An exploration of the perception of practitioners of the strengths and limitations of psychosynthesis psychotherapy in application
An exploration of the perception of practitioners of the strengths and limitations of psychosynthesis psychotherapy in application
The aim of this research was to elicit the views and experiences of psychotherapeutic and counselling practitioners' application of the psychosynthesis model of counselling and psychotherapy, through the use of an interpretative phenomenological research approach. Psycho-synthesis was developed by Roberto Assagioli (1889-1976), an Italian Psychiatrist.
The findings showed that participants felt psychosynthesis benefited clients, and facilitated practitioners in their work. They offered insights into the psychosynthesis practitioner's role in conducting psychosynthesis psychotherapy. They also offered a perception of the usefulness of the sub-personality model and other techniques. The findings also exposed some of the limitations of psychosynthesis in practice.
This chapter presents a critique of the application of the research approach and method utilised. Likewise, it also includes a discussion of the implications of the findings and ends with overall conclusions and recommendations drawn from this study.
The interpretative phenomenological approach
In evaluating the interpretative phenomenological approach used for conducting this enquiry, the author concluded that it was appropriate. This was because it facilitated the acquisition of the participants' experiences and meanings, relating to their practice as psychosynthesis practitioners. Husserl's (1999) philosophy was particularly inspirational in encouraging the researcher to focus on the essence of the participants' experiences, and lay aside his own interpretations in attempting to identify their original meanings. The phenomenological approach challenged this researcher to maintain an openness to the potential multiplicity of meanings related to the phenomena in participants' experiences (Giorgi 1997).
In order for this investigation to be genuinely phenomenological in approach, the researcher had to demonstrate his attempts to identify the essential meanings offered by participants. However, the ambiguity about what would constitute the essence of phenomena, which were in Husserl's attempts to transpose his philosophy to work with psychological phenomena (Giorgi 1997), were experienced in this study. Even though the researcher exposed various interpretations of meanings of the participants' experiential phenomena, it was not clear that the essence had been grasped, given that there were no criteria for having arrived at a psychological essence. The enquiry could have been enhanced if the researcher had paid greater attention to the context in which the participants' experiences had occurred and were being explored. Attending hermeneutically to the meanings as they were conveyed, could have assisted in the exposition of their prime constituents, more clearly (Bryman 2001). Likewise, single interviews with each participant restricted the possibility of exposing and clarifying meanings. Progressive focusing, which would have required the facility of returning to the participants on perhaps several occasions, would have helped to acquire greater assurance about the authenticity of the interpretations of meanings (Hammersley & Atkinson 1997).
Method: telephone interviewing
The method chosen, that of telephone interviewing, was considered to have served the study adequately. In spite of the constraints arising from limited resources and the consequent inability to conduct face to face interviews, for example, the method acquired relevant and valuable data. The telephone interview served to gather data succinctly. The semi-structured interview offered a flexibility (Bryman 2001) to the researcher to pursue lines of enquiry that were prompted by the participants' disclosures and positions, in the interviewing process. These valuable contributions would otherwise have been ignored if using a questionnaire, for example. However, an enhanced interview, would have resulted in "descriptions [that were] as precise and detailed as possible with a minimum number of generalities and abstractions" (Giorgi 1997, p.243).
Using the interview method, especially in a telephone conversation, constrained the researcher's understanding of the participants' expositions, because he had a very limited immersion in the personal, professional and social realities that the participants were attempting to portray. Hammersley and Atkinson (1997) and Bryman (2001 p.238) underline the significance of "seeing through the [participant's] eyes", when conducting a qualitative enquiry like this one. It would have been more conducive to the phenomenological approach if it had been possible to meet the participants and develop a broader and deeper understanding of them in their professional environments. Person to person contact for the interviews would also have been preferable. Philips and Brown's (1993) study of a Canadian oil company's advertising strategy provided an example of how to utilise a range of information, such as documents, drawings, photographs, audio and visual recordings, in addition to the verbal interview. In this author's enquiry, some of the participants sent unsolicited illustrative leaflets used in informing potential clients about psychosynthesis and their practice. This information could have been accommodated more comprehensively in the study. A broader range of information could have been proactively sought to enrich the milieu between the researcher and participant, in which the exposition and interpretation of experiences and meanings, could have been enhanced.
The random sampling method was employed to arrive at the twelve self selecting participants who were engaged in this study. Twelve participants provided sufficient data to make a substantive meta analysis possible. More than this number would have made the analysis more difficult to manage. Some of the findings relating to the role and position of practitioners, and specifically to whether or not the client's will was being facilitated in the therapeutic process and relationship, could have been more comprehensive and elaborate if the participants had been selected for the institution where they had received their psychosynthesis training. In what would have required an extended study (perhaps at doctorate level), the sample could have been strategically selected (Hammersley & Atkinson 1997), to consist of groups to compare the practice resulting from participants having been trained in institutions offering more and less emphasis on facilitating the client's will. This would have created contrasting sets of information which could have further highlighted the significance of the will in psychosynthesis and its practice. The importance of the literature review was also apparent in this respect. A completed, comprehensive and thorough overview of the discourses relating to psychosynthesis, prior to any decisions about the sampling and recruitment of participants, was deemed advisable. Foreknowledge about the importance of the will in psychosynthesis psychotherapy, and the contrasting forms of practice in different parts of the English speaking world, could have informed these decisions.
The ethical principles of autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence and justice served the purposes of this study in ensuring that overall, the participants freely chose to be involved, that they were not harmed, that their privacy and anonymity were preserved, and they were treated equitably (Beauchamp & Childress 2001).
The process that was utilised to respect the participants' autonomy included two stages at which they received and could digest in their own time, written information (Appendix 1) about the project and the implications of their involvement (Bryman 2001). Following their verbal consent to being involved, they were given a written outline of the project and a consent form (Appendix 2) to sign and return to the researcher before they were interviewed. The author considers that this illustrates how the participants were facilitated to freely choose to being involved in the study. The introductory discussions, and written information (Appendix 5) would have further facilitated participants if they had included a reference that would have prompted them to reflect on the potential impact of discussing professional practice, pointing out that this could, for example, undermine their confidence, perhaps make any doubts loom larger, and inhibit the participant from providing the level of service to clients they had hitherto been able to offer. Taking this potential impact into account could have been really important for some participants.
All the participants, when concluding their interviews, expressed their having found them to be rewarding experiences. A small number explained that in addition, they planned to use their reflections to prepare themselves for re-accreditation with their professional body (UKCP). They were all in receipt of the findings from the study. One participant, because he requested it, was forwarded a copy of the transcription relating to his interview, which he planned to use for further professional reflections. The researcher considered that beneficence could have been furthered by means of prompting participants, during discussions prior to the interview, to attend to how their interests might have been served, within the confines of the resources available to the study. Conducting the study exposed ways, not anticipated, in which the participants' interests were served, and the researcher would have enhanced equity if he had, for example, informed all the participants that transcriptions of their interviews were available if requested.
Ensuring that the information offered by the participants was dealt with confidentially, was a means of applying the principle of non-maleficence. Coding all the transcriptions and removing all identifying characteristics from these texts and the taped interviews, meant that the participants remained anonymous. The researcher avoided, as far as he was aware (and he had no feedback from participants to the contrary), interactions that would have belittled participants, distressed them or left them feeling vulnerable, and somehow harmed by their involvement in the study (Shillito-Clarke 1996). The instrument was created with the use of open questions to facilitate a patent, dialogic and reflective response. It was applied without any sense of wanting to rush the participants. Several participants commented on the conducive way in which the researcher had facilitated the interviews. The principle of non-maleficence would have been further applied if, in addition to prompting participants at the end of the interviews to reflect on how they were left feeling, they had been offered de-briefing interviews at a later date. However, this was likely to have been unnecessary given that the participants were in receipt of high levels of support from their clinical consultants with whom they could have reflected on their experiences of having explored their practice during the interviews for this study.
The author made it possible to evaluate the trustworthiness of this study, using the criteria of credibility, transferability, dependability and confirmability. The exposition of how the phenomenological approach was applied whilst utilising the telephone interviews and analysing the data, demonstrated that the processes which occurred did indeed consist of those that would have been expected in using this type of research methodology. The types of information made available for scrutiny were those which would have embodied the researcher's decision making during the course of the study. This researcher developed his understanding of the methodology and criteria used for enhancing its trustworthiness, throughout the course of the study. In future projects, the principles of the methodology, such as the use of epoche (bracketing), would need to be applied more consistently. Also, the documentation, especially the researcher's reflexive diary, would need to be more comprehensive and better structured to illustrate the decisions made throughout the course of the enquiry.
Overall the author concluded that the interpretative phenomenological approach was appropriate for use in future research conducted into the application of psychosynthesis in psychotherapy practice. The interview, preferably face to face with participants, and with a facility for further discussions, would enhance the purposes of eliciting information.
Issues regarding psychosynthesis psychotherapy practice
What the findings in this study showed was that psychosynthesis in practice encouraged a response to psychological disturbance, pain, crisis and failure which was essentially inclusive. As a result of psychosynthesis psychotherapy, people were enabled to function more satisfyingly by responding to personal traumas and psychological wounding with an expanded awareness and a greater sense of their ability to choose. At the same time in tolerating or accommodating their disturbances through an expanded awareness and choice, clients were likely to experience other tensions, between themselves and the prevailing culture in which they live. This was because in the Western technological, socio-economic, political and health care climate at the time of the study, psychological disturbances, pain, crisis and failure, were increasingly devalued and excluded, by means of depersonalising forces (Todres 2003). It became apparent that psychosynthesis psychotherapy was not an easy, comfortable option. In offering a perspective on psychological disturbances which was essentially inclusive, psychosynthesis challenged the attitude in clients, which had been influenced by the prevailing cultural climate that tended to deny certain unacceptable experiences. Because of this, psychosynthesis did not necessarily meet the understandable expectation that some clients may have had of psychotherapy, namely that psychological disturbances, pain, crisis and failure would be resolved and erased from their experience. Psychosynthesis offered the alternative to managing difficult human experiences, which was essentially one of accommodation, and psychological mastery (Young Brown 2000, Parfitt 1997).
Thus, in encouraging an inclusive attitude to psychological disturbances pain, crisis and failure, psychosynthesis was found to bring about a different response in clients to their experiences. They were likely to experience a frustration if their expectation had been that their disturbances would inevitably and quickly recede. As a result, it seemed advisable that clients were informed of what psychosynthesis usually engendered, in advance of embarking on psychotherapy, particularly with respect to changes in how they responded to their experiences. Also, that clients were informed that their expectation that they would be disturbance free was unlikely to be realisable in the short term. Discussions about these issues with clients were important, especially if their expectations were non-negotiable, since it could mean that psychosynthesis psychotherapy was less likely to serve their needs.
Another issue arose out of the finding that a growth in awareness was a fundamental contributing factor to clients making progress in psychosynthesis psychotherapy. Namely that, growth in awareness was a prerequisite for a client's progress, whatever psychotherapeutic approach they adopted. Not only did this study's finding about the importance of awareness correspond with the psychosynthesis literature, but also with the perspectives of other psychotherapeutic approaches, regarding what benefited clients. It reflected the position of humanistic, existential and psychodynamic psychotherapies. A central tenet which Rogers (1996) promoted through his Person Centred approach, was that of conceiving the functioning person as one who was open to all their experiences; he did not distort or deny them. Maslow (1993) advanced a similar idea in identifying the healthy functioning individual as someone who was perceiving more efficiently. The core perspective of existential psychotherapy was that people were best assisted by confronting and making sense of their uncertain and angst-ridden experiences (Ernesto Spinelli 1996). Psychodynamic psychotherapy was also aimed at "increasing awareness" (Corey 2001 p.91) in order that the client may benefit. This correspondence suggested that the efficacy of growth in awareness may be a common factor across most if not all psychotherapies, and warranted further investigation.
In concluding, along with other psychotherapies, that growth in awareness was a prerequisite for a client's progress, psychosynthesis in application as exposed in this study, was shown to make a valuable contribution to the endeavour to establish across the talking therapies, what made psychotherapy effective for clients.
Issues regarding the application of psychosynthesis theory in practice
The findings of this study showed that a range of psychosynthesis theories were applied in psychotherapeutic practice. However, there were two particularly significant aspects of psychosynthesis theory which were absent from the evidence about practice in this study, namely the subjects of spiritual psychosynthesis and the will. The importance of this became apparent when comparing the study with psychosynthesis literature. In Assagioli's seminal texts and in later literature (Assagioli 19935 and 2002, Aaronson 1968, Crampton 1977, Alberti 1975, Hardy 1987), spiritual psychosynthesis and the will were discussed as major and fundamental aspects of psychosynthesis theory. Thus, it was puzzling to the author as to how, in this study of psychosynthesis practice, such major themes had not emerged. Given their conspicuousness in psychosynthesis theory, this study's participants would have been expected to have considered very explicitly, spiritual psychosynthesis and the will in relation to their practice, when interviewed.
Assagioli's discourse concerning spiritual psychosynthesis illustrated how he was at pains to show that it was a distinctive aspect of a person's development, requiring the therapist to have a particular understanding and facilities for distinguishing between personal and spiritual psychosynthesis (Assagioli 1993). His ideas regarding the Self, the superconscious realm of the mind, and the corresponding processes he called spiritual psychosynthesis, were claimed to be unique by psychosynthesis writers (Hardy 1987, Rowan 1998). Consequently, the psychosynthesis practitioner with an understanding of spiritual psychosynthesis and related skills was shown to stand in a distinctive position with a singular service to a specific group of clients. In addition, the field of psychotherapy had in psychosynthesis and spiritual psychosynthesis in particular, an approach which was distinctive even in the field of transpersonal psychotherapies, because a form of psychosynthesis psychotherapy which included spiritual psychosynthesis, had the potential for promoting and facilitating a grounded, incarnate and arguably more authentic development of the spiritual dimension of the person (Parfitt 2003). In the prevailing climate which considered that spiritual development and all forms of expressions of the spiritual were rather more concerned with transcendental flights from reality, the field of psychotherapy would then have had in psychosynthesis, an approach which contradicted this perception, and served the purposes of integration and harmony in society (Young Brown 1993).
The author had surmised that this study's silence regarding spiritual psychosynthesis may have been due to the nature of training received by psychosynthesis practitioners. He thus posited the supposition that psychosynthesis practitioners educated in the same institutions as the participants of this study, received little by way of training in spiritual psychosynthesis as described by Assagioli. Thus, it seemed pertinent that further enquires would be usefully directed at discovering the nature of training offered to practitioners, and whether it included anything specific for understanding the distinction between spiritual and personal psychosynthesis, and the facilitation of the former with clients. This form of study would be important for the future shape of training of psychosynthesis practitioners, and psychosynthesis practice. It could well make a contribution to the radicalisation and return of original psychosynthesis practices, a process which would complement the trend as evidenced in more current writings, to expand and incorporate new territories in psychosynthesis theory and practice (Firman and Gila 2002).
The absence of the subject of the will in this study's findings, was no less, and if anything, more significant. It implied that psychosynthesis was practised with little or no use of its theory of the will, and perhaps more poignantly and controversially, that the version of psychosynthesis practised, as exposed by this enquiry, was an emasculated one. There were at least two issues that arose from this. The first was that current psychosynthesis psychotherapy practice may have, in differing from Assagioli's original form of approach, overlooked aspects of at least some clients' needs. Secondly, a question was raised regarding the training in psychosynthesis psychotherapy offered to practitioners. Namely, whether or not it was based on the original framework of ideas, particularly those regarding the will, as taught by Assagioli.
The importance of the will in psychosynthesis psychotherapy was asserted by Assagioli (2002) and other psychosynthesis writers (Aaronson 1968, Alberti 1975, Parfitt 1997 and Firman & Gila 1997). The facilitation and training of the will incorporated, but was also much more than respecting and inducing a client's autonomy through the encouragement of personal choice, which was inherent in all forms of ethically sound psychotherapy. Assagioli (2002 p.6) said of the will, that it was "fundamental among [a person's] inner powers, and the one to which priority should be given". Aaronson (1968 p.233) said similarly that, "emphasis on the will is crucial to Assagioli's system". In also asserting that "[the will's] training and use constitute the foundation of all endeavours" (Assagioli 2002 p.6), Assagioli implied that facilitating the person's use of their will, occurred at all stages and throughout the course of their personal and spiritual development in psychosynthesis psychotherapy. Also, the theory of the will and guidance on how to facilitate it in clients (Assagioli 1993, 2002) was one of the aspects of the approach which distinguished psychosynthesis from insight therapies, such as psychoanalysis: "awareness has to be coupled with psychological mastery" (Parfitt 1997 p.30) (Crampton 1977).
The author concluded that some clients were being deprived of an important facility which psychosynthesis had the potential to offer. Namely, in the application of psychosynthesis's theory of the will, which was a facility which would enhance clients' personal development (Young Brown 2000). The field of psychotherapy generally, was also being denied a distinctive contribution which Assagioli's theory of the will could make, if it were utilised and researched for its efficacy, in its application. The author posited that the issues raised by the finding that the application of psychosynthesis's theory of the will was absent in practice, needed to be addressed by means of further research. This would take the form of a comparative study, incorporating clients' experiences, which would investigate the effectiveness of psychosynthesis as it was practised both with and without the use of the theory of the will. The aim would be to acquire knowledge which would contribute to a justification for the inclusion of the theory of the will and its application, in programmes of training for psychosynthesis practitioners.
Thus, further investigations would be useful in establishing the justification for the radicalisation of psychosynthesis training programmes in order that those which did not incorporate Assagioli's theory and practice concerning spiritual psychosynthesis and the will, would consider doing so.
During the course of this enquiry it has been shown that using the interpretative phenomenological research approach with the interviewing method, is conducive to the study of psychotherapeutic practice. The interview serves the purposes of eliciting relevant information. It would be particularly effective for the purposes of this kind of study if it were to be conducted face to face with participants, and with a facility for further discussions. These conditions would enable the researcher to acquire more comprehensive contextual understanding, in order to substantiate the findings, and their being based on interpretations consistent with the participants' original meanings.
The findings have highlighted the importance of ensuring that clients have comprehensive information about psychosynthesis psychotherapy and fundamental aspects of the process that ensues in the therapeutic experience. The sharing of this information is essential in order that clients can make informed choices about whether or not psychosynthesis psychotherapy is likely to serve their needs and address their expectations. Without this information, clients are at risk of experiencing unwarranted frustrations with an approach that they could experience as not being sensitive to their needs. The crucial aspect of the process, namely that psychological disturbances and related experiences are unlikely to be dispersed immediately or inevitably, warrants particular attention on the part of practitioners in preliminary discussions with clients.
For those clients who can tolerate within their experiences, the effects of psychological disturbances, psychosynthesis offers the prospect of an expansion of their conscious awareness, which can result in personal growth and development. The effect of an expanded awareness and the conditions associated with its emergence is not an exclusive feature of psychosynthesis. Indeed, because it corresponds with many other psychotherapeutic approaches in this matter, psychosynthesis can be shown to enhance the endeavour to find common factors amongst psychotherapies which can be shown to engender desired effects for clients. The goal in the field of psychotherapy, of establishing the essential aspects of any therapeutic process, in order to ensure that it is effective for clients, is thus made a little more realisable.
This study has also shown that further research is warranted in order to maximise the potential of psychosynthesis theory in its application in practice.
The author makes the following recommendations which arise from this study. Firstly, researchers studying psychotherapeutic practice, in which the interpretative phenomenological research approach is used with the interview method, should conduct the enquiry with participants face to face. In addition, the acquisition of data, clarification of meanings, and enhancement of understanding, would be best served by a series of interviews rather than a single event.
Secondly, psychosynthesis practitioners should ensure that they provide comprehensive information for prospective clients about psychosynthesis psychotherapy. Within this, and in practitioners' own processes of assessing clients for psychosynthesis psychotherapy, they should pay particular attention to the client's ability and willingness to tolerate psychological disturbances.
Thirdly, further research is required into the future development of training and educational programmes for psychosynthesis psychotherapists. This research would need to focus on the justification for the comprehensive inclusion of Assagioli's theory and practice regarding spiritual psychosynthesis and the will.
Finally, that further investigations are conducted in the field of psychotherapy generally, into the growth in awareness for clients, and whether this factor is a constituent contributing to effectiveness amongst all psychotherapies.
This study has examined the strengths and limitations of psychosynthesis in psychotherapeutic practice using the interpretative phenomenological research approach. It has been found that this investigative paradigm is appropriate for use in similar enquiries. Within the scope of this study, psychosynthesis psychotherapeutic practice has been shown to utilise a range of psychosynthesis theories, though significant aspects of the framework could be further incorporated. New clients considering psychosynthesis psychotherapy as a means of serving their needs would be best facilitated with information about pivotal, as well as more general aspects of the process.
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