Therapists Spill: Is Therapy an Art or a Science?
It’s a question that’s asked in many grad school classrooms. It’s the same question that therapists love to explore and debate: Is therapy really an art or a science? We posed this pivotal question to five therapists. The consensus? All of them agreed that therapy is a bit of both — though their responses revealed different reasons and insights. Some may or may not surprise you. But one thing is for sure. They will give you a deeper understanding of something that still remains shrouded in mystery: therapy. Which is really the goal of our Therapists Spill series.
“I believe therapy is an art that is based on a science,” said Rebecca Wolf, LCSW, a Chicago therapist who specializes in working with adults and couples with addiction, relationship, workplace and communication issues. She noted that there are plenty of evidence-based, scientifically-proven practices for treating different symptoms. But the strongest indicator of success, she believes, derives from an art form: the relationship between clinician and client.
“It is an art to get to know someone, to get them to trust you, to allow them to feel safe in your presence. It is certainly an art to craft your words as a therapist so that they are spoken at the right time, in the right tone, when a client is ripe and ready.”
Psychotherapist and relationship expert Lena Aburdene Derhally, MS, LPC, agreed. “As a therapist there is a real art in knowing when to support, empathize and reflect with a client or when to possibly challenge them (in a caring way, of course) or push them a little outside their comfort zone.”
Derhally believes therapy is more of an art because each person is so diverse and complex. How one person responds to a treatment may be entirely different from how another person responds, she said.
In addition, she believes that it’s critical for the field to keep prioritizing evidence-based studies. They help “us gauge whether or not something is effective as opposed to harmful.” She also stressed the importance of specialized training. “While the ‘art’ of the therapy is important, studying and advanced trainings in evidence-based practices allow the therapist to help their clients in an effective way.”
Psychologist and anxiety specialist L. Kevin Chapman, Ph.D, believes that good therapy is an interplay between art and science — but mostly science. “A ‘crafty’ clinician who lacks an empirical understanding of the ‘craft’ will likely make many mistakes and/or keep clients in therapy for longer than necessary.”
For instance, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is the gold standard for treating anxiety and related disorders, Chapman said. Once a clinician has a solid understanding of CBT, they can get creative. A therapist might leave the office to try an exposure exercise with a client. According to Chapman, she might ask the client to run around a parking lot on a hot day (“symptom exposure”) and take him to a crowded mall (if he’s “anxious about panic attacks in an agoraphobia situation”).