The role of intuition in therapeutic work has been something that has not been examined as much as it should be in our clinical training. Intuition can be thought of as the unplanned forming of impressions and the drawing of inferences. The noted neuroscientist Antonio Damasio describes intuition as “a non-cognitive way of knowing things.” Most every effective therapist I have met has talked about the importance of following clinical hunches and gut feelings in his or her work.
In the early days of psychotherapy, leading figures such as Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung noted the importance of using intuition in therapy. In the fast paced, emotionally charged work that therapists deal with, there may be great benefit from utilizing the quick nature of intuition. In an article entitled “Intuitive Listening” from the journal Modern Psychoanalysis, Lynne Laub discusses many different ways that intuition can appear in clinical work. She found evidence for using intuition in such areas as metaphors, dreams, symbolism, and non-verbal communication. Other researchers have found that the use of intuition can be very effective, but only if there is ample trust between client and therapist, as well as the clinician’s trust in his or her own gut feelings. Arthur Bohart, in the article “Intuition and Creativity in Psychotherapy” from the Journal of Constructivist Psychology, writes that intuition is really inspiration that just spontaneously occurs to the therapist while he or she is in the flow of the therapeutic interaction. It appears that the topic of intuition might need more exploration as it may aid the needs of our clients within the therapeutic relationship.
If intuition is so important in clinical work, why is there so little time spent discussing this phenomenon in psychotherapy training? It may be that many professionals in the fields of psychology and psychotherapy have a desire to have their work strictly rooted in empiricism in order to be seen more as a science than an art. Intuition may be seen as too connected to spirituality and mystical leanings than aligned with “hard science.” Not having a set operational definition and application can make it problematic for researchers who are interested in investigating intuition in order to quantify its operation.
Since the prevalent approach to working in the clinical arena continues to be directed by empiricism and standardization of treatments, there is little space for teaching therapists to begin trusting themselves (and their intuition) more often. The employment of regimented therapeutic techniques often limits a practitioner’s access to his or her own internal wisdom. The “cookie cutter” approach to performing therapy leaves few openings to investigating our clinical hunches. Is there not a middle ground that not only gives therapists a structure in which to work, but also honor the mystery of our unconscious intelligence? I think there is, and most therapists who routinely follow their gut in the therapy room would probably concur.
Using our intuition may involve introducing odd statements and/or actions into the therapy discourse. What may not seem to make sense initially, might connect in ways our conscious minds might not at first comprehend. I have previously written about the importance of introducing the random into a therapy session and it may be that the random is preceded by an intuitive action.
One time I was working with a young woman who was in recovery from Methamphetamine addiction. She was trying to get her life back together and heal the hurts that her addiction had caused. She was not feeling good about herself and was constantly worried about falling back into her dysfunctional patterns. Our topic of the day was her learning to soothe herself when she became distraught instead of automatically turning to unhealthy men or drug use.
As we chatted, a strong image popped into my mind. I saw an image of a large number of birds flying. For some reason I felt compelled to trust this intuitive flash and ask her directly what “birds” meant to her. She stopped talking for a minute and sat with a puzzled look. She then told me that when she was a young girl, she and her grandmother would feed the birds that gathered in her grandmother’s backyard. As she talked about this time period, her eyes began to show tears. She explained that being with her grandmother were the few times in her life when she felt that she was “safe and good”. Upon hearing this information, I decided to see if she would be open to feeding the ducks who gathered at a pond across the street from my office. With a big smile, she quickly agreed to do this task.
In time, she found that she was able to reconnect with the feeling she had with her grandmother when she feed the ducks. She also decided that she would feed the ducks anytime she felt overwhelmed by life and needed to soothe herself. By following my intuition, with what initially seemed to be an unrelated mental image, my client was able to find a positive resource to use for her healing with which she had previously lost touch.
My advice: Trust yourself. If you get a hunch, no matter how odd, follow it. See what opens up