Subjectivity and Objectivity

At the risk of being overly theoretical, I feel the need to write this post.

There is a vast difference between the “subjective” and the “objective” as it relates to work in psychotherapy.  And yet, many folks haven’t really considered what the differences are and why we need to pay attention.

Let me first define my understanding of these terms as I use them here. 

Objectivity or taking an objective position on something, means you are saying you can step outside yourself and know something to be true.  That’s the way it is out there in the real world.  It’s helpful to think of things objectively.  That way, everyone can be clear about what we are observing and everyone has the same information on which to make judgements.

When you ask a friend to give you an objective opinion.  You are asking for an opinion that is outside your experience and, hopefully, outside your friend’s experience too.

But, like many things in life, it ‘aint always that simple.  Objectivity is something we like to agree exists.  When we are all in agreement, we can maintain that sense.

However, certainly when it comes to relationships and relational experience, objectivity becomes harder and harder to get a hold of.  In fact, I like to assume it doesn’t exist when it comes to therapy.  But if there’s no objectivity, what are we working with?

The simple answer is subjectivity, a sense of experience formed from within the parameters, limitations, givens etc. of the observer. 

Hmmm, that’s not really simple sounding is it.

Another way of looking at it is to declare and accept that we can’t truly understand something beyond our own experience of it, our subjective experience.  That experience is informed by our position as we look upon the thing or event, our history, education, interest, politics. . .everything that makes up what and who and where we are.  Through that lens, we create a picture.

Why is this important in counselling?

First of all, it encourages humility in the counsellor.  If I remember that I am not the objective observer, I am more inclined to listen to the client’s story with an open mind to that client’s experience.  That gives the client a chance to be heard in a more authentic way. 

It prevents me from jumping to judgement and, even if I do judge, I am aware that my need to do that comes from my own experience.  I can then ask myself, well, what’s triggering judgement here?  I will turn to the client to help me understand and almost every time, I find out new things that help me make sense of what’s going on.

It helps me help clients to reconcile that which makes no sense to them.  When a client experiences a betrayal from someone who is close in relationship.  That client so often assumes the fault lies in either a dreadful flaw in the other or some nasty quality the client inhabits.  Usually, neither of these are true.  The problem most often lies in two different subjective views colliding without knowing or understanding each other.

An example:

Mother asks child to clean up room.  Child is doing homework.  Child doesn’t tell mother about homework or how long it will take to complete it.  Child makes choice to complete homework before cleaning room.  Mother thinks child is ignoring her and gets angry at child.  Child thinks mother is crazy because she is bugging child to clean room when homework is more important.  Child calls mother crazy.  Mother calls child disrespectful and ungrateful. ..etc.

That example is a bit simplistic but it makes the point.  Both people were operating from different assumptions.  Both thought the other was in touch with those assumptions.  That example also starts to demonstrate how the misalignment in subjectivity can lead to nastier problems as the conflict continues (mom is crazy, child is disrespectful).

A more complicated example might involve a parent whose child has revealed a non-normative sexual orientation.  I have heard parents obsess for hours about the “objective truth” that having a same gendered partner is so difficult and painful and therefore, the wrong choice for that child.  Often, those parents are having trouble understanding that their “objective truth” is a subjective understanding of the world.  It may not include all of the child’s understandings, desires, dreams and sense of self.  Given all those things, the choice to pursue same gendered relationship might make complete sense, in spite of the potential for pain.

This conflict has arisen regarding family structures and the roles of parents and step parents.  When a parent has a fixed view of what a step parent should be or is entitled to, the potential for conflict is enormous.  Instead, everyone needs to work on understanding the expectations of the other and how they intersect, how subjectivities intersect.

That leads me to my final and admittedly theoretically dense point.  Our reality can be seen as a constantly evolving experience of the intersection of subjectivities.  That sounds complicated and scary.  But really, it just means we have to be careful to inquire about how other people see and experience a thing.  We don’t always have to agree that experience or view it the same as our own, but it does give us good information about why others might behave as they do. 

Knowledge is power, after all.