Deeper awareness

Ella Rhodes follows up coverage from our Research Digest blog.

A recent article by Christian Jarrett on our Research Digest blog examined Norwegian research of the life experiences of clinical psychologists. We spoke to lead author Marit Råbu about the research and how this work will soon become a play featuring some of Norway’s most distinguished retired actors.

The work, published in Psychotherapy Research, involved interviews with 12 psychotherapists about the ways in which their long careers had affected their lives. Upon analysis a recurring theme in the therapists’ comments was seen. Writing on the Research Digest, Christian Jarrett explained:

'Asked to reflect on their life’s work, a recurring theme in the therapists’ comments was that it had been a privilege, a humbling experience to come so close to other people’s lives, to witness their pain and suffering and see their sometimes remarkable ability to cope and adapt. The therapists described how this insight had affected their own personal growth as they “used different parts of themselves with different clients”. It had also enriched their own personal relationships, they said, by teaching them to be humble and accepting of others.

However, the interviewees also described the burden of feeling so much responsibility for clients, and being exposed to so much suffering. If anything, they said that age and experience had made them more sensitive and there was an accumulating effect of “sorrowful things” over the course of a career.'

Råbu and her colleagues have also recently published an analysis of the same interviews around the themes of wisdom (

Råbu told The Psychologist that in the wake of publishing their first paper, and later its appearance on the Research Digest and a review by service-user organisation Mad in America, she had been overwhelmed by hundreds of emails from psychologists all over the world. She said: ‘I have not previously experienced a similar response to any research paper. It is very motivating when psychotherapists email me to tell they are moved by my research, and when university professors tell that they have shared the article with their students.’

Now, thanks to an interest in theatre and a working relationship with award-winning Norwegian theatre Director Tyra Tønnessen, Råbu is seeing the content of her research being turned into a play. Overføring, Norwegian for transference, will be the first co-production between two of Norway’s largest theatres. Råbu told us: ‘The theatrical interpretation brings forward meanings and nuances which are, both similar to, and different from, the analysis presented in the research papers. Each of the six characters in the play is based on material from several informants. The material has been adjusted to protect the participants, but the basic experiences expressed in the play are obtained from the research material.’  

In a similar project Råbu and Tønnessen, along with seven other psychologists in three countries, are hoping to use interviews with therapists and clients, plus more standardised measures, presented as both normal research papers and a series of theatre plays. Råbu is a passionate supporter of sci-art projects and said it was important to look into collaboration with the arts and humanities as well as with other scientific disciplines, and added: ‘Themes related to mental health and psychotherapy are of interest to a much broader audience than those who read research papers. Experiences of human suffering and development lend themselves directly to artistic expression, the arts can complement what can be learned from research and textbooks.’

Not only this, she added, but knowledge gained from art is related to understanding through empathy, and openness to being moved. She added: ‘Engagement with art can also have the effect of problematising traditional conclusions and providing fresh perspectives, so that habitual ways of thinking do not totally dominate our reactions. Art can provide new ways with which to perceive and interpret the world, ways that make vivid realities that would otherwise go unknown. Art address the qualitative nuances of situations. Engagement in art makes it possible to develop a deeper awareness of fine distinctions in meaning and action.’ 

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