Over the past 100 years, therapists have asked themselves the question: what really produces change in people? In this connection, the role "insight" plays in helping us resolve our issues has often been a point of contention... So does insight really cure?
Insight in Psychoanalysis
In the heyday of psychoanalysis, a prevalent belief was that change resulted from understanding our unconscious conflicts, or making the unconscious conscious. The main tool of the psychoanalyst was believed to be the offering of an interpretation of the unconscious truth of which the client was unaware. Unfortunately to get to this point, people often needed to be in “analysis” for years, and the outcomes weren’t necessarily that consistent nor impressive.
The Cognitive-Behavioral Critique of Insight
This led to a wave of criticism against the psychoanalytic idea that insight is a sufficient condition for change.
The dissatisfaction with the slowness of change led a psychoanalyst like Aaron Beck to focus instead on making the client aware of the more immediate automatic thoughts that exist just beneath our conscious awareness. He invented what has now become known as cognitive therapy, an approach where the therapist uses logic to help the client refute their “irrational” emotion-driven beliefs. Instead of spending years probing the unconscious in search for “truth”, Aaron Beck and his followers instead engage directly with the client’s thoughts and help them realize the absurdity or contradictions of some of the things they tell themselves.
Unfortunately this kind of rational approach to change often does not really address the logic contained in a person’s emotional responses and it ends up reinforcing an untenable division between the emotional and logical dimensions of existence. Clients end up at war with themselves, and the unaccepted emotional impulses eventually tend to return with a vengeance.
Other therapists have responded to the dissatisfaction with lack of change through insight by emphasizing “practice” over “understanding”. They advocate that you take concrete steps to change something about your life and help nudge you in that direction by addressing all the obstacles that get in your way. Unfortunately this kind of behavior therapy often leaves you feeling that you are acting against your own will or against your own emotions. Although you may succeed in changing your habit for a while, most people end up back in their comfort zone once therapy is over and they have no “coach” yelling in their ear.
Both the cognitive and the behavioral approaches to therapy are essentially ways to speed up the process of change by tackling problems directly, and circumventing the slow process of insight. However, ironically, they often do so by not having sufficient insight into the problems they set out to change. They frequently offer premature solutions to inadequately understood problems and they often don’t really have a complex enough understanding of the forces at work within the person.
Insight as Experiential Truth
In my opinion, a lot of the backlash against insight-oriented approaches to change, has to do with a premature definition of what insight really entails. If we define insight as intellectual understanding, then the critics are probably right: Nobody was ever really changed by simply knowing about their problems or having an explanation for why they do things the way they do them.
However, insight is not the process of passing information from one mind to another. That would be teaching, not therapy. The insight that good therapy produces is both intellectual and emotional, or rather, it is existential. It addresses the person as a whole, at a level where no division exists between mind and emotion. The quality of such an insight is that it is irrefutable.
We have these kinds of insights throughout our lives, and we can recognize them as such, because they do not allow us to go back to the way things were. Once they happen, they transform us. They are the insights that we get from watching a really thought-provoking movie that impacts both emotions and mind and let’s us see the world in new ways. They are the insights about ourselves that we gain from being in a romantic relationship, or breaking up a relationship. In short they are the insights from life’s many little significant moments that make us realize something about who we are or what the world is like.
Existential philosopher Martin Heidegger speaks of this kind of truth as Aletheia or unconcealment. It refers to the moment when something that was always already there, is shown to us. When this happens, I don’t experience it as some intellectual understanding, but as a homecoming or a return to something which had been forgotten or covered over.
Psychotherapy as an Experience of Truth
Psychotherapy is a process of unconcealing these irrefutable truths contained within our own experience. These kinds of insights return me to myself and give me no room for argument.
The best way to reach them is not to provide explanations to people, to engage in logical arguments with them, or to suggest ways for them to act differently. It is to provide an experience.
Insight is therefore not just about what is revealed, as the critics often assume. It is also about how it is revealed. Simply telling someone a truth is not effective and is easily refutable. Letting someone experience truth, on the other hand, is quite a different story. My experience can teach me something about myself that I can just as little refute as I can refute that I have a nose, or that I have two ears. If I had a good time at a party, for example, this truth is irrefutable. It does not matter if someone else tells me it was a bad party. My truth is irrefutable. I cannot undo the fact that the party was enjoyable for me.
Therapy is a process of giving a person an encounter with the truth of their own experience. This is what insight as aletheia is really about.
It can be as simple as giving a person the realization back that a word he seems to be using creates a tie between his history of being sexually abused and his current social anxiety. “I don’t speak much in social situations”, he says. “You don’t speak much, or you keep silent?”, I utter. Without me telling him, the client has now been given back an experience of the connection between his shyness and the fact that he has had to keep a secret about his abuse all his life. I did not provide a laborious explanation, but used my words to “unconceal” something; to show him rather than tell him. The result was a visceral reaction in the client who now experienced himself in accordance with a new truth. He had been given a new foundation for his thoughts and experiences, revealed to him by his own words and his own unmistakable reaction to my words. He had learned a truth which could not be undone.
Therapy proceeds through such little insights, and a person changes without ever really forcing a new behavior or battling a single thought. So to answer our question: Does insight cure? The only way to tell is to experience it for yourself…
Note: If you would like to read more about therapy as an experience of truth, read my article: "On Cultivating the Therapeutic Moment. From Planning to Receptivity in Therapeutic Practice."
About me: I am Rune Moelbak, an insight-oriented therapist in Houston, Texas.