What is your midnight philosophical thought

10 essential elements of Carl Whitaker's theory and therapy

Source: Carl Whitaker / Wikimedia Commons

By the mid-20th century, family therapy pioneers overturned conventions. The boss among them upset Carl Whitaker - a country boy who turned gynecologist and psychotherapeutic provocateur, whose editor, Rich Simon, was a psychotherapy networker, once called "fearless and headstrong".

Following existentialist philosophers, Whitaker viewed his treatment paradigm largely as a protest against the reduction of human existence to mere behavior, knowledge, or even theories.

There were at least 10 integral elements of Whitaker's rich evocative therapeutic ethic. These are examined below.

Psychopathology as a distraction

Whitaker saw "symptoms as mere signals or even a disturbing distraction from the real existential problems families face - birth, coming of age, separation, marriage, illness and death" (Luepnitz, 2002) and controversial -

“Psychopathology is evidence of mental health. The individual, distorted in his thinking, is essentially waging an open war within himself rather than capitulating to social slavery. His delusional system and hallucinations are a direct result of this war with his life situation - the pressures of his life and his efforts to overcome those pressures rather than becoming a non-human and a social robot. "(Whitaker and Ryan, 1989)

Responsibility of people in therapy

Whitaker's emphasis on personal freedom and responsibility comes from philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Edmund Husserl, who looked at the psychological implications of existentialist thought. Ludwig Binswanger (1967) assimilated these ideas into a psychotherapeutic formulation and emphasized "freedom and the need to discover the essence of one's own individuality in the immediacy of experience".

In Whitaker's writings and therapeutic examples, he conveyed existential assumptions: fear and suffering can induce growth; People have the power to choose, to be responsible; Between the client and the therapist there are elements of the human condition that consist in the relationships of the clients to one another.

Whitaker raised awareness of change processes and made people more responsible. He stated, “The integrity of the family must be respected. They have to write their own destiny ”(Neill and Kniskern, 1982).

Worth of courage

Whitaker viewed existential fear as an "insoluble dialectic".

“The effort to solve life as a problem is impossible. ... The process of facing dialectical life ... is endless, insoluble and poorly understood. ... Security alone means slavery. Exploration alone means danger and death. The flow is always exciting, but never an answer, just a bold impetus for the individual to have more rights to decide on the next step and to discover more and to dare more. "(Whitaker and Ryan, 1989)

Transformative nature of vulnerable encounter

Whitaker dared to be vulnerable with people in therapy and exposed families to existential encounters. When the family comes face to face with part of you, they must decide what to do. ... They are free to make their own projections as they resonate in them ”(Whitaker and Bumberry, 1988).

Whitaker's symbolic experimental commitment recognized respect for the invisible depth of man. In his writing he thought about the experience of "I-you", a concept that Martin Buber (1937) coined when he described the nature of our interactions with others as often more "I-it" than "I-you" described. One of Whitaker's common therapeutic goals was for family members to experience one another more openly, not more defensively, with one another; that an existential shift is occurring at the systemic level.

Source: Fred Mouniguet / Unsplash

Primacy of affective experience

Napier and Whitaker (1978) hypothesized one couple: "They are most afraid of what many couples see as threatening their marriages: death." Similarly, Keith and Whitaker (1982) wrote: “We assume that it is experience, not education, that changes families. "Whitaker often diverted attention from the content of the conflict to the emotional process:" I would suspect that almost everything you focused on together was causing this disagreement ... It feels more like an anxiety conflict is the problem, not a specific one Problem you are arguing about ”(Napier and Whitaker, 1978).

Power of artful communication

Whitaker developed the concept of symbolic communication as an interactive metaphor based largely on George Herbert Mead's concept of symbolic interactionism. Whitaker emphasizes the importance of creating and shaping meaning between people and consequently enabling changes within the family's emotional system. Whitaker saw his role in engaging a family by increasing the intensity of their relationships and communicating symbolic meaning through experiential interaction in such a way that the family was catalyzed into intimacy.

Spontaneous evocation as healthy

Whitaker advocated a spontaneous and impressive presence with people in therapy to involve them in the hidden symbolic dimensions of consciousness. Perhaps his most famous sign of spontaneity in therapy was wrestling with a teenager who had turned off Carl's glasses in a moment of anger: "When Don panicked and Carl was angry, Carl attacked him and the two of them opened up down the oriental carpet, a tangle of limbs ”(Napier and Whitaker, 1978).

That unplanned and arguably unprofessional encounter was certainly one of Whitaker's more radical therapeutic moments. However, it was also indicative of Whitaker's view of therapy. Whitaker went so far as to advocate "craziness" - not rational, right brain experience - as a measure of the health of both therapist and family (Whitaker and Keith, 1981). Whitaker stated, "My insanity has given other people the freedom to be more spontaneous, intuitive, and insane in their own way."

Need to be centered on the present

Whitaker carefully observed and responded quickly and intuitively to interactions between family members to prevent unhelpful, more of the same dynamics and to highlight potential signals of underlying emotional patterns, often the quagmire the family is in. Whitaker viewed the problems that brought families to therapy as failures in joint adjustment to common life problems and the here and now as the necessary moment for creative intervention and change. He urged: "Life has nothing against matter, it is present over past and present over future" (Keith and Whitaker, 1982).

Development growth as necessary relational

Everyone has to balance the need for individual autonomy with the need for relational connection. Whitaker believed that in addition to growing the system, the therapy must stimulate the person's growth.

Whitaker worked to foster family cohesion, ensure that family members meet each other's needs in the process of their own individualization, and develop tendencies toward spontaneity. Creativity and coordination within the family. For Whitaker, the individual cannot grow in a relational vacuum.

Source: Bob Aronin / Pixabay

Need for holistic versus reductionist goals

For example, Whitaker saw the path of therapy in the direction of an increased sense of competence, well-being, development of compassion, self-esteem, role flexibility, awareness, self-responsibility, greater sensitivity, learning to recognize and express emotions, achieve intimacy with a partner, and so on .

Carl Whitaker died in 1995.

This article originally appeared on GoodTherapy.org.


Binswanger, L. (1967). Being in the world: selected works by Ludwig Binswanger. Needleman, J., translator. New York: Harper & Row.

Buber, M. (1937). Me and you (2.), translated by Ronald Gregor Smith. Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark.

Keith, D. V. and Whitaker, C. A. (1982). Family therapy based on experience. In A. M. Horne and M. M. Ohlsen (eds.), Family counseling and therapy. Itasca, IL: peacock.

Luepnitz, D. A. (2002). The family interpreted: psychoanalysis, feminism and family therapy. United States: Basic Books.

Napier, A. Y. and Whitaker, C. A. (1978). The family pot. New York: Harper & Row.

Neill, J. R. and Kniskern, D. P. (Eds.). (1982). From Psyche to System: The Evolving Therapy by Carl Whitaker. New York: The Guilford Press.

Whitaker, C. A. and Bumberry, W. M. (1988). Dancing with the Family: A Symbolic-Experimental Approach. Levittown: Brunner / Mazel.

Whitaker, C. A. and Keith, D. V. (1981). Symbolic-experimental family therapy. In A. S. Gurman and D. P. Kniskern (eds.), Family Therapy Handbook. New York: Brunner / Mazel.

Whitaker, C. A. and Ryan, M. O. (1989). Midnight Thoughts from a Family Therapist. New York: Norton.