Telling It Like It Is

Donald Meichenbaum Doesn't Mince Words

Magazine Issue
November/December 2010
Telling It Like It Is

Back in the 1970s, Donald Meichenbaum was part of a group of innovators that included Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck. Together they challenged the prevailing behaviorist paradigm, lobbying to have the psychology field recognize the pervasive influence of thoughts and beliefs on observable behavior. Four decades later, the sometimes acerbic Meichenbaum remains an outspoken critic of what he considers unproven therapeutic practices and fads, upholding standards of empirical proof for clinical methods within the field. Now 70 and retired from his professorship at the University of Waterloo in Canada, he’s presently research director of the Melissa Institute for Violence Prevention in Miami, and has a particular interest in ensuring that the combat vets returning from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq receive the best treatment available. As active as ever and a popular figure on the workshop circuit, he recently talked about conclusions he’s drawn from decades of experience in the field.


RH: My students have an ongoing debate about the nature of therapy, and how much the therapist-client interaction should resemble a real relationship.

MEICHENBAUM: I get hung up with the word “real.” I mean, what’s an “unreal” relationship? Clearly, when we’re talking about therapeutic alliance, we’re talking about a relationship. The therapeutic alliance depends on the degree to which the therapist and the client agree on a set of goals and the means to get to those goals. That alliance necessarily has to do with the affective bond that develops, and the alignment between the client’s view of what’s wrong and how to get help and what the therapist has to offer. If those are in line, then you’re going to get a therapeutic bond, and everything follows from that.

RH: So the relationship needs to be real enough in clients’ lives that they’ll take the process seriously?

MEICHENBAUM: Yeah, and I’m essentially at my therapeutic best when the clients are themselves offering the advice I’d otherwise offer. In other words, I need clients to convince me that what they need is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). So I use a lot of Socratic questioning to draw out people’s own wisdom. I’m a bit like Peter Falk playing Columbo: I try to get people to provide the answers they’re looking for themselves, rather than trying to become their surrogate frontal lobe.

RH: A former client just contacted me after coming home from Afghanistan. He’s had a tough time, and he’d been specifically advised to seek out EMDR treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. What would you recommend?

MEICHENBAUM: I’ve done battle with the EMDR people so many times that I don’t want to get back into that debate. Rather than thinking that there’s one approach to PTSD that’s across-the-board better than any other, I think it’s more important to look at what’s common among all these procedures, and help people understand that there are a range of methods—besides exposure-based interventions—that can be helpful.

The choice of which method to recommend should be determined by the client’s symptomology. If your client’s main problem is hypervigilance, avoidance behavior, and mistaken beliefs, then some variation of in vivo exposure, where he can tell the narrative and then change the mistaken beliefs, would be acceptable. But if, in fact, his primary concern is guilt—his feelings about killing a buddy in friendly fire or killing others—then the treatment of choice would be a procedure focused on guilt or moral injuries. The field has advanced to a point where we can now tailor interventions to fit more closely the specific nature of the client’s distress, not just the broad category of PTSD.

Researchers Anke Ehlers and David Clark have identified that the major problem that leads to chronic PTSD has to do with biographical memories. Many people need help to incorporate the trauma memory into the larger narrative of their lives. They need help getting a larger perspective.

The other thing that’s now emerging in the literature is that helping people with PTSD isn’t just about getting rid of bad thoughts, but retrieving positive thoughts of what they did to survive. There’s an increasing recognition of the need to incorporate into treatment resilience-engendering, strength-based interventions, such as fostering positive emotions, psychological flexibility, optimism, gratitude, and spirituality. I’ve been involved in developing iPod technology for returning service members (see www.warfighterdiaries.org). These videos can be downloaded onto an iPod and people can listen to these coping stories whenever they want. This project dovetails with the Constructive Narrative approach that I now advocate.

RH: So there’s no one true cure?

MEICHENBAUM: There’s no single model that fits all. I really see myself as an honest broker, so anyone who says I have the cure, like Steven Hayes’s idea that his Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is “The Third Wave”—ACT may work with many people, but it’s not a panacea.

RH: You’ve done research specifically on what constitutes therapeutic expertise or mastery. You’ve written that people need about seven years to become an expert at anything. Is that similar to the 10,000 hours to achieve expert status that Malcolm Gladwell writes about in The Outliers?

MEICHENBAUM: That’s exactly right, we’re using the same data—10,000 hours, or, if you’re a chess player, 50,000. I say it takes seven years for a therapist to become an expert, because that’s how long it takes to see enough patients really shape up. You learn by deliberative practice, learning from your mistakes.

RH: So what can less experienced therapists do to provide good client care while they’re gaining sufficient experience to move to the next level?

MEICHENBAUM: I think it’s a journey. Some people start off a bit ahead of others because they already have core skills, like knowing how to listen, how to reflect, those kinds of things. I think that the main thing is not to be sucked up by the hype that’s associated with certain therapy models—you need to be a critical consumer. It’s also important to find a good mentor and be part of a peer group in which you look closely at each other’s work.

I think that a crucial pathway to expertise in psychotherapy is to have the guts to audiotape or videotape your sessions, and watch them with someone else; we all need that kind of feedback. The other thing is that you should develop a habit of soliciting feedback from your patients. At the end of every session, you should ask them, “Is there anything I said or did, or anything I failed to say or do, that you found particularly helpful or unhelpful?” We all need to regularly do those kinds of dipstick assessments and solicit that kind of feedback. If you’re an athlete and you miss the shot, you get immediate feedback. If you hit the golf ball in the rough, you get immediate feedback. Psychotherapists don’t get that kind of feedback automatically; they have to ask for it.

RH: As one of the founders of CBT, how far do you think it’s come?

MEICHENBAUM: Years ago, the behavioral traditionalists attempted to get all cognitive types kicked out of the American Association of Behavioral Therapy. They tried to make sure that no articles with the word “cognition” appeared in journals like JABA [Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis]. A letter was even circulated specifically identifying people who were bastardizing behavior therapy. Today AABT has changed its name to the American Association of Cognitive Behavior Therapists. One has got to be impressed with that kind of growth.

In addition, there’s an increasing appreciation of the particular factors that make cognitive-behavior therapy effective, like the therapeutic alliance and the whole business of nurturing hope and attending to feelings. So I think CBT has continued to develop and embrace a broader perspective, recognizing that feelings impact thoughts, as well as thoughts impacting feelings.

Finally, I think that there’s a great deal more humility about the limitations of CBT. Recent studies in the area of depression highlight that behavioral activation and helping people get exercise is equally, or more, effective than cognitive therapy. In the area of substance abuse, CBT is no better than other kinds of interventions, like 12-step groups. In fact, in substance-abuse studies using CBT, there’s no evidence that the cognitions have changed, or that the mechanisms of change are in any way linked to the specific CBT procedures. So I think anyone who’s sensitive to the data has to be given pause by how little we still know about what particular mechanisms lead to change.

RH: It’s humbling!

MEICHENBAUM: Sure. I think if you’re honest in this profession, that’s usu­ally the right stance.


Ryan Howes

Ryan Howes, Ph.D., ABPP is a Pasadena, California-based psychologist, musician, and author of the “Mental Health Journal for Men.” Learn more at ryanhowes.net.