Maritha on Counseling

Maritha Pottenger

I left you last issue with the promise to discuss the “curative factors” discussed by Irvin Yalom in The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy. Of the eleven factors discussed by Yalom in the revised edition, I see the following as very valuable to the astrologer: the instillation of hope; imparting of information; universality; imitative behavior; interpersonal learning and one of his existential factors. His factors of altruism and catharsis are valuable at times. The remainder of the factors he discusses are more relevant to group work.

Most of these factors are what they sound like. The instillation of hope is simply giving the client the hope that s/he can be helped. Clients generally come wanting and fearing to hope simultaneously. The instillation of hope is the single most important curative factor. Probably most of you are familiar with the “placebo” effect in medicine: many people, given a placebo—a pill that does absolutely nothing—will get better—simply because of hope. Similarly with mental/emotional distress.

I believe when I make clear that, with my belief system, they have the power and ability to live more fulfilled and fulfilling lives, this instills hope in my clients. IF it seems appropriate—which I judge by intuition—I may give case examples (NO NAMES or any kind of identifying information!) of other people who have faced similar problems and dealt with them. My whole manner helps to reassure clients. I believe astrology provides useful information to people, and I believe that everyone has the potential to change and improve. My confidence in astrology and in my clients helps to nurture hopefulness. And hopefulness is often the most important factor in change!

I also think hopefulness and client expectations can be carried to an extreme. Some astrologers are in love with the all-knowing, all-powerful seer role. They feel they can say anything, do anything, solve any problems. They cultivate a mystical aura; they often avoid being specific. (Remember the importance of concreteness from last issue’s discussion of Carkhuff and Berenson!) I feel strongly that getting a contract with your client is intimately connected to hopefulness. If you know exactly what you are promising your client—and s/he is also clear—it is easy to feel confident and help the client feel hopeful. If you are making vague, generalized promises, your confidence may be less firm, and your clients may feel less hopeful. Or, sometimes, the client may feel extremely hopeful, and become terribly disillusioned later when s/he does not get all the wonderful things s/he read into your vague promises. I think the issue of the relationship of hope to the helper’s role and the aura of power is very important and warrants further discussion. Jerome Frank’s excellent book, Persuasion and Healing, discusses this phenomenon in psychiatry and medicine and many of his insights can be extrapolated to the field of astrology.

The role of “expert” is a very seductive one. As Jerome Frank points out, people who put a tremendous amount of time, effort, and energy into training for psychiatry (or astrology) are reluctant to consider that any of that might be wasted. They like the expert role partly because it makes all their sacrifices and preparations seem worthwhile. Astrologers need to be careful in this respect as well, especially with pet theories and ideas. If we put a lot of energy and time into investigating a favorite area, it is often very difficult to give it up when it turns out not to be terribly helpful. We do not like to believe we have “wasted” our time. (Of course, it is actually valuably spent. Negative results—sorting out what is useless—are as vital as positive ones. However, human beings generally seek what they can use and appreciate.) The most famous example of this process, studied by Leon Festinger and called “cognitive dissonance,” concerns grasshoppers.

Festinger cajoled/convinced some men to eat cooked grasshoppers (I believe they were fried.) Everyone took an attitude test beforehand and all were basically negative towards eating grasshoppers. Afterwards, most of those who did partake of grasshopper protein were surprisingly positive, even if they hadn’t liked the taste. They found all sorts of reasons to support eating grasshoppers. Those who abstained remained negative in attitude.

This was an early study which pointed out the importance of ACTION. People change through doing—very often. It is just as easy (perhaps easier) to change attitudes by changing behavior, as to change behavior through changing attitudes. Festinger’s analysis was that these individuals experienced “cognitive dissonance” by eating grasshoppers which they were negative about: their beliefs/attitudes were at odds with their behavior. That seems to be an uncomfortable state for many people, so something had to give. In this case, many accepted their behavior and changed their attitudes. In other situations, such as war time, people may totally deny or just rationalize their behavior and retain their attitudes. (E.g., “I am a loving human being who doesn’t hurt people. I only kill because I am forced to by circumstances.”) However, usually the greater the dissonance between attitudes and behavior, the greater the discomfort, the greater the impetus for change. (People who refuse to change their attitudes and are too honest to fool themselves about their behavior, may suffer intensely, e.g. again the wartime experiences of some basically pacifistic people.)

These grasshoppers of Festinger (and I) have two main points for astrologers. (1) Just because we invest a lot of time, energy, money etc. into something, we don’t have to convince ourselves it is marvelous, vital, earthshaking, etc. Flexibility is a key quality in a counselor and this includes the resiliency to throw out our most cherished ideas, theories, etc. when necessary. (2) Doing something is often the quickest route to change. If I can persuade/cajole/convince my shy, retiring client to DO even one assertive act, I have started the process of change. Even though s/he was persuaded, the assertive action will affect his/her attitudes towards self and help activate a change process. And each action and attitude alteration builds on the last and encourages the next ones.

Returning to Yalom, the imparting of information has been briefly discussed. In many ways, the role of the astrologer and counselor is that of teacher on occasion, to provide knowledge to the client which s/he was not aware of previously. As discussed earlier, the four facilitative dimensions (empathy, respect, congruence and concreteness) will make one’s imparting of information most effective.

Universality is the feeling people get when they realize that their problems are shared, that other people are as “weird” or “troubled” or “messed up” or “mixed up” or “crazy” as they are. That is why I stress in laying out my world view that astrology shows us COMMON, HUMAN SHARED dilemmas which we are ALL working on. (That is why Zip originally chose the term “dilemma” in discussing natural squares and oppositions.)

Imitative behavior is an important way that all of us learn—as adults as well as when we were younger. We imitate others whom we respect, admire, or just when we observe behavior that works—that is, gets a result we would like. The effective counselor (including astrologers) serves as a role-model to his/her clients. This does NOT mean that we have to be perfect. (Thank goodness!) It does mean it is important for us to be and live what we believe in. If we value growth, honesty, openness, compassion and an active mind, we will be the most effective teacher of that to others by living an honest, open, compassionate, intelligent and growing life. And it is important to remember that our interviews are microcosms of the real world. That is, the way we act with our clients is a reflection of how we generally are in the real world as well. If we are assertive “out there,” we assert “in here.” If we let others take over “out there,” we let our clients take over in our interviews. Similarly the way a client acts with us is a mini-example of how s/he is “on the outside.” A client who consistently reacts with anger or tears to us probably reacts fairly often to other people with anger or tears (or whatever their pattern is). It will usually be helpful to point out their process and deal with it in the interview.

Knowing that we may be imitated by a client, probably the one best thing we can model is an openness to ourselves: a willingness to look at ourselves, face any faults, learn from mistakes, and not try to be perfect or project a “good image.” Trying to be perfect is one of the hardest scripts I know, and creates an awful lot of unhappiness. If we role model unwillingness to admit or see mistakes and a closedness to self-examination, we make it all the more difficult for our clients to be at all open to what we have to offer as astrologers/counselors.

Interpersonal learning refers to the kind of learning that people get from one another in social contexts, learning to handle relationships for one. And a consultation is surely a social context, involving at least two people. Again, how we act and how the client acts, are reflections of our behaviors out in the “real world.” The more we facilitate a nourishing relationship in our practice, the more clients will become familiar with that kind of experience and be able to generalize it over to some of the other relationships.

This is why I stress honesty in our interactions. We help formulate our clients’ views of interpersonal interaction. If we fail to confront them (with the GOOD and BAD), we encourage their unrealistic expectations of others, or of themselves in interactions. E.g., if I fail to point out the strengths, talents and abilities of a client, I encourage him/her to feel inadequate, weak, less competent than s/he is. This also encourages the person to lean on others (“They’re stronger.”); to avoid others (“I don’t want then to know how inadequate I am.”); to manipulate others (“I’m not really strong enough to get what I want directly.”) or to do whatever their particular style of coping is. My confronting them with their strengths encourages them to recognize and utilize them. Similarly, if I ignore really negative behavior (e.g. a very obnoxious client), I encourage him/her to believe that obnoxiousness is a perfectly OK style of interaction; that rudeness gets one what one wants; that people don’t mind being trampled on. If I confront the obnoxiousness, I at least protect myself and provide the information to the client that at least one person does NOT like his/her behavior which lays the groundwork for change. (Some people do not even realize they are being obnoxious and appreciate having it pointed out to them. Consciously, they have no desire to offend other people. Of course, if a person continually drops one obnoxious behavior when it is pointed out only to immediately begin another one, something is going on with that individual, probably on a less than conscious level that they need to deal with. They are choosing, perhaps unconsciously, to push people away and it would be helpful to explore the origins and reasons for their behavior.) Sometimes, telling a client how much a certain part of his/her behavior turns me off is very therapeutic. Of course, balance is vital. The “honest” counselor who only gives negative feedback is just as destructive and unhelpful as the sweetness and light type who is always polite and never deals directly with problem issues.

One of Yalom’s existential factors is the recognition of the importance of responsibility: no matter how much support or aid we may get from other people, we must each take the ultimate responsibility for the way we live our own life. I happen to believe this. It is a part of my basic philosophical assumptions which I put out straight to clients. I also believe that responsibility and power are totally intertwined—two sides to a coin. We cannot have one without the other. If we seek to avoid one, we lose the other. And responsibility does NOT mean guilt—much as modern society tries to make that equation. Guilt and hair shirts are wasted, accomplish nothing. Knowledge of what we did before and the power and the responsibility to be different (if we choose) are enough for change. Guilt more often allows us to evade change. If we are busy feeling guilty, we do not have TIME to change and be different! I happen to enjoy power and the concept that I have the power and responsibility to be whoever and however and live whatever kind of life I choose is thrilling!

Catharsis, or simply expelling strong emotions or feelings, is sometimes all that one client really wants to do with us. Some people just don’t have anyone to talk with, to share their feelings with. So, they come to the astrologer or the counselor, or the bartender, whoever. They really don’t want information or advice or anything; they just want to ventilate. And, at times, that is very useful and appropriate. We have to be aware however, when this becomes a way of life, such as the people who play “Ain’t It Awful”—a game described by Eric Berne which consists of constantly complaining about one thing or another. Such people do not need “catharsis.” They are perpetual kvetches and need to be confronted with that.

Some people are a mixture. They may need to get out a lot of emotions first. Clients will arrive at times in an emotional frenzy. In that case, catharsis is the first order of business. Express it. Get it out. No one can think well and problem-solve if they are in an absolute tizzy or hysterical fit. Once the bulk of the emotions are out, then we can move into problem-solving, exploring options, dealing with the situation on mental levels as well. But catharsis can be a necessary first step, and if we skip it, we won’t accomplish anything. (If I tell someone who is in the midst of a screaming fit to sit down and be logical, I’ll probably get something thrown at me!)

Altruism occurs when people realize that they really do care for others and can be very kind and helpful to others. (It is amazing how many people do not give themselves credit for their capacity for kindliness and helpfulness.) This occurs much more often in group therapy where people are constantly helping one another, but can occur in an astrological consultation. Sometimes a client is very helpful to the astrologer in terms of emotional support or suggestions providing useful information. That deserves recognition and appreciation. And sometimes, just hearing about their capacity for altruism, e.g. empathy, compassion, serving others, which is indicated in the horoscopes is very important for clients.

Again, the time has come to close. I hope that all of you will think about how you set parameters in an initial interview; how you rate on the four facilitative dimensions (discussed in the Pisces issue); how you utilize the curative factors; and what your basic world view is, particularly as far as astrology and counseling are concerned—and how you put that world view out to clients.

Thank you for thinking, caring and sharing!


Carkhuff, Robert R. and Bernard G. Berenson, Beyond Counseling and Therapy, New York, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1967.

Yalom, Irvin, The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy, New York, Basic Books, 1970. Revised ed. later.

Copyright © 1978 Los Angeles Community Church of Religious Science, Inc.

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