What Is Good Therapy? Some Reflections on Good Will Hunting

What Is Good Therapy? Some Reflections on Good Will Hunting - image  on https://glynissherwood.com


You’ll have bad times, but it’ll always wake you up to the good stuff
you weren’t paying attention to

~ The late, great Robin Williams as psychotherapist Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting



by Glynis Sherwood

In the 1997 film Good Will Hunting, therapist Sean counsels reluctant fellow under-achiever Will.  Young Will is a prodigy who’s working well below his intellectual capabilities, and sabotages his chance at true love.  I re-watched Good Will Hunting, and it got me thinking about the practice of psychotherapy, ethics and what constitutes good therapy.


Will is a defiant and mistrustful 20 year old, who’s sense of self worth has been severely compromised by a traumatic childhood. Therapist Sean uses confrontation, self disclosure and wisdom as a way to challenge Will’s resistance to grow into the person he is meant to be. Yes, in true Hollywood fashion, Sean violates professional boundaries by threatening and manhandling Will. Sean’s inappropriate outbursts aside, the gist seems to be that Sean is ultimately successful in helping Will overcome his defensive – though unconscious – self-blame for being abused by his father and the foster care system he grew up in. Will’s repressed self blame and fear of being unlovable are what has held him back his whole life because, up until his breakthrough in therapy, he seems to have believed he was unworthy and incapable of having a better life, including his girlfriend’s love.


Most therapists are trained to be much gentler in their orientation than Sean, and being confrontational generally gets a bad rap in therapy circles, especially as a primary strategy. But the film begs the question – is gentleness always practical or useful in counselling? Would Sean have been able to reach Will if he had used a softer approach?


Confrontation is a bit of a ‘martial art’, and must always be conducted in the very best interest of the client’s psychological well being. By it’s very nature, confrontation is always risky and takes humility, skill and courage for a therapist to do effectively. In an ideal world, Sean would have all the time necessary to help Will gently overcome his resistance to change. Will was only in therapy for eight sessions, and few clients will stay in therapy much longer, so optimizing effectiveness in the moment is the therapist’s best approach. And, sometimes, being skillfully challenging may be the most effective choice a good therapist can make.


While certainly not promoting confrontation in general, I believe that if used humbly and strategically, especially after a trust relationship has developed, challenging a client can help them get unstuck from a painful or unhelpful perspective, relationship or way of approaching life. Challenge can allow the therapist to ‘stand up for’ – or temporarily hold the vision – for the client’s hopes, dreams and goals for their life, especially when the client seems unable to do so for themself.


Psychotherapy is an evolving field. What was considered cutting edge 50 years ago, is now often viewed as unacceptable or even harmful. If Freud or Jung were practicing today, they would likely have been hauled before their professional licensing boards for professional misconduct! 50 years from now, what currently stands for ‘best practices’ in counselling may be subject to the same unforgiving scrutiny.


From my experience, being authentic with clients, and using strategic disclosures, like Sean discussing his grief and loss over his wife’s death, helps clients trust therapists more and, because of that, to get more out of therapy. Clients relate so much more to the human, heart felt side of the therapy relationship, rather than to a clinical role. Clients need to know there is a real, vulnerable human being looking back at them, who can relate to their pain, while helping them hold on to hope.


In the end, I believe all successful therapies are an act of love. This love is reflected in the therapist’s willingness to be open and honest, kind and challenging with their client, where appropriate. This egalitarian approach signals to the client that we are all on this human journey together, suffer in the same ways, and can help each other move past life’s pain. In this way therapists love, and are loved backed by their clients, and grow as clinicians and human beings. And in his own hyperbolic way, Sean loved Will in just the way Will needed to heal and move on with his life.


What do you think? Would you like to have someone like Sean as your therapist?

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Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counsellor, Registered Clinical Counsellor, specializes in helping people build their Self Esteem and Confidence, overcome Family Conflict and Scapegoating, Anxiety, Depression, Grief and Addictive Behaviors. I look forward to hearing from you and helping you achieve the life you want and deserve!