capturing the beautiful calamity of healing in therapy

The Art of Therapeutic Science

Since psychology has emerged, the debate about whether psychotherapy is an art or a science prevails. We will argue that the research and science is far too removed from what happens in the context of therapy. On the flip side, we will argue that there are too many floundering, artsy therapists “going with the flow,” rather than “going with what works.”

In reality, effective therapy is both.

Self disclosure: in graduate school, I abhorred research. It was cold, statistical, and impersonal. The studies were dry and dense. After all, I didn’t enter this field to review numbers and data! I believed there was no room for this research on the therapy couch, and I believed the scientific community was attempting to quantify the element of human behavior that couldn’t be captured.

For me, the “art part” was easy. It was what drew me in. Connection and compassion, those came naturally. I thought those were all that mattered. The science was just done in a boring lab, right?

As I’ve evolved in my career, my view has completely changed. While the art of therapy has always been my strength, I’ve become more rounded in my application of the science.

We absolutely need the research to know what works and what needs to be improved. We need the ongoing clinical trails and assessment tools and diagnostic measures. We need the textbooks, because without them, we cannot know the advancements and improvements within mental health. If we want our field to keep expanding, we need to keep testing and examining. Without science, we lost merit and credibility in the world of academia. If we lose that, we lose the essence of our field and our reputation as a worthwhile profession, which ultimately, could lead to the loss of our clients.

Of course, there is a paradox.

While science has aided to the necessary advancements in our field, we risk jeopardizing the beautiful, intangible art if we only focus on this research. Society wants quick, standardized treatment. Insurance providers want structured sessions with clear objectives and linear results. People want clear-cut diagnoses and step-by-step treatment. This does not just apply to mental health; it is applicable to nearly every profession.

The art of therapy is the enactment of the science. If the science alone worked, everyone could be “healed” from a self-help book. We know now that science is only half the story. The art allows for the creativity, flexibility, and spontaneity that occurs within session. It extrapolates on the limits of science. Clients don’t want a robot or textbook. They want the warmth, empathy and humanity that cannot be conveyed from a research study.

Both of them matter. The art without the intent is directionless. And the science without the personality is emotionless. They exist in tandem, and they should be embraced in tandem.

As therapists, we are held to an ethical standard of maintaining an open and active mind. All theories matter. All therapies matter. In a field that embraces unity and harmony, this battle about science vs. art only creates dissonance.