The field of psychotherapy suffers from acronymania: a proliferating plague of acronyms. Your psychotherapy brand will not be taken seriously if you don’t have a good acronym for it, preferably three letters, although you can get by with four or two. A short list: CBT, DBT, TFP, DIT, CPP, TPP, SIT, ERP, IPT, PCT, CFP, EFT, MBT, RLX, EMDR, ADEP and PE. Ideally, your therapy will qualify as an EBT or EST (evidence-based or empirically-supported treatment), that is, a treatment of experimentally-proven effectiveness that comes with a manual instructing the therapist on how it’s to be conducted.
Of course, we also have acronyms for psychiatric conditions: MDD, OCD, PTSD, BPD and so on. The crowning glory is having an EST for a particular condition: CBT for MDD, ERP for OCD, PE for PTSD, and MBT for BPD (translation: cognitive-behavior therapy for major depressive disorder, exposure and response prevention for obsessive-compulsive disorder, prolonged exposure for posttraumatic stress disorder, mentalization-based treatment for borderline personality disorder, respectively).
We are truly blessed that clinician-researchers have developed all these ESTs for various psychiatric disorders. We need these specialized treatments for specific disorders and symptoms. Yet there are two problems with this state of affairs. First, to be fully competent in treating a range of psychiatric disorders, the therapist would need to learn 150+ treatment manuals—a daunting task. Second, many patients who seek treatment have a number of different disorders and problems at the same time (e.g., depression, anxiety, alcohol abuse, an eating disorder and personality disturbance). Do we send such patients to several psychotherapists, as we might send patients to several medical specialists? Does the same psychotherapist administer several treatments sequentially, one after the other, or even concurrently?
The problem I am addressing is not unique to psychiatry or even general medicine. We live in a world of increasing specialization such that individuals can hardly even keep up with the knowledge in their own field of endeavor. In the field of psychotherapy, there has been, in response to ever-increasing specialization, a countervailing movement for decades: the emphasis on “common factors” that account for the effectiveness of the therapy, regardless of the therapist’s specific technique or the brand name of the therapy. There is solid research support for this focus on common factors: it is extremely difficult to demonstrate that any good type of therapy is more effective than any other.
For example, we know that a positive therapeutic alliance—a trusting relationship in which the patient and therapist are working together toward common goals—is a major contributor to the effectiveness of therapy. Another important common factor is the therapist’s empathy. Recently, we have been advocating another common factor based on attachment theory and research: mentalizing, that is, an open-minded or mindful attentiveness to mental states such as thoughts, feelings and needs in oneself and others. It is a truism that psychotherapy requires interest in what is going on in the mind—and a meeting of minds. We use our colleague, Peter Fonagy’s, phrase for this process: holding mind in mind. We describe the ubiquitous role of mentalizing in relationships—including psychotherapy relationships—in our book, Mentalizing in Clinical Practice.
I am more concerned with common factors than specific techniques; I aspire to mentalize and help my patients to do so with me; and, not denying my competitive response to social pressure, I feel a need for a catchy acronym. Hence, after more than four decades of practicing psychotherapy, I have decided on my own brand of psychotherapy: POT, Plain Old Therapy. A patient once asked me at the beginning of our first session, “What kind of therapy do you practice? Talk Therapy?” I replied, “Yes, Talk Therapy, that’s what I do.” But I like POT better than TT.
To the extent that psychotherapists are returning to a common core of effective elements, the psychotherapy field might be going to POT. For many patients whose symptoms are multifaceted and rooted in problems with self and others, POT is in order. I acknowledge that POT is not optimal for treating patients with specific disorders for which effective specialized treatments are available. But even these specialized treatments, well delivered, must be laced with POT.
In his popular book, A Secure Base, John Bowlby, the psychiatrist and psychoanalyst who pioneered attachment theory, stated that the psychotherapist’s role is “to provide the patient with a secure base from which he can explore the various unhappy and painful aspects of his life, past and present, many of which he finds it difficult or perhaps impossible to think about and reconsider without a trusted companion to provide support, encouragement, sympathy, and, on occasion, guidance.” In a trauma education group, I once remarked, “the mind can be a scary place.” A young woman in the group spontaneously replied, “Yes—and you wouldn’t want to go in there alone!” She thus epitomized Bowlby, and I have never heard such a trenchant characterization of psychotherapy since. This is POT, as I endeavor to practice it.