Therapists’ problems may walk into their offices.
Meaningful coincidences are likely to occur in most forms of therapy.
Sometimes the synchronicity occurs in the initial meeting in which the patient's problem mirrors that of the therapist.
Synchronicity-informed psychotherapy adds an additional transformative possibility to the therapeutic intention.
Need, life stressors, and high emotions increase the likelihood of coincidences (Beitman, 2016). Jung (1952) believed that the activation of an archetype—those universal human events, such as life, death, rejection, and success—is the basis for synchronistic events. While universal, these events are experienced individually according to one’s personal narrative. In response to these basic human experiences, people often see therapists. They come with needs, stressors, and high emotions. Therefore, psychotherapy and counseling become breeding grounds for synchronicities.
As reported in a previous post on this blog, research suggests that synchronicity can aid psychotherapeutic change. To illustrate how this might work, I report cases from two therapists who intentionally integrate synchronicities into their therapeutic work, as well as one case of my own. In her Ph.D. dissertation “Fated Meetings: Synchronistic Meaning Within the Initial Therapy Session,” Yvonne Smith Tarnas reported stunning and useful parallels between patient and therapist in the very first session. Here is one example.
My conflict is the patient’s conflict
“While waiting for my new patient to arrive, I felt anxious. I was worried that this new person would not arrive on time, or not show at all. I began thinking, out of the blue, it seemed, of my brother, Oliver. He was younger than me by four years and was born with several mental and emotional handicaps. I noted how guilty I felt for even being happy and moderately successful while Oliver was now a paraplegic living in an assisted care facility in another state. My reverie was interrupted by Kate’s late arrival—she had been lost but eventually found the address. “Kate told me she wanted to really embrace her life and could not understand why, when she was happy, she felt guilty. She said she was often caught by perfectionism, trying to do everything right. I wondered with Kate if there were particular messages about perfection growing up—adding that sometimes someone else in the home may need so much that there is no room to be imperfect. “In tears, Kate explained that her older sister was born with a severe disability, with many special needs. Kate said that her whole life felt like it had always been a response to her sister’s issues. Her sister now had estranged herself from the family and was in another state, paraplegic, and addicted to painkillers. I was stunned by the parallels and how merged I felt with Kate.” (Klitsner, 2013) The primary objective of the engagement stage of psychotherapy is to establish and strengthen the therapeutic bond. This overt recognition of the parallel between patient and therapist experience firmly connected the pair, setting the stage for potentially effective work together. You can view Dr. Tarnas describing this and other psychotherapy synchronicities here.
Another parallel in the initial interview with one of my patients went like this:
A 40-year-old woman sought therapy with me because she wanted to use synchronicity to help her with psychological change. She was familiar with my work with meaningful coincidences. During our first session, done virtually, we saw each other for the first time.
Surprisingly she looked very much like my cousin Susie. I told her so. The comment quickly deepened her sense of confidence and trust in me. Like my cousin Susie, she tended to talk a great deal, often with excessive details, so I knew to comment on this tendency and help her sharpen what she was trying to say. I also was working on curbing my tendency to do the same thing.
Jungian analyst and psychology chair Helen Marlo invented the phrase “synchronicity-informed psychotherapy.” She suggests that meaningful coincidences can play a crucial role in the psychotherapeutic change process. She reported the following coincidence involving her and one of her patients.
"After years of productive psychotherapies, 'Mago,' a man in his 20s, sought analysis to address conflicts that limited his personal and professional development. A gifted musician, Mago was immersed in the alternative music world in a California city known for being counterculture. Absorbed in this alternative music world, he rejected higher education despite his strong curiosity, intellectual interests, and formidable range of knowledge. This had limited his life. He had, anxiously, started college and distanced himself from his counterculture music world. Music or academics? He felt he had to pick one. "After months of virtual sessions, Mago was emotionally able to name this conflict. During this particular session, he launched into naming the conflict around the 'hardcore musician and rocker' and 'intellectual' in him. As he passionately shared this, I accidentally tapped a key on my keyboard, and, somehow, the song 'Hotel California' by the Eagles came streaming out loudly. Its emergence at that moment mirrored his conflict. "This rock song spoke to the potential dark side of the music world while the lyrics reached toward higher consciousness and psychology to which he was also strongly drawn. It was a profound moment of psychological (intellectual and emotional) insight for him." You can view Dr. Marlo describing this case and more here.
Toward synchronicity-informed psychotherapy
Stories like these are scattered throughout the Jungian psychotherapy literature. Dr. Tarnas’s dissertation highlights this aspect of Jungian therapy, as do Dr. Marlo's case and my case. These stories suggest that meaningful coincidences may be relatively unnoticed in other forms of therapy because need, life stress, and high emotion increase the likelihood of meaningful synchronicities, and these characteristics accompany most therapeutic relationships. Therefore, synchronicities are likely to occur across the therapeutic spectrum. A subset of them will mirror the problems of both participants. Recognition of these parallels can serve the transformative intent of psychotherapy.
Synchronicity-informed psychotherapy anticipates the occurrence of meaningful coincidences within most therapeutic settings. Just as Jung's scarab became an aid to the psychotherapeutic process with one of his patients, the application of this principle can serve to help people change within many different therapeutic approaches.
Beitman, B.D. (2016). Connecting with Coincidence. Huntingdon Beach, FLA: Health Communications.
Jung, C.J. (1952). Synchronicity. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Klitsner, Yvonne Smith. "Destined Meetings: Synchronicity, Intentionality, and Archetypal Meaning in the Initial Therapy Session." Ph.D. diss., Pacifica Graduate School, 2013. ProQuest (AAT 3619043).