Information that is delivered in numbers is incredibly convincing. Even though we know that the important things in life do not lend themselves to measurement and quantification, we continue to try to translate our experience into numbers because numbers seem to prove something. If I read that 44% of a person’s optimism is inherited, it feels like I know something solid. If I read that optimism can be greatly influenced by experience, it doesn’t feel as convincing, even though I know that human experience is much more complex and contextual than any set of numbers can convey.
In the case of psychotherapy, especially creating a relationship and talking about what matters to us, we are continually stumped by demands to prove that it “works” or to identify techniques that are reliable. Like cultural anthropology, psychotherapy is about the meanings in human life, and these are not easily teased apart and measured. Each person has a unique viewpoint based on individual history, cultural meaning structures and historical impacts.
The only way to comprehend the complexity of how it feels to be me in the world is to get to know me, with many iterations over time, and then allow me to get to know you. Think about all of the facets of your good friend whom you have known for a long time. How in the world would you go about measuring those infinite pieces and connections and interactions within that person?
The answer, of course, is that you can’t. But that is fundamentally dissatisfying to people who rely on numbers for proof. As soon as you are involving third parties, money, time, and location, you are beginning to open your relationship to scrutiny and criticism. Each person may find him or herself at a loss for words that will justify the luxury of spending time coming to understand the complexity of his or her internal life.
In the end, we do try to find words, we try to look for evidence, and we try to hold ourselves accountable. We apply the measurements and evaluations of a concrete part of the universe to a fuzzy, uncertain, and deeply meaningful endeavor. It seems that people engaged in what feels to them like a productive therapeutic journey can understand the value of it without needing “objective” proofs. After all, how can we be objective about something so subjective?
And some people are going to be understandably skeptical. It seems self-serving to assert that good therapy cannot be measured. But there it is. We have to experience the relationship with the therapist, figure out that he or she has integrity, and learn to trust another human being. It is not a matter of being infallible for either party, it is a matter of creating, indirectly, a structure of trust in human relationships. That gets created precisely because it cannot be measured.