What Do Psychotherapists Do? – Bohart’s Light Bulb Analogy

hove psychotherapistMetaphors often prove to be a very useful tool when trying to find out what is going on in someone’s life and how best to help. People who come to me for therapy might describe a tangled mess of emotions or a feeling of carrying a heavy weight on their shoulders. But what about psychotherapy itself? Is there a good metaphor that describes what actually happens in the consulting room?

In his article entitled “The Client Is the Most Important Common Factor: Clients’ Self-Healing Capacities and Psychotherapy” (Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, Vol. 10, No. 2, 2000), Arthur Bohart proposes an interesting metaphor which tries to get at the therapist’s role in the process of psychotherapy. He starts with the old joke – ‘how many psychotherapists does it take to change a light bulb?’ and the accepted answer of ‘only one, but the light bulb must really want to change!’ Bohart argues that this answer suggests that psychotherapy is something that the therapist ‘does’ to the client. Although the client must be willing, it is the therapist’s hands that do the work.
Bohart suggests an alternative scenario to this light bulb-changing process.  Assuming that the bulb that needs changing is in a light-fitting hanging from the ceiling, he describes the therapist’s role as the person who provides the chair for the client to stand on in order to change the light bulb for him or herself. The thought of this sparked off all sorts of pictures in my mind of people wobbling on rickety stick-back chairs, chairs that were way too low or positioned too far away, chairs that toppled over (hopefully not!) and good solid chairs from which to stretch up safely to change the bulb.
I could go on to think about how the client climbs onto the chair (are they given a hand up?) where the therapist might be when the client is standing on the chair etc. etc. but I’m likely to get carried away and so I’ll stop. Metaphors help me to understand what is happening in a client’s life and the more I understand the easier it is to be helpful. Likewise, I think Bohart’s metaphor makes it easier to grasp what might happen in psychotherapy and how a therapist might be able to help you. As a therapist, it also reminds me of my own role and how important it is to provide a safe structure built with sturdy materials that are kept in good condition.
Copyright: Caroline Clarke
Bohart’s article can be found here: http://www.scribd.com/doc/14763851/Arthur-C-Bohart-The-Client-Is-the-Most-Important-Common-Factor-Clients-SelfHealing-Capacities-and-Psychotherapy-2000

Image courtesy of zirconicusso at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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