Nouthetic Counseling

I’ve advocated for a systems theory approach to understanding ‘emotional’ processes and symptom-bearing in the life of a person as he interacts with systemic ‘anxiety’. I’ve asserted that helping this person is achieved through a counselor’s entry into the ‘family’ system and regulation of his own emotional reactivity with the person under care. And I’ve insisted that a counselor’s attempts to fix this person by trying to fix him are usually foolhardy, hurtful, and exasperating; they simply ratchet up the anxiety of the system.

In light all that, a few words on nouthetic counseling seem in order.

Nouthetic counseling (from Gr. nouthesia meaning ‘admonition’) is rooted in the idea of digging down and discovering what sorts of sin (or perhaps merely lack of discipline) a person is living in and resulting in various symptoms such as depression, doubt, despair, and so forth. Is this a reasonable thing to do? Well, theoretically, yes; it’s reasonable. And it’s right there in Scripture; we are to admonish one another. That said, Scripture doesn’t say how this is done.

Can admonition be done well? Yes. Does sin or an undisciplined life result in emotive ailments? Yes. Does it need to be addressed? Sure. Can admonition be done poorly? You’d better believe it!

Nouthetic counseling conducted by a counselor without regard for his own emotional presence (or worse, conducted by a counselor oblivious to his own anxious presence) usually amounts to being experienced as a presumptuous nagging jerk while thinking such behavior constitutes love and care. Many people who have received nouthetic counseling as a pastoral approach have expressed such an experience of the process.

Is it possible people under this counseling approach are being stubborn and ungrateful as yet another manifestation of sin that needs admonition? Yes. Is it possible counselors are genuinely ineptly exasperating those under their care? Yes. Can both realities be at work? Yes.

Nouthetic counseling is in tune with the reality that we live in a fallen world and that we are fallen individuals. The fallenness of this present age is no small thing to be ignored. This counseling approach does well to bear it in mind. But is it always helpful to be asking whose sin and what sin is causing various symptoms? Perhaps we could take a hint from Jesus in John 5 regarding the man born blind and realize that searching for a sinful cause isn’t always helpful.

The crassest form of nouthetic counseling is simply “Stop it!” However, oddly enough, the Dr. Switzer Technique can be adequate and effective under the right circumstances. In a good relational system, one person can simply say to another: “Stop it!” However, a good relational context is a matter of the kind of established emotional presence people have been to each other.

Nouthetic counseling will only work when the counselor accepts and enacts the reality that his emotional presence matters more than his counseling process.

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