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‘What’s it like?’

It’s rare in these blogs or in my work to talk directly about Personal Construct Psychology (PCP), which provides the theoretical overview of what I do. Having basked in three days of theory and practice with friends and colleagues at the latest International Congress on PCP, that’s not about to change beyond looking at the practical question posed by my friend Marie-Louise Österlind, a researcher from Sweden, with which she frames her research. This is simply ‘what’s it like?’ for the people in their daily life that she is working with.

This seems to me to sum up an essential task of the therapist which is to understand what’s it like to be the person you are working with, to stand in their shoes, to see their world the way they see it, to feel for a moment the way they feel it, if you can. In this it is important for me to check with the people that I have understood them and, if I have not, then to keep clarifying my understanding until they feel understood. They, and only they, really are the final arbiter on this. This is something fundamental for successful relationships that I teach the couples I work with to do with each other. It helps them recognise that within each relationship that there are always two subjective realities and that if each person is to flourish, they have to  respect each other, accept each other, understand each other, and work with each other. In other words they have to love each other.

The recognition of different worlds, different realities, is much more readily recognised since the Matrix. It is almost common currency now, in psychological terms. Yet, in practice looking around at the news, the people you know and even your own life, that you have a strong preference for your own viewpoint; a preference which obscures the viewpoints of others, even those you  love. The difficulty is that others’ viewpoints always carry implications for us, for our lives, for our futures, and if we care about anything it is usually ourselves and our own life – which applies even for those who feel their lives are meaningless; for them, their meaninglessness is the most meaningful thing they face.

Caring about ourselves is a good thing; it is how we care about ourselves in relation to others, and where we place our needs in relation to others’ needs, that ethics, morality and even politics begin. And ethics and morality are fundamental in therapy, although it is not particularly fashionable in a medicalized world to say so. For that would be to recognise that each person, is just that, something way beyond a biological organism, a unique centre of life, that is precious in itself, deserving of growth, even in the most difficult and trying of circumstances. It is this growth, and growth in being that therapist is devoted to. The therapist’s task is to recognise the uniqueness of each person, to provide them with understanding, to provide them with recognition for being and then recognition of their quest for meaning, for purpose and for life. This is all part of what it means to be human, and the task of being human is something we can all have in common, including understanding each other. Where ‘what’s it like to be you?’ is a great place to start, what ever role we find ourselves in with others, if we want to understand people, to understand them in their uniqueness, their world, their quest.  Which is different from starting by pigeonholing them in some diagnostic category, as some therapists do. The hope is that recognition of their being, and understanding of what it is like, helps them, in to understand themselves, and their questions, and purposes better, in order that they can feel alive and be alive in the life that they choose to live.