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Tools of Psychotherapy and Music Share Common Roots

December 12, 2020

A self-described sensitive empath who has had to navigate postpartum depression following the birth of her third child, singer/songwriter Alanis Morissette expressed her appreciation for the work of therapists during a discussion with Jeffrey Zeig, PhD, director of the Milton Erickson Foundation, in a keynote session presented Saturday at the Evolution of Psychotherapy.

“Thank you for profound service you provide, shining light on our blind spots in ways that take us out of our survival strategy adaptive behaviors and turn us into potentially graceful, relating, conflict-resolving and repairing, corrective-experience creatures who can actually help each other,” Morissette told attendees. “The epicenter of that is the psychotherapy relationship. When it is functional, when it is robust and when it is really doing what it promises, the psychotherapeutic relationship is such a healing one. Such a corrective experience can come from the intimacy and the trust, consistency and safety that therapists provide beyond the tools and models that you use.”

Morissette and Zeig discussed the common roots of psychotherapy and the process of composing music and how both are forms of impact communication. Morissette said she first learned the process of composing music in her teenage years, and with that foundational structure in place, she is able flow freely in her creativity in a stream of consciousness, expressing thoughts and feelings in a language she loves. Once Morissette hits the record button, she lets go, but she is letting go on top of a structure to begin with, she said.

“That’s a good message for therapists,” Zeig said. “I’d like to underline that message because yes, we have to learn our craft and compose empathic reflections when we see a client, but then the idea is how we can exercise our creativity and add to a structure and use our creativity to be better, more humane, more effective therapists.”

While the pandemic has made for a challenging 2020—Morissette lamented missing out on meeting new people around the world and, like many, adjusting to the blurred lines that come from working at home, she has tried to maintain a positive outlook.

“We are going to transcend this chapter of our lives, and we’ll be better for it,” she said. “This has been a…time for us to define what we value, what’s the most important to us. … This is a very self-defining time. Some of us, if we’re resistant to growth, circumstance can crunch us and paint us into the corner until we submit. The pandemic has allowed for a lot of us to submit, no matter how resistant we’ve been.”

Zeig credited Morissette for maintaining balance under extraordinary conditions, but Morissette demurred.

“I appreciate you saying that, but I’m not. I’m just holding it together,” she said. “My priorities are my family and my marriage and my friendships, to sustain the connectivity as best I can under the circumstances. Unfortunately, sometimes my self-care goes away. I have a 1-year-old who I am still breastfeeding. Attachment is so important to me, and my friends and my husband would admit that sometimes, I’m a little extreme because understand the importance of these stages of attachment and development. I put more pressure on myself because I understand how important it is.

“This week’s revelation has been to cut myself some slack and try to be the perfectly OK mother instead of the mother who has all this pressure on myself to be perfect and have no affect in my interaction with my children.”

Back on the subject of the similarities in their respective roles, Zeig said using metaphors is a way of making simple ideas come alive. Music, he said, can be a metaphor for feeling something or relating to one’s world in a different way. Musicians provide an induction in much the same way therapists help individuals to transition and change their state.

“The technical part of that, the understructure that I have learned and overlearned, then has to be something I apply creativity to,” Zeig said. “I find creativity by trying to talk to artists and trying to understand the structure they learn and the lattice they are building on, and then I can bring that into my world.”

Morissette responded: “At the end of the day, no matter what role we’re in, whether we’re a parent, a therapist, a rock star or a friend, that combination of wisdom, certainty, empathy, love, presence…these are all the qualities that underlie what I have experienced as a healing psychotherapeutic relationship. … In modern times, what we’re being asked to do—and you’ve done this beautifully—is incorporate all these tools to personalize it and tailor it for each person that comes in. There’s no cookie-cutter approach.”

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