual, stating that treatment for the masses grossly overlook exceptions to the rule. After all, Jung states, “one could say that the real picture consists of nothing but exceptions to the rules…that…absolute reality has predominately the character of irregularity.” I love this sentiment. Individuals differ so starkly and so deeply that generalizations concerning their interworkings must fall short of the truth–and very short.

“If…I determine the weight of each stone in a bed of pebbles and get an average weight of 145 grams, this tells me very little about the real nature of the pebbles. Anyone who thought, on the basis of these findings, that he could pick up a pebbles of 145 grams on his first try would be in for a serious disappointment. Indeed, it might well happen that however long he searched he would not find a single pebble weighing exactly 145 grams. The statistical method shows the facts in the light of the ideal average but does not give us a picture of their empirical reality. While reflecting an indisputable aspect of reality, it can falsify the actual truth in a most misleading way.” C.G. Jung, The Undiscovered Self (p. 6)

I do not side wholly with Jung’s anti-statistical perspective save for when it concerns subjective matters, such as psychotherapy. Jung’s masterful likening statistical shortcomings to a bed of pebbles is a convincing argument–either for its literary beauty or its shocking implications–but I find it at odds with statistics, which is probabilistic, not absolute; it has a keen awareness of the misleading nature of averages and employs a number of tricks in recourse.

I find myself taking a different stance concerning psychotherapy, however. The idea of eating, breathing, and sleeping with the DSM (diagnosis handbook for psychologists) until I am merely a mobile mouthpiece for it, is disconcerting, to say the least. I doubt a therapist could provide comprehensive care if bound to generalizations which overlook the “irregularities” of us all. However, I doubt the problem is so dichotomous. There must be a mediation between heeding one’s “individual” concerns and altering the “schematic” treatment to account for it. Jung, at least in Undiscovered Self, does not speak of how this mediation occurs apart from stating the therapist can only have one at the expense of the other. He even goes so far to say that the therapist must throw out completely all scientific training to fully appreciate the individual. This is another hypothetical which leaves me searching for stronger footholds. He provides little explanation here but seems to harken back to the pebble metaphor.

Of course, there cannot be a definite answer to which is best–individual or schematic treatment. After all, their efficacy (that is, success, more or less) is measured by treatment outcome research, a line of study helplessly marred by biases, outliers, attrition, and other such nightmare-fuel for researchers. Perhaps only time will tell. Until then, therapists should be trained as mediators of individual and schematic treatment, never taught to side only with the numbers they, too, are taught to doubt in their mathematics studies.

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