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Elements of the Socratic Method - V - Self-Improvement

Elements of the Socratic Method - V - Self-Improvement

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Psychotherapy
Volume 33/Winter 1996/Number 4
ELEMENTS OF THE SOCRATIC METHOD:V. SELF-IMPROVEMENT
JAMES C. OVERHOLSER
Case
Western Reserve University
The Socratic method includes the use of
systematic
questioning,
inductive
,
v
reasoning, universal
definitions,
and adisavowal of knowledge. The presentarticle describes a focus on
self-
improvement
that often guides the clinical
application
of the Socratic
method.
Self-
improvement
is based on three generalgoals:
self-knowledge,
self-acceptance,and
self-regulation.
Each of these goals isdiscussed in terms of
the
benefits itprovides the client, obstacles that preventor
hinder
its
development,
and the processof
improving
it through
psychotherapy.
Thefocus on
self-improvement
inpsychotherapy is clarified
through
severalbriefcase examples.
Introduction
The Socratic method can provide a useful ap-proach for clinical interviewing that is compatiblewith most forms of psychotherapy. Previous au-thors have alluded to the use of the Socraticmethod as part of cognitive therapy (Beck & Em-ergy, 1985; Beck, Rush, Shaw, & Emery, 1979;Beck, Wright, Newman, & Liese, 1993), rational-emotive therapy (Ellis, 1994), and psychody-namic therapy (Rychlak, 1968; Stein, 1991).However, few authors have described the Socraticmethod in adequate detail. The Socratic method
The author is indebted to Stacy Freiheit, Eden Silverman,Mark Fine, Abe
Wolf,
Fred Zimring, Michelle Lee, JuliaGemma, Robin Cautin, and Patti Watson for their valuablecomments on earlier versions of this article.Correspondence regarding this article should be addressedto James C. Overholser, Ph.D., Department of Psychology,
Case Western
Reserve University, 10900 Euclid Ave., Cleve-, OH 44106-7123.
includes the use of systematic questioning (Over-holser, 1993a), inductive reasoning (Overholser,19936), universal definitions (Overholser, 1994),and an attitude of disavowal of knowledge (Over-holser, 1995). These components clarify the processof the Socratic method as used in psychotherapy.The Socratic method shares many similaritieswith cognitive therapy. Both approaches share anemphasis on the client's cognitive functioning andability to cope with adversity through rational be-havior. Bom approaches rely on frequent ques-tioning and inductive reasoning. However, die So-cratic method differs from cognitive therapy inseveral important ways. Cognitive therapy is typi-cally structured and directive, with sessions orga-nized around explicit agendas (Beck & Emery,1985; J. Beck, 1995). The cognitive therapist islikely to assume the role of expert and take a direc-tive stance in therapy, hi contrast, the hallmark ofthe Socratic method is self-discovery, hi order toencourage self-discovery, the Socratic method em-phasizes the "ignorance" of the therapist (Over-holser, 1995). Furthermore, rather than empha-sizing a reduction of psychiatric symptoms, theSocratic method is more likely to address major lifeissues (e.g., "What personal qualities do you feelare most important for Jiving a good life?").A recent study has examined the perceived dif-ferences between the Socratic method as com-pared with rational-emotive therapy and client-centered therapy (Cautin, 1996). Subjectsincluded both college students and clients whowere receiving outpatient psychotherapy. Afterlistening to audiotaped presentations of the threetypes of therapy, subjects rated each therapy vi-gnette on specific dimensions. Compared to thera-pists who used rational-emotive therapy andclient-centered therapy, therapists using the So-cratic method were rated as more empathic, morewarm and friendly, more honest and sincere, andmore collaborative. Thus, the Socratic methodwas perceived as optimal on several key dimen-sions of psychotherapy process. Although the So-
549
 
James C. Overholser
cratic method and cognitive therapy are similarin many ways, the two approaches emphasizedifferent aspects of the therapy process. Boththerapeutic approaches focus on the client's cog-nitions as central areas to be changed, but theSocratic method emphasizes the client's self-dis-covery gently guided by the therapist. In cogni-tive therapy and rational-emotive therapy, thetherapist often assumes a more directive role ofteacher and repairman.Although the Socratic method can be useful,it is not appropriate for all clients or all problems.The selection of clients can influence the effec-tiveness of the Socratic method. In general, theSocratic method seems to work best for clientswho are verbal, intelligent, and motivated fortherapy. These clients should prefer therapy thatis designed to help them confront chronic prob-lems of emotional distress or interpersonal diffi-culties. Clients who are most appropriate for theSocratic method are interested in self-exploration
and
self-improvement as general goals of therapy.The Socratic method is not well-suited for clientswho present with problems of psychosis, mentalretardation, organic mental problems, develop-mental disorders, or acute suicidal tendencies.Also,the Socratic method can be difficult to im-plement
with
clients who
are
excessively talkativeand who display tendencies for circumstantial ortangential speech.The present article describes the Socratic methodas focused on the goal of self-improvement. Anessential goal of the Socratic method is to facili-tate autonomy in the client. The Socratic methodencourages clients to self-reflect and examinetheir behavior and their life goals (Versenyi,1963). Three basic goals of the Socratic methodof psychotherapy involve helping clients
to
under-
stand themselves, to accept themselves, and toregulate
their
emotions
and
behavior. These goalscorrespond to the three domains underlying
self-
improvement: self-knowledge, self-acceptance,and self-regulation. These interrelated
areas
oftenserve as the focus of psychotherapy sessions (seeFigure 1).
Self-knowledge
The Socratic notion that the "unexamined lifeis not worth living" can play an important role inpsychotherapy (Lageman, 1989). Self-knowledge
SELF-KNOWLEDGESELF-ACCEPTANCESELF-REGULATION
Figure I. The interplay between self-knowledge, self-acceptance, and self-regulation.
550
 
Self-improvement
is
a
broad category that includes insight into
the
presence
and
nature
of
one's psychological func-tioning (Maikova
&
Berrios, 1992).
Self-
knowledge refers
to an
understanding
of
one'sbehavior, emotions, cognitions, expectations,
in-
clinations, motives,
and
aspirations. Self-knowl-edge includes an understanding of past events thathave affected the person as well
as an
appraisal offuture goals
and
potential (Gergen, 1971).
Self-
knowledge includes
an
understanding
of
one'sstrengths
and
abilities
as
well
as
limitations.Often, self-knowledge involves
an
awareness
of
broad life goals
in
terms
of
desirable personalattributes. Because
of the
comprehensive natureof self-knowledge,
it
is best viewed as an ongoingprocess instead
of a
goal with
a
distinct end point(Evans, 1990).
Benefits of self-knowledge.
Self-awareness
can
help clients assess their priorities
in
terms
of
life-long goals (Stalley, 1986). Through
the
Socraticmethod, clients
can
become more aware
of who
they are and who they want to become, in terms ofdesirable personal attributes. Many clients benefitfrom distancing themselves from their daily
rou-
tine
and
beginning
to
appreciate their long-term
goals.
Without adequate self-knowledge, clientsmay
be
driven
by
goals
and
values outside then-conscious awareness (Schmid, 1983).
For
exam-
ple,
one
young adult male client had begun train-ing
in
computer science. However,
he
felt mildlydepressed, empty,
and
dissatisfied with
his
life.In therapy,
he was
asked about times when
he
felt interested
or
excited about different aspectsof his life.
He
reported times when
he was con-
sumed
by his
hobby
of
painting
and he
becamecompletely focused
on his
artistic expression.When
the
therapy conversation shifted back ontohis college classes, both therapist
and
client
no-
ticed
a
dramatic shift
in his
mood
and his
energylevel.
He
began
to
realize that
he had
been
ne-
glecting
his
long-standing interest
in art.
Whenasked
how he
came
to
choose computer scienceas
his
major,
he
reported financial concerns.
He
was pursuing training
in
computers
to
increasehis chances
of
finding
"a
good
job"
after school.When asked what
"a
good
job"
meant
to
him,
the
client said a job that paid
a
high salary
yet it was
not
overly competitive
so he
could find
a job in
the
area. Therapist
and
client discussed
the
otheraspects
of job
satisfaction
and the
role that
his
personal interests could play
in
both
his
long-term career enjoyment
and his
career success.
The
therapist asked questions such
as,
"What
do
you think your life would
be
like after workingon
"a
good job"
in
computers
for
twenty years?"The client began
to see
how
he had
valued finan-cial security over personal contentment. Manypeople choose careers because
of
financial oppor-tunities
or
family pressure. This often leads
to
dissatisfaction with one's work,
and can
result
in
chronic feelings
of
frustration
or
resentment.
Thus,
self-knowledge can help clients make betterchoices about major life goals.A second benefit
of
self-knowledge occurswhen clients begin
to
gain
a
new perspective thatreduces both maladaptive emotional reactions
and
destructive behaviors. When viewed from
the
proper distance, difficult decisions become simpleand problems from daily life
no
longer appearoverwhelming. Furthermore, when clients under-stand their motives
for
different behaviors,
it
canbe easier
for
them to control or change their initialreactions to different events.An adequate level
of
self-knowledge
is a pre-
requisite
for
more advanced interventions. With-out adequate self-knowledge, clients are not readyto proceed into areas
of
self-acceptance
or self-
regulation. If clients understand
the
motives thatunderlie their behavior, they
can be in a
betterposition
to
modify their behavior
as
needed.
Obstacles preventing adequate self-knowledge.
Accurate self-knowledge
can be
difficult
to
attain.Because self-knowledge requires
an
ability
to be
aware
of
one's own shortcomings, some clients
are
overly defensive and may
be
 reluctant
o
view theirsituationopenly.Self-awareness can be impeded byselective garnering
of
evidence, selective focusingon particular
events,
and
a
misinterpretation of events(Mele, 1987). Selective gathering
of
evidence
can
hinder self-awareness. Clients play
an
active rolein creating their perception
of
reality through theirexpectations, attributions,
and
interpretations(Moss, 1992). Clients
may
only seek informationthat
is
consistent with their pre-established views(Gergen, 1971; Swann
&
Read, 1981).Selective focusing
on
particular events occurswhen clients exaggerate the good
or
bad qualitiesthey
see in
themselves. Sometimes, clients
at-
tempt
to
block their awareness
of
negative feel-
ings.
For
example,
an
adult female client
com-
plained
of
chronic depression despite alwayspresenting
a
cheerful facade
to
others.
In
therapy,she became aware
of
how
she
"buried"
her
nega-tive emotions
by
eating excessive amounts
of
icecream.
The
therapist labeled
her
spoon
as a sym-
bolic shovel she used
to
bury
her
emotions under
551

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