Dr. Peterson (2018) on his 9th Rule Assume That the Person You Are Listening to Might Know Something You Don’t spoke about the importance of summarization in psychotherapy, but there are some problem when doing this.
“The second advantage to the act of summary is that it aids the person in consolidation and utility of memory. A client in my practice recounts a long, meandering, emotion-laden account of a difficult period in his or her life. We summarize back and forth. The account becomes shorter. It is now summed up, in the client’s memory (and mine) in the form we discussed. It is now a different memory, in many ways-with luck, a better memory. It is now less weighty. It has been distilled; reduced to the gist. We have extracted the moral of the story. It becomes a description of the cause and results of what happened, formulated such that repetition of the tragedy and pain becomes less likely in the future (pp. 246).”
What is the motivation of summarization? It is a useful tool when giving directions to a geographical location, but is that good enough for us when we’re exploring the tragedies of our life? Too often, summarization is a tool used by therapist, psychotherapist and analyst as a way of resisting the complexity of a person. Dr. Peterson called the story of this client a meandering which is a story that is long, windy and detailed. It is reasonable to get annoyed when listening to a long-winded story, but that’s the problem of the mental health, not the client just yet.
Then Dr. Peterson summarizes the story with the client to the point of where the detailed memory becomes a co-created gist of what happened and with luck it is hopefully useful. When mental health workers have this aim, it is for good intentions. It is there to make what is “important” the forefront of the talk. But, who makes the judgment of what is important? The mental health worker? Then what will be co-made important is what the mental health worker wants to be important which most likely is not what is actually important and clients will all too often go with the mental health workers idea.
Dealing with the “gist” of an idea can be “easier”, but that opens up too much potential for working with what is not important and just dealing with the issues that are in the light. The client meanders because what they remember and feel is dark and tools such as exploration that Psychoanalyst use are made to search the darkness instead of sitting with the gist of the light.
Also, extracting the moral of a story will more likely than not will take the client out of the state of experience and feeling and into the space of intellect. To summarize a point to its most basic parts is a tactic used in debate and when we do that with important pains in our life, we shut down our emotions and think we have solved them through reason alone.
Imagine this: A client of mine is telling me a story of how they were severely abused as a child. They can go on for minutes to sessions about what has happened. If we co-summarize to make a new memory that is hopefully better, what did the client get out of it? Will that specific memory hurt less? Yes, because the memory has been obliterated and changed in the image of 2 people. Will the client have learned how to cope with the countless other memories of abuse? No. Will the client intellectually knowing that the abuse they suffered was not their fault ease the suffering in their life? No. Is this process fast? Yes.
The same client with the same story of childhood abuse. An analyst will let the analysand speak about the abuse for as long as is needed. When the analysand starts repeating the same story or parts of story, the analyst helps the analysand say something new by exploring that repeated part. If something is continuously repeated, there must be a reason. The reason to repeat one part of the story is to not say another unsaid part of the story or to find a way to say more about that part of the story so it can be better understood.
The process of exploration is long and painful for both analysand and analyst. The analyst is there with you in how you remember your memories, not trying to change your memories for the sake of comfort. As the analysand continuously speaks and explores the story and event the client is able to slowly tolerate the intolerable feelings that the past event evoked in them. Then, those feelings can be explored more deeply and understood until those feelings have no control over the person anymore. An analysis keeps the analysand at the level of the emotional experience which is at the core of human suffering. When the analysand masters the pain that the past event created, they have mastered the pain across all memories of abuse of the past and can use that ability to engage with pains of today and have tools to protect themselves from future pains.
Is the psychoanalytical method longer? Yes. Is this method going to have you explore painful events? Yes. Will that specific memory hurt less? Yes. Will the feelings that abuses such as these be mastered and hurt less in the analysand’s present and future? Yes, you didn’t master a memory, you mastered intolerable feelings which were dragging you down.
Adam Ayala is a Modern Psychoanalytical Relationship Specialist with a private practice in Orlando, Florida and Brookline, MA and is weekly featured on the online relationship magazine YourTango.com. Mr. Ayala can also be Contacted if you’re interested in working or collaborating with him.