Outdoor Halloween decorations are getting scarier. Fake headstones, skeletons coming out of the ground, and huge, lifelike tarantulas are everywhere. Cute scarecrows, friendly ghosts, and even pumpkins are becoming scarce. I myself don’t find anything enticing about a sign, dripping blood, which reads “Yul B Next” or a roadside mailbox draped with a massive spider. However, a quick walk around the neighborhood shows not everyone feels as I do, and enjoy their ghoulish displays. This is as it should be, except when it concerns very young children, especially those aged 1 to 4. Young children are not developmentally capable of separating reality and fantasy; they aren’t able to distinguish between what is real and what just looks real. As much as he might want to, a two year old cannot be convinced that a fake spider which looks real is, in fact, fake. His brain has not developed to the point where he can make those distinctions. A trick-or-treater wearing a creepy mask can be truly frightening to a small child, and can precipitate nightmares and other symptoms of anxiety. Young children may need to be shielded from the more graphic parts of Halloween. In just a few years, they will be knocking on doors in a scary mask of their own choosing.
Every so often someone will tell me they “don’t believe in psychotherapy”. That is frequently said by someone who feels they have been dragged into therapy by a spouse or partner. I like to talk about this, because I don’t believe in psychotherapy either. Psychotherapy involves a knowledge base, a skill set, and a relationship, and hence is not something to “believe in”. It requires knowledge of human behavior, interpersonal and family dynamics, emotional wellness and illness, and an awareness of the impact of culture and economic systems on people. It requires communication skills, along with a capacity for insight, intuitive understanding, the ability to suspend judgment, and a knack for making connections between seemingly unrelated events, behaviors, and feelings. The knowledge and the skills needed for the practice of psychotherapy qualify it as a science.
As a relationship, psychotherapy is also an art. While certain principles underlie therapy as a particular kind of professional relationship, like boundaries, ethics, and non-reciprocity, it can’t be learned from a book. Relationships must be experienced and felt, and too many rules or road maps can diminish them. Empathy, which is the ability to walk a bit in someone else’s shoes, so that they might possibly walk farther or more easily, involves both a commitment and an aptitude. It’s helpful to think of psychotherapy as a house. A house is important, even essential, but not something to believe in. The foundation, the framing, the siding, and the roof make up the science of psychotherapy. Everything else is art.
In the early days of public education, basic learning was colloquially called “The Three R’s” – readin, writin, and rithmetic” I have found there are also some basic principles about relationships, and one of these I call “The Three A’s.” If a relationship is in conflict or is problematic in some way, those problems or differences cannot be addressed if any of the following are present: (1) abuse, (2) an addiction, or (3) an affair. Even the best marriage counseling cannot really get off the ground if any of these three issues are not first dealt with and resolved. In essence, the relationship itself cannot truly improve if either or both partners are engaging in any of these behaviors, even if they and their therapist have the best of intentions. Abuse is an attempt by one partner to control the other via physical or emotional violence, and any sort of violence vitiates genuine intimacy. A person who is addicted to a substance or an activity such as gambling or pornography ends up having their primary relationship with the addiction. And of course a partner engaged in a physical and/or emotional affair is doing the same thing, and has also betrayed the trust of the other. I find it helpful to realize that in a two-person relationship (a dyad) there are actually three entities which must be considered and treated with respect: both individuals and the relationship itself. It can put things in perspective and minimize blame to realize that certain behaviors or attitudes damage a relationship, no matter what the personalities, needs, or qualities of the people involved. And also that certain behaviors can nurture the relationship, with distinct benefits to both partners, no matter who they are.