This blog is a 3-part reflection about how we see (or fail to see) our clients while acting as their therapists. How we see our clients is central to our understanding of them and how our relationship grows and develops. The Person-Centered model implies a genuine and collaborative relationship between client and therapist. It asks us to view clients undefined by our well-earned expertise. This involves intentionally setting aside – or at least recognizing and reckoning with – our professional loyalties and schooled way of seeing them.
I first became aware of Ralph Ellison, and his book “Invisible Man”, by reading a chapter in Robert Coles’ book “Handing One Another Along”. Dr. Coles pointed out that Ralph Ellison’s novel provided a nuanced explication of the human struggle to see others, often fail to see them, and ultimately come to know and regard them. I read the book and was deeply moved by it. In the novel, the protagonist lamented that he could only be viewed by others as: “themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything except me”. In doing so, they rendered him invisible. This invisible, nameless protagonist attributed his invisibility to “ a peculiar disposition of the eyes of those with whom I come into contact. A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality”. He further claimed that for every invisible person there must also be a blind person. As therapists, have we also become blind (blinded) to our clients by our training, personal experiences, and the conveniences and limits of our theories and systems?
Let’s take a closer look at the peculiar disposition of our clinical and professional “inner-eyes”, and how they might be constructed. George Kelly (1955), in his seminal book “The Psychology of Personal Constructs”, theorized that we see others and the world through transparent patterns or templates that we create and “attempt to fit over the realities of the world”. He called these patterns personal constructs. These are mental representations that we construct to interpret (construe) events and place them in some kind of order in our world. We experience the world through the lens of our personal constructs. Personal constructs are contextual and bipolar: we construe what something is by contrasting it with what we believe that it is not. For example, “hardworking” can only be interpreted by differentiating it from our personal understanding of “lazy”.
Personal constructs are more than just words, but also involve feelings and implicit or procedural memories of prior experiences. We develop hypotheses, make predictions, and start looking for certain outcomes that assimilate with our personal constructs. Our thoughts, attitudes and behaviors are channeled through our individual hierarchies of personal constructs. We essentially sift our experiences through these transparent grids until specific patterns for evaluating and interpreting events emerge and become rote.
Our personal constructs let us make inferences (often faulty ones) and predictions about others without too much effort. We rapidly, and often too assuredly, explain others to ourselves; render them visible in ways that conform to our constructs. At the same time, our personal constructs help us dispense with notions of them that do not fit within the boundaries of our values, disciplines, language games, systems and philosophical leanings.
Ironically, the way that we construe others ultimately says much more about us (personally, and as a profession) than it does our clients.
Ralph Ellison made a strong case in his book for the idea that society has a lot to do with how a person sees others; that we at least partially share constructs with our culture and social groups. Applying Personal Construct theory to Mr. Ellison’s supposition about race and blindness, it can be theorized that the base of a white individual’s personal construct hierarchy, handed down to her and reinforced by societal norms, is the distinction that: to be black is really to be both similar in almost every way to every other black person and, at the same time, not at all the same as a white person. From this base construct (“black” versus “not-white”) hierarchies of increasingly more complex and individualized personal constructs are built, which are influenced by societal and economic incentives. The prejudice and discrimination within these hierarchies are contributed to by a common syllogistic fallacy that rests on this false assumption: people from my own group are diverse and people from other groups are very similar in many ways(stereotypes). The same risk also exists for therapists; that our personal constructs are shared and typified by professional norms, training, rehearsal with like-minded people, and economic incentives.
Psychiatry and psychology are replete with typologies and classifications. They are in many ways drilled into us. Categories, with their sophisticated names and implications, are taught at the fundamental level to therapists. We become convinced that we can understand things once we have a name for them. These become so intertwined with the entirety of our systems of personal constructs that they implicitly, and then, explicitly bias the way that we see and construe our clients. Our personal constructs are reified through clinical experience as we search for similarities and differences in our clients: who they are like and who they are not like. We start to increasingly see “kinds of clients” and continuously sort and re-sort them. Therapists, often unwittingly, begin typifying (discriminating against) their clients, and then it becomes increasingly easy to see them as: “ourselves, or figments of our imaginations – indeed, anything and everything except them”. Then, we become blind to our clients.