Many psychotherapists may be described as ‘understanding’, and in the most enthusiastic possible terms. But this does not preclude the fact that it is precisely their lack of understanding which constitutes the most vital aspect of their work with clients.
In a casual—that is to say, non-psychotherapeutic—dialogue, the exchange proceeds as follows. A person offers some kind of information, whether it’s a recollection or an observation, to their interlocutor. In turn, the interlocutor shares what impression this information has made to them: again, in whatever diversity of forms this impression may have. This process continues back-and-forth to the satisfaction of both parties.
The state-of-affairs in a casual conversation is that one person’s understanding is being shared, only to be taken up by the second person’s understanding, who reflects it back to the first. It is as though each person’s understanding was a wood block, and in the course of the conversation, they are set up against each other, so that the first holds up the second, and the second holds up the first.
When this dialogue leads to the clarification and progressive unfolding of an idea, it is known as a Socratic one, and the understanding of both parties is benefited from it.
How does this differ from the dialogue of a psychotherapy session? Here, the therapist’s understanding is not, as a general rule, involved in receiving the client’s meanings and subsequently reflecting them. Instead, the psychotherapist’s understanding withdraws from the dialogue, sometimes in the most conspicuous of ways, and in a way that could really only be acceptable in the professional space of the psychotherapy room.
This withdrawing of the understanding accomplishes many therapeutic goals. The first is that it provides a clearing, whereby the client can, to use a popular idiom, hear themselves think, in contrast to the company of casual interlocutors, who even despite their best intentions can stifle the client by offering their understandings too early (at best) or too imperiously (at worst).
The second is that, through this clearing, the client can begin to recognize aspects of their communications which would have otherwise been lost. Every communication is not just a delivery of information, but a desire to be recognized as one who has said such a thing, reflecting the irreducible dual-aspect of speaking. In the clearing engendered by withdrawing understanding, the client can became more transparent to themself with respect to this dimension of their speech.
An instructive example of withdrawing understanding comes from the interpretation of dreams. Consider a scenario in which the client reports a dream about seeing themself in a coffin. Although the therapist may have some understanding of the content of this dream given to them by the innate symbolism of this image, or even the client’s own processes in therapy, a meaningful interpretation of the dream is only possible when the therapist withdraws these understandings, or at least puts them aside, as it were, ‘in his pocket’. Here we observe that the clearing created by withdrawing understanding applies equally as much to the therapist himself, who frees himself to more intuitive and creative interpretations of the client by refraining from applying his understanding too quickly.
The most immediate form of understanding occurs on what is called the ‘imaginary axis’. This is the understanding which results from an imaginary identification with the client, that is to say, one which identifies them as an alter ego or semblance of the therapist’s own self. This form of understanding is particularly difficult to withdraw, because contemporary psychotherapy considers it the highest goal of therapy: to create an empathetic link with the client.
In opposition to the imaginary axis there is the ‘symbolic axis’, and the therapist who addresses the client along this dimension addresses not the client’s ego, but rather the client’s unconscious. It is on this axis that the therapist proceeds when they succeed in withdrawing understanding. This corresponds to a well-known formula by which the therapist is encouraged to be ‘duped’ by the unconscious: the ‘duping’ refers precisely to this forfeiture of definite understanding, which is otherwise considered to be the basis of empathy.
The ‘spaciousness’ of the psychotherapeutic process consists of the clearing which is created by the therapist’s withdrawing of his understanding. This can be compared to the ironic position taken by Socrates in the dialogues which bear his name. By claiming not to know, Socrates creates an openness whereby the interlocutor can provide their understanding. Socrates then points out inherent contradictions which tease out the truth of the interlocutor’s position.
But here, we encounter a contradiction. Have we not already said that a Socratic dialogue consists of the interexchange of two parties’ understandings? How, then, can therapy be compared to this dialogue, when it involves the withdrawal of the understanding?
The answer is that the first interlocutor, who corresponds to the client, cannot help but take the therapist’s response as a kind of understanding. Even in the case where the therapist’s withdrawal of understanding takes it most extreme form—in reticence and silence—the client still interprets this as reflecting a certain understanding. This erroneous interpretation, which is given so many plentiful forms by the client, is nothing other than transference, and it consists of the client’s interpretation of the therapist’s withdrawal of understanding as a particular understanding, which itself comes to be understood in the clearing of the therapy room.
Often are the times that a client will comment when the therapist, owing to their withdrawal of understanding, falls silent, and with multifarious interpretations: a lack of supportiveness, confusion on the part of the therapist, and—perhaps most productively—hiding a particular understanding which the client believes that the therapist cannot express for some reason or another. And when they venture a guess at this understanding, the therapist can only respond in the word of an ancient Sanskrit wisdom, tat tvam asi—there you are, in the understanding which you have projected onto me, that is where you find yourself. And this can only be accomplished when the therapist himself is empty, a blank canvas upon which the client can find their there, thereby becoming more transparent to their own being.