Written by: Hayley Merron Stevens
The term “talking cure,” originally used to describe Freud’s psychoanalysis, is synonymous with all therapies where words are seen as the main vehicle of expression, i.e., psychotherapy, counselling.
First used by Anna O in 1880, ‘talking cure’ referred to her remarkable recovery, under Dr Josef Breuer.* However Anna O. had another, less well known description for the work she did with Josef Breuer – ‘chimney sweeping.’ That may seem like an odd descriptor at first glance, but look beyond the Dickensian imagery: small boys, poverty, squaller… and what we find is a metaphor that tells us much more about the relationship between client and therapist and the psychotherapeutic process that underpins it.
In this metaphor Anna O. is the chimney, the sooty deposits the disturbance. Of the two people involved in the work it is Anna O. who plays the role of apprentice sweep, Breuer the master sweep.**
While it is the therapist who is responsible for ensuring the work is carried out safely and that the client is not overworked or overstretched, it is Anna O, the apprentice who must dislodge and bag the soot. No one else can do the work for her.
In Victorian times soot, once bagged, was never thrown away but used as fertiliser. In the chimney soot is toxic blocking the free flow of air. In the garden it acts as a fertiliser promoting growth and health. The only difference is the location. Soot and fertiliser are the same substance. In psychotherapy the difference is one of perspective.
Gaining a new perspective on the the problems we have, the difficulties we face, the relationships we find ourselves in, enables use to loosen what has become compacted and solidified in ourselves. The metaphorical soot that once seemed so problematical now the very stuff that helps us to grow.
However metaphors while extremely useful are not without there pitfalls one of which is the tendency to oversimplification. The term coined by Anna O over a hundred years ago paints a florid picture of masters and servants. It makes it all to easy for us to draw an unhelpful and inaccurate picture of the therapist, client relationship.
In deeply transformative psychotherapy, both therapist and client are stretched and challenged. The relationship far from being linear is rich and nuanced. In this relationship the psychotherapeutic process does call for a certain amount of talking. But perhaps more importantly it requires a certain quality of listening one which, facilitates a space that can be all too difficult to find outside of the therapeutic relationship. Here the client is given space to hear, often for the first time, the truth of what is being said and felt on an experiential level. In this moment the relationship between therapist and client changes from the already known, to the unknown, to a truth that moves beyond words.
That the psychotherapeutic process should defy our best attempts to be conveniently labelled should perhaps come as no surprise - least of all to those familiar with the process. That we have been left, thanks to a quirk in history, with the label ‘talking cure,’ is not without irony, talking cure saying as it does so little about the psychotherapeutic process. And whilst the term ‘chimney sweep’ is far from ideal, it does at least provide us with questions. As good a place as any to start that rich and nuanced relationship we call psychotherapy.
* Bertha Pappenheim, always presented under the name of "Anna O." as the original patient of psychoanalysis was never treated by Freud but by his friend and mentor Josef Breuer.
** In Victorian England master sweeps would employ a number of apprentice sweeps or climbing boys.