Therapist Error #6: Joining a School of Psychotherapy

By David Burns, M.D.

Copyright © 2008 by David D. Burns, M.D. Revised, 2014. Any reproduction, electronic or otherwise, is strictly prohibited without expression written permission of the author.

Question

“I am a psychology graduate student and I need some advice. One of my professors urged all the students in our class to find the school of therapy that ‘fit us.’ How can I select the school of therapy that would provide the best fit for me? And what is considered to be the best school of psychotherapy?” Harold

Dr. Burns’ Answer

Thanks for your question, Harold. These are important issues! Right now there are hundreds of schools of psychotherapy in the United States, and more evolve almost on a weekly basis. We’ve got Adlerian Therapy, Psychodynamic Therapy, Psychoanalytic Therapy, Jungian Therapy, Humanistic Therapy, Existential Therapy, Interpersonal and Transpersonal Therapy, Supportive – Emotive Therapy, Rogerian therapy, Behavior Therapy, ACT, CBT, DBT, EMDR, REBT, TFT, Motivational Interviewing, and more.

It can be very appealing to join one of these schools of therapy, and there are some definite advantages. Once you’ve joined a school of therapy, it will provide you with a sense of security and confidence and give you a sense of belonging. You can tell your colleagues and patients that you are an “EMDR therapist” or a “psychodynamic therapist,” or whatever. We all want something to believe in, and we all like and benefit from the support of like-minded colleagues. But here’s my recommendation, Harold—don’t sign up for any of them.

Why would I take this position? After all, many of the schools of therapy have provided helpful perspectives on human nature along with a number of useful treatment techniques. I have personally been involved in the development and popularization of one of the most widely practiced and researched forms of therapy in the world—cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). However, if you’ve attended any of my workshops, you know that I’m not a fan of any school of therapy for many reasons, such as:

  • The schools of therapy tend to compete like cults, or religions, fostering competitive feelings and unwarranted feelings of superiority. In addition, many have narcissistic founders who demand strong allegiance to their theories and treatment methods, rather than encouraging objective, systematic research.
  • Nearly all schools of therapy promote unproven theories about the causes of psychological problems like depression and anxiety.
  • Most make fairly bold and unjustified claims about their effectiveness. In fact, the effects of practically every school of therapy can be shown to be modest at best, and barely better than treatment with a placebo, if at all.
  • The practitioners of all the schools of therapy are usually convinced that their therapeutic techniques have highly specific treatment effects, whereas their effectiveness in most cases derives from non-specific effects that are common to all schools of therapy, such as the beneficial effects of the therapeutic relationship, or the patient’s belief that the therapy will help.
  • Most schools of therapy tend to treat all disorders with the same techniques, as if they had one cure-all or panacea all for all emotional problems.

I’m going to expand on some of these problems, so if you’re interested you can click here to read more.