Turning the Kaleidoscope: Beginning and Persevering in Psychotherapy – 2017

Fran Miller, Ph.D. ©

Imagine you are holding a magnificent kaleidoscope in your hands. You turn towards the light and look into it. Beautiful colors – red, orange, yellow, green, blue, lavender, pink appear in large and small geometric shapes. Imagine that you turn the kaleidoscope ever so slightly! Bam! A completely different set of forms and colors greets your eyes. When we look into a kaleidoscope – we see a beautiful array of patterns: colorful and bright crystals. If you turn the kaleidoscope even slightly again the crystals will fall together in another and intriguingly different beautiful pattern: an intricate, surprising display of geometric form.

I think your choice to step into a psychotherapy office is just like that. Your life has the potential, with your effort and work, to change in surprising and unforeseen possible ways. Also, if you decide to pursue a religious or spiritual practice, the changes occur even more extensively. The kaleidoscope turns, you make a turn, and a completely different and awe inspiring set of changes, experiences, and events will follow.

If you are considering psychotherapy, it is probably because something is going on in your life that presents a question, quandary, challenge, or conflict. You probably are experiencing emotions like anxiety, depression, obsessive tendencies, physical problems, stress, or difficulty in work or a personal relationship. You enter therapy with a number of questions and frustrations. It takes courage, determination, and a lot of effort for awhile – until bam! – just like with the turn of a kaleidoscope, some new event, some new set of circumstances, or some new ability of your own will suddenly surprise you.

The reasons for therapy are varied. In the book, The Politics of Experience, R.D. Laing lamented:

“Inevitably our experience of our own inner reality is limited. We have forgotten most of our childhood, not only its contents but its flavor; …we hardly know of the existence of the inner world. We barely remember our dreams and make little sense of them when we do. As for our bodies, we retain just sufficient proprioceptive sensations to coordinate our movements and to ensure survival….Our capacity to think is pitifully limited. Our capacity even to see, hear, touch, taste and smell is so shrouded in veils of mystification that an intensive discipline of unlearning is necessary for anyone before one can begin to experience the world afresh.

Therapy is a process of becoming conscious. It is a process of getting to know yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, a process of developing self esteem, conquering fears, recovering from loss, defining values and goals, and changing and developing positive personality characteristics.

If you decide to develop more extensive positive qualities or begin a religious or spiritual practice, the same process takes place. However, the resistance might be even greater because the requirements are more stringent, more demanding. It’s worth the effort, though, because the rewards are that much greater. After you persevere — maybe for a long period of time, suddenly with what seems like a turn of a kaleidoscope, deeper, more profound, and lasting effects take place.

Considering and including higher or spiritual possibilities of development, I have come to define three distinct stages of growth:

  1. Disorder and addiction (generally defined in the Diagnostic Manual)
  2. Existential Issues (defined by Yalom as Willing, Responsibility, Isolation, Meaninglessness, and Death)
  3. Spiritual Development and the development of higher positive qualities (such as The Four Great Wisdoms: loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity)

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-V contains all of the defined disorders and addictions that psychologists and psychiatrists diagnose and treat. The manual includes addictions such as drug and alcohol, nicotine, gambling, shopping, even addiction to electronics. Negative symptoms caused by addictions include irritability, frustration, general feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, and results that can be detrimental to family relationships, sleep/wake cycle, eating patterns, finances, and social relationships. Disorders are wide ranging and varied and include: adjustment disorders, generalized and social anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder, various levels of depressive disorders, acute and post traumatic stress disorders, and ten different personality disorders, as well as many others. Psychotherapy that is reimbursed by insurance companies must be diagnosed with some DSM-V diagnostic category.

Irvin Yalom wrote an extremely valuable book in 1980 called “Existential Psychotherapy.” I often say that every therapist should have this book on their nightstand! This book is a bit dated, but it is a classic, and contains important insights that are extremely helpful to clients as well as therapists. Existential issues include willing, responsibility, isolation, meaninglessness, and death. Addressing these topics in therapy does not necessarily take place AFTER addressing disorders and addictions, but rather they are usually interspersed together. However, It is important to be aware of, and make note of, the resolution of specific disorders and also of the understanding and integration of all of the existential issues. Usually individuals experience some of the existential issues as more problematic than others, which require more extensive attention.

Psychotherapy does not – in the course of a normal psychotherapy process – address the development of higher qualities or spiritual development. In addition, it is the case, unfortunately, that clients frequently do not stay in therapy long enough to get to that level of development. Some clients do come to therapy or enter a consultative relationship to address more advanced levels of growth and character development. At this stage of work, values and goals can be re-evaluated. Personality difficulties related to family dynamics can be resolved. Positive personality qualities can be developed. Qualities related to work success like responsibility, focus, clarity, organization, consideration, thoughtfulness, and fairness can be increased. Other qualities such as determination, perseverance, empathy, and integrity can be cultivated.

Those with a specific religious affiliation and practice can pursue “spiritual direction” to work on their individual growth in the context of their belief system. Qualities such as self-control, discipline, patience, forgiveness, kindness, goodness, generosity, faithfulness, and love can be nurtured and developed.

Specific spiritually oriented practices can be pursued to enhance personal development, and lead to insight. Journaling, visualization exercises, and breathing techniques can increase relaxation, enhance creativity, and provide clarity about self, motivation, and goals. A serious mindfulness practice and regular meditation can decrease negative emotions, increase well-being, and contribute to the development of aspiration, forbearance, endurance, courage, strength, zeal, settled and focused meditation, loving-kindness, compassion, calm, serenity, peacefulness, wisdom, and joy.

These three stages of development provide a framework for lifelong growth and personal development. Each sign of progress provides an experience that reflects the surprise of a turn of the kaleidoscope. New forms, shapes, and patterns emerge. New colors, brightness, and shadings come into view. Each change provides excitement, elation, energy. Each awareness brings surprise, excitement, and joy. Turning the kaleidoscope of your own growth and development is a lifelong process with unexpected and even wondrous results.