Negative Capability in Client-Centered Psychotherapy

5 min read
Suzy Hazelwood / Pexels

Source: Suzy Hazelwood / Pexels

The poet John Keats wrote in 1817 about a quality that “Shakespeare possessed enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

Those who did not major in English may be forgiven if “Stan has Negative Capability” seems to mean he’s not good at anything. On the contrary, Keats’ Negative Capability is the ability to negate one’s usual self to experience the psyche of another.

Negative Capability and Why Important for Therapists

To do this requires a very open mind and, paradoxically, a strong sense of self to cope with the uncertainty, mystery, and doubt that this self-negation can evoke. I’m not the first to suggest that this Negative Capability talent is as important to the psychotherapist as to the creative writer.

Our modern age is rife with uncertainty, not to mention mystery and doubt. The “eternal truths” of religion have been undermined; lawmakers and law are widely viewed as unjust and corrupt; patriotism is deemed infantile; etiquette is ridiculed; the whole Western tradition is assailed as the product of oppressors intent on holding down everyone but themselves.

At first glance, Albert Einstein’s relativity and Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principles indicate that reality rests on shaky or no ground. Fox and CNN, reporting the same news event, describe different worlds.

Psychotherapists can’t predict where new clients will stand politically, intellectually, or emotionally. It’s certain, though, that some of these clients will suffer from anxiety and depression caused at least partly by uncertainties, mysteries, and doubts. A therapist not comfortable with these things—someone rigid, rule-oriented, doctrinaire—cannot deliver effective psychotherapy.

Negative Capability: Therapist’s Role as Empathetic Witness

In creating dozens of memorable characters, Shakespeare had to inhabit personalities as diverse as Hamlet and Iago, Shylock and Juliet, Prospero and Lady Macbeth. A good therapist needs, similarly, to empathize with a wide variety of clients, not succumbing to the urge to make everyone feel and believe as they do.

Negative Capability, freeing therapists from “irritable reaching after facts and reason,” allows them to listen attentively and intuitively without premature theorizing or formulating interpretations.

To possess Negative Capability does not imply that a therapist lacks strong personal convictions. It means they have a sufficiently open mind to understand and even champion value systems radically different from their own. Such a therapist knows and accepts that there can be more than one correct answer to the conundrums of life.

As bats and birds follow different evolutionary paths to flight, different value systems and worldviews may lead to a fulfilling life—as defined by the client. Atilla was almost certainly a good guy in his mind.

In my practice as a psychotherapist, I generally kept my personal, non-clinical opinions to myself. Yet some therapists today hold themselves out, overtly or covertly, as moral and spiritual authorities. They present their opinions as scientific gospel, confidently declaring what is ethical and appropriate.

The fact that other therapists may share their opinions adds to their persuasiveness but not always to their truth or rightness for any given client. Good creative writing teachers try not to create clones of themselves but to help each student find their own inner truth and “voice.” A good therapist does the same.

I’m not questioning the usefulness of doing therapy from a theoretical orientation: cognitive-behavioral, humanistic, existential, psychoanalytic, etc. These systems offer metaphors to help people conceptualize how the psyche works and how it can be helped to work better.

I realize, too, that there are situations in which the best intervention may be to “pull rank,” using one’s authority as a therapist to move a client away from a freely chosen but destructive position or behavior—robbing a bank, say, or taking Fentanyl.

Foregrounding one’s moral or political beliefs does not make for good therapy. For instance, a therapist committed to Marxism may address every client’s problems regarding class struggle, etc., despite lacking evidence that Marxism is more than an interesting theory with a lamentable track record in the real world. Small wonder if such politically-based interventions fail to help the client to self-actualize.

Granted, many clients’ distress is exacerbated by the lack of a strong value system and worldview. Any system that seems to make sense of the world and the individual’s place in it—even “flat-earth theory” or QAnon—may feel better than none in the short run. However, the imposition of a belief system is more in line with Maoist re-education than with the ideals of Western psychotherapy, which stress the primacy of choice and free will.

Negative Capability: Therapist’s Commitment to Client Autonomy

The first allegiance of any good psychotherapist should be to the client. That, anyway, is how it seems to me. All interventions should serve the client’s needs and help the client to operate more effectively and with more satisfaction in the world.

Good therapists must be able to empathize with a wide variety of conditions and beliefs. They should be able to rise above their personal opinions and meet their clients on those clients’ turf. Therapists may be strongly pro-choice yet understand how well-meaning people can see abortion as murder.

They may be strongly pro-trans yet recognize the risks of irreversible medical interventions on minors. Such therapists can work effectively with clients on both sides of these issues.

Like a good poet, a good therapist is a verbal artist who uses language to benefit the human psyche. Negative Capability helps the therapist and the poet do that more effectively.

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