Time, In Life And In Therapy

Back in 1968, I was fortunate enough to go to a dance at a neighboring high school where a newly popular band had been hired to play. The band probably contracted for the date before they released what turned out to be their most famous and successful song. So we kids got to see a band that otherwise might have played at a concert venue with bigger crowds, higher ticket prices or with alcohol available for sale. Here’s the first verse of lyrics to their famous song:

Time Has Come Today

Time has come today
Young hearts can go their way
Can’t put it off another day
I don’t care what others say
They say we don’t listen anyway
Time has come today

(Writers: Joe & Willie Chambers)

The writers’ credit of course gives away the answer to this little teaser of a story. The song was the 1968 hit from The Chambers Brothers, “Time Has Come Today”, the original album recording of which broke the rules of hit radio by running over eleven minutes (later edited down to three and four minute versions for radio play.)

Time Is Fundamental

Time is fundamental in life, and therefore in psychotherapy. Not only because of the 50 minute appointment hour. Life is finite, and virtually all of life as we know it occurs in a time frame. So it’s important to bring up the issue of time in therapy, so that treatment is oriented along a major axis of life. I am referring to when change will occur, because when matters. Behavioral change and emotional development in the abstract, outside of any time frame, is not real.

Time Is Uncomfortable

This may seem obvious, but it’s an uncomfortable part of therapy to discuss. For the therapist to ask “when?” might appear to be impatient, controlling or demanding towards the client, overriding the client’s right of self-determination and free will. That could trigger “resistance” to change; the therapist has added a level of anxiety – needing the change for the therapist’s personal reasons, more than the client. But in most case, the situation creates the demand for change – not the therapist.

The question might belong to a particular type of treatment, as in:

[Client]: “I really must stop drinking a quart of vodka every day”
[Therapist]: “OK. When?” {‘Your liver is going to fail; you’re going to lose your job; your children are neglected’}

There are other specific references to time that can occur in psychotherapy – many, really. Most therapists develop a reasonably detailed personal and family history for each client. A treatment plan is supposed to specifically reference a time frame (especially in the era of managed care.) Termination of treatment is a phenomenon of relationship in time, though hopefully about therapeutic success as well.

Time Organizes

Human beings develop a changing experience of time as they age, or at least they should. If therapy is to concern itself with human development or the process of maturity, then any therapy – yours or mine – must be governed or organized by time in some way. If not, then the therapy risks becoming regressive: indulgent but never frustrating. If you take the idea that human development relies on a fine mix of indulgence and frustration, that’s a therapy that will not facilitate personal development.

So I would argue that asking clients when change will occur is a marker for commitment, and commitment is a developmental milestone. We want it in therapy and in life. A therapist typically never has the leverage to force a timetable of any kind. But the therapist can ask the question, and the assumption behind it is therapeutic.

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