Graham Allen shares his experience of visiting China and the learning and insights he took from it.
In March this year I was invited to Beijing Union University to deliver three lectures on psychotherapy and to take part in a Q&A session. I decided to present an introduction to
psychotherapy, assorted case studies, and a current topical issue: technology addiction.
The last topic I knew would be potentially controversial. The Chinese, as in many other parts of the world, are glued to their smart phones. In fact on arrival it seemed that wherever I ventured, everyone under the age of 30 was peering into one. Like many, I feel it is difficult to know the long-term impact of their increased use on communication, empathy and capacity for depth of thought.
I also wondered about the relationship between the Chinese philosophy of Confucianism and Western-driven models of psychotherapy. There are five Confucian virtues: benevolence, righteousness, propriety, wisdom and trustworthiness; and five hierarchical relationships, which emphasise the structure of duty, and obedience to authority: ruled to ruler, son to father, younger brother to older brother, wife to husband, and friend to friend. These relationships are seen as prerequisites for a well-ordered society.
My own work as a therapist of is years has the person-centered principles of acceptance, congruence and non-judgmentalism at its core, principles that originate in a different time and landscape to that of China in the third millennium. What of confidentiality and boundaries, I wondered? How might obedience to authority infiltrate the therapeutic space?
The first class I took was of graduates in Business English. My concepts and topics all seemed to be of some interest to the students. As I finished there was polite applause, yet I sensed that my presentation had not been fully understood. I did get asked a couple of questions about how to deal with rude and difficult people, but my response about empathy and trying to understand the ‘rude’ person seemed to confuse the issue even more.
My next group, much smaller, comprised lecturers at the university who also had research interests that, in some cases, were psychology related. One of the lecturers was studying psychotherapy. This group immediately engaged with the material I presented. Transference and countertransference, while not entirely familiar to everyone, were of great interest. We discussed them as a key to understanding how to work with psychodynamic concepts.
There was familiarity with CBT, but psychoanalysis as a mode of therapy seemed to be the best known. Of particular interest to me was a question about the impact of radical economic growth in China, consumerism and culture. Were the younger generations presenting with different emotional problems, the lecturers wondered. They also pondered whether one of the consequences of the one-child policy in China was an increase in self-centredness, frowned upon in Confucian principles. There was much interest about what young people brought to therapy in Britain. In particular, they wondered about how to deal with a breakdown in parent-student relations.
I had heard anecdotal stories of students regularly falling asleep in class after studying late into the night. With the huge emphasis on academic achievement in China, the teaching group was highly aware of the pressure that young students are under. Families put a lot of focus on children, with extra tuition becoming increasingly common in Beijing. Most of the group were also familiar with government concern over gaming addiction and the policy of sending teens to boot camp-style detox’ centres where they have their technology removed and a strict army-style physical programme is prescribed. China has identified internet addiction as a top health threat to its young people.1
The last lecture I gave was to students who were taking a psychology option within a social science degree. I recounted a case study, ‘The Man who loved a Polar Bear’,2 which provided much discussion, and we ended up talking about transitional objects (the bear in the case study). When I proposed that the mobile phone might be the latest transitional object, this was met with mirth and nods of agreement.
I feel it is likely that there will be an increase in demand for counseling and therapy in China, particularly in the area of education, because of the huge pressure to achieve Parental expectations of an only child may add to this pressure.
Aggressive expansion, capitalism and consumerism are relatively new to China. Yet with these phenomena can come inequality, which we know can be a driver of mental health issues. Despite huge growth figures, Beijing remains a mix of hyper-wealth contrasted with poverty. In this bustling, driven city, at times desperately crowded, perhaps it is no wonder that commuters on the subway bury themselves in their smart phones, seeking a rare private space. The idea of slowing down, reflecting and talking things through may seem a little idealistic at this stage of the capital’s development.
The visit was a rewarding and challenging experience. Overall, I think that my visit provoked curiosity, which is a good starting point for any budding therapist.
Graham Allen is a psychodynamic therapist in private practice in Golders Green, north London. He also counsels at a north London School and the British College of Osteopathy and Medicine. Graham has interests in the impact of technology on relationships and has lectured on depression among cricketers. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
1. Welitzkin P. Net addicts focus of film. China Daily USA 2015, 7 June [online]. http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/business/2015-07/06/content_21187065.htm (accessed 17 August 2015).
2. Akeret R. The man who loved a polar bear and other psychotherapist’s tales. Penguin Books; 1997. September 2015/www.therapytoday.net/Therapy Today
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