One of the goals of therapy is to create an environment and relationship where people hopefully feel safe talking about anything. However, it’s not uncommon in mainstream American culture to avoid talking about things we can’t prove to others. What is subjectively real (based on personal feelings and experience) and what is objectively real (based on the observation of measurable facts) often determines what we feel safe sharing. This difference may be the cause of more strife than is generally realized, and is certainly pertinent to therapy.
Since the Age of Enlightenment (roughly, 1685-1815 C.E.), popular thought has shifted from religion- and superstition-based ideas to empirical observation. Since that time, scientific fact has become the measure of what is real, dismissing intuitive, spiritual, and metaphysical experience because they cannot be quantified, reproduced, or shared. Even the word “real” is defined as “actually existing as a thing or occurring in fact; not imagined or supposed.” In order to show that something is “not imagined or supposed,” one needs tangible proof. This cancels out things that are subjective, such as thoughts and feelings. The implied unreality of subjective experience is commonly used to label those experiences as less serious, less intelligent, less relevant. Sadly, this can also mean that the people to whom nonphysical experience is important are dismissed as well. Such experience can be classified as superstitious, imaginary, or even delusional.
With science in the forefront of acceptable thought, as it has been for over 200 years, an interesting paradox has developed: scientific tools and standards are often used to determine the existence (reality) of non-scientific experience. This approach unfortunately makes as little sense as it would to do the reverse—to use metaphysical or religious tools and standards to determine scientific reality. What is being overlooked is the idea that there are actually different ways of knowing, a concept that goes back to Aristotle.
What does this have to do with therapy? A lot, actually. In general, therapy has to do with thoughts, feelings, and behaviors—in other words, subjective realities—that may be interfering with daily life. However, as we’ve established, measuring or proving subjective reality is virtually impossible to do. This is often a driving force behind insurance companies’ decisions to cover therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and not those which focus more on the unquantifiable internal or subjective world. Behavioral therapy can be “proven” to work because of the concrete and measurable results it produces.
This leaves a gaping hole in the area of feelings and, indeed, in the entirety of subjective experience. Being in love is a subjective experience. Although behaviors of someone in love can be seen by others, and those others may conclude that those behaviors mean the person is in love, the experience of being in love is wholly internal. Likewise, belief in a deity is a subjective experience. Individuals can evangelize, bear witness, or testify about their feelings, and behavior may give evidence of that belief, but the experience, again, is internal—subjective. Experiences even less likely talked about in general conversation such as seeing a ghost, running into a meaningful coincidence, receiving a visit from someone who has died, being the lone witness to unidentified lights in the sky—all are subjective experiences. And all are routinely dismissed, even scoffed at, because no scientific evidence is available.
As a therapist, it is not up to me to decide whether someone else’s subjective experience is “true” or “real”; in fact, it is virtually impossible for me to do so. My job is to help clients explore their experiences to find meaning and, if the feelings or experiences are troubling, to find relief. Subjective truth is part of who we are and how we live, and your subjective truth deserves honor and respect.