Understanding Psychotherapists' Experience of Ongoing Learning

Thomas-Anttila, Kerry
Smythe, Elizabeth
Deborah, Spence
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Auckland University of Technology

This study explores the phenomenon of psychotherapists’ experience of ongoing learning. Psychotherapy has a clinical case-based history and, therefore, a knowledge base that is founded on clinical work. Amongst psychotherapists themselves there is a tacit understanding that the ongoing learning of psychotherapy goes hand-in-hand with the practising of psychotherapy, including thinking about the work. This latter can often take the form of reading about, writing about, or discussing clinical case reports or studies. Such forms of learning are, however, regarded poorly in the mainstream research arena. Where does this place psychotherapists themselves? Is something amiss with how therapists are educated and continue to learn? This is the basis of a very lively debate in psychotherapy literature and the impetus for my exploring this phenomenon by way of speaking with psychotherapists about their own experiences of ongoing learning.

The 12 participants were purposefully selected for their willingness to participate and their ability to articulate their learning experiences. Participants’ narratives were captured via audio-taped interviewing and “stories” of learning emerged. I have offered an interpretation of the therapists’ narratives, within the ontological framework of hermeneutic phenomenology and drawing from the writings of Heidegger [1889-1976], Gadamer [1900-2002], and Arendt [1906-1975].

The findings of this study reveal the ways in which psychotherapists increasingly move towards that which is essential for their own learning; what matters to the individual therapist begins to emerge over time and to show itself more fully. This arises from the interconnectedness between participants’ individual life histories and their vocational lives as psychotherapists. Emphasis is placed on authenticity in life and work. Learning is revealed as an internal movement which includes care for oneself and noticing that which is essential for one’s own development. Prescriptive approaches to specific activities of learning are not indicated, rather the learner’s engagement with activities that are meaningful for them. Interpretation of the participants’ stories highlighted that there are ways of being that facilitate therapists’ ongoing learning. These include an openness of being; meditative thinking, dreaming and reverie; caring for one’s own soul; learning to respond; resisting the allure of overly engaging with our rational minds; an awareness of our being-in-the-world as an interplay between the inseparable states of being with oneself, being alongside things, and being with others; and staying open to the mystery and the unknown.

Hermeneutic phenomenology , Learning , Psychotherapy , Professional development , Heidegger , Psychoanalysis , Learning from experience , Pedagogy , Andragogy , Practice-based learning
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