Individual Psychotherapy - The Crucible

A crucible is a vessel made of material capable of resisting very high temperatures, and which, under extreme heat, changes less heat-resistant materials from solid to liquid, and liquid to gas. A crucible also refers to a test, an intense challenge to analyze strength or character. For some forms of psychotherapy, it is a fitting metaphor. Under the right conditions, psychotherapy can test, analyze and change people. Like a crucible, the therapist must be able to “hold” the pain of the patient, listening fully, understanding without judgment. The metaphor partially fails because the crucible itself doesn’t change when the material it holds in its cradles changes. Unlike a crucible that holds physical material, the crucible of psychotherapy can change both patient and therapist. 

If you have never been in therapy, here is what it is supposed to be: Two people having different labels, or roles, sharing the same space, relate to each other according to agreed-upon rules and expectations. One is labeled the helper--the therapist--who expects to help and must adhere to laws and ethics. The other—called the helpee in the awkward language of scientific literature, or client or patient--expects to be helped, and has to conform to rules like showing up, and simply talking, and, of course, paying the bill. The product of the therapeutic crucible is supposed to be the helpee’s change. Sometimes, a byproduct is the helper’s change. 

The vessel of psychotherapy is bounded by laws and guided by ethics to keep secrets contained with the therapist and not beyond (unless…and we will later discuss in a future article, the few instances for breaking that private, legal confidence). The walls of the vessel are as strong as the ability of the helper to listen to anything, no matter how offensive, horrible, boring or silly, without a judgment or reaction that might inhibit the helpee's free expression. In psychotherapy, the conditions may exist for a person to say or act out their most intimate experiences and feelings without damaging the vessel itself, because it and they are protected by the skill and character of the helper. A person in psychotherapy, like a material in a crucible, can safely change their form. The best therapists I know say it is a privilege to be part of that process. I agree.

Therapists are both the walls of the crucible that don’t melt with the heat of the process, and also part of the mixture that the crucible holds. Two people are in the crucible. Both may change.

Example: Most people are mixtures of positives and negatives, strengths and weaknesses, capable of bravery and cowardice, good and evil. In the abstract, that is a mundane fact. But, watching it play out from inside the crucible, viewing it from the privileged position of therapist, transformed me. I recall from many years ago listening to a man talk about his wife and how he dealt with her. He was an extremely successful artist. Frankly, by all standards, he was mean to her. He treated her with an expectation that all his wishes should be attended to quickly, and he was free with his criticism of every aspect of her. He entered psychotherapy. Months and months of sessions went by. Then, his wife’s dearest friend became deathly ill. His wife’s friend had always admired his wife’s jewelry, which was actually designed and personally handcrafted by him. But, such gold pieces of art were well beyond the friend’s economic means. Telling no one, he fashioned new jewelry for his wife’s friend, then gave it to this woman’s husband to give as a gift from the husband, not from him. The dying woman cried. Her husband cried. This man’s wife cried. He did not cry. But, it showed me that even the unkind and cruel are capable of growth and selfless generosity. People are more complicated than might be evident, even when you think you know them well enough, and are not easily characterized by a single act or role, generalization or diagnosis.

At least, this is the way I think about therapy. Unlike the cold, hard, heat-resisting walls of a crucible, my office has soft leather chairs, carpet, lots of personal knick-knacks, and a couple of plants. But, my office is not the crucible. I don’t turn up the heat on you to see what you are made of. I do not manipulate tests to analyze you and reveal your “true” character. The crucible is our relationship. Please sit down and make yourself comfortable. I can adjust the AC or heat, if that makes you more comfortable. Would you like some water?

What seems to be the problem? Tell me whatever you think I need to know. Okay if I ask you some questions? Have questions for me? Please ask. Feel free.


By the way, how will we know when you have completed therapy? What’s your goal? Let’s begin.

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