Astrology and Psychotherapy: Ethical Considerations

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Astrology and Psychotherapy 
Differences, Similarities, and Ethical Considerations

By Glenn Perry

 

Astrology and PsychotherapyWhat are the differences between consulting astrology, psychological astrology, and psychotherapy? Whereas consulting astrology is a general term that encompasses most types of astrology, psychological astrology is a specialized subfield that focuses on issues of personality growth and fulfillment. Like virtually all forms of astrology, psychological astrology is generally limited to single session counseling and can be differentiated from psychotherapy by virtue of the latter’s structure of ongoing sessions. There is a marked similarity between psychological astrology and psychotherapy, as both have similar goals and may utilize similar techniques. However, there are important differences, too. Astrologers not trained in psychotherapy may find themselves in an ethical bind when asked by clients to be seen in ongoing counseling.

Consulting Astrology

In section “D” of the ISAR (International Society for Astrological Research) ethics code, Consulting Astrology is defined as follows:

An astrological consultant is one whose services include discussion of an astrological chart in order to (1) help individuals recognize their strengths and talents, (2) provide insight into life issues, (3) elucidate patterns of growth and development, (4) confirm self-knowledge, (5) suggest the life purpose, (6) reveal periods of crisis and opportunity, (7) explore the meaning of a particular experience or phase of life, or (8) provide guidance as to timing or decisions with regard to a particular course of action.

By definition, when astrologers work with individuals or couples and address any of the above concerns, they are doing consulting, or counseling. Whereas some astrologers attempt to differentiate “consulting” from “counseling,” the difference for our purposes is less than clear. According to my dictionary, a consultant is “one who gives expert or professional advice,” whereas a counselor is defined as “one who gives council; an adviser.” Technically, there is little if any difference between the two. However, “counseling” is often associated with the field of counseling psychology, as in a “marriage counselor”. In this regard, “counseling” is more closely aligned with psychology than “consulting”. Even so, there is little to differentiate the two terms in astrology and for the purposes of this article they will be considered synonymous.

While some astrologers may limit themselves to writing and research, or specialize in financial, business, or other sub-disciplines, it would probably be fair to say that most professional astrologers do at least some consulting, or counseling. That is, they give “readings” and provide advice and guidance of one sort or another. In this sense, they are astrological consultants. The final entry in the above code states that consulting astrologers “provide guidance as to timing or decisions with regard to a particular course of action”. This by definition includes horary, electional, financial, business, relocational, and virtually any other type of astrology. Accordingly, the type of astrology one endorses—psychological, predictive, Vedic, Uranian, or otherwise—is not relevant to the question of whether one is an astrological consultant. Anyone who sits with a client and “reads” his or her chart is doing a consultation and thus counseling the client.

Psychological Astrology

From the foregoing we can conclude that “consulting astrology” is an umbrella term that encompasses all varieties and types of astrology. Since one can be an astrological consultant without necessarily being a particular type of astrologer, the question arises: what does it mean to specifically do psychological astrology?

To answer this question, it will be helpful to first differentiate “counseling psychology” from “clinical psychology,” the latter being synonymous with “psychotherapy” and constituting a slightly different academic and career focus.

Counseling psychology can be defined as an exchange of opinions and ideas to effectively problem-solve an individual’s daily living issues. These may be associated with his or her emotional, cognitive, or behavioral problems, or they may simply be situational concerns, such as whether one should change jobs. The length of treatment may vary from a single session to a dozen or more sessions. Psychotherapy, on the other hand, is a form of treatment in which a therapist establishes an ongoing relationship with an individual for the purpose of modifying self-defeating patterns of behavior and promoting positive personality growth and development. Treatment tends to be more long-term than short-term; that is, psychotherapy may encompass several months of once-weekly sessions to several years of two or three times weekly sessions.

Clinical psychologists (psychotherapists) do counseling too, but they also (1) can work with more seriously disturbed populations, (2) are trained in depth, unconscious processes (psychodynamic theory), and (3) are focused primarily on personality growth and change. Conversely, counseling psychologists (1) work with healthier, less pathological populations, (2) conduct more career and vocational assessment, and (3) are concerned primarily with solving practical, immediate concerns.

Whereas counseling is oriented more to solving problems, psychotherapy goes further in that its purpose is self-knowledge and self-transformation. In counseling, the problem is the problem. Most people seek counseling because they want help with some immediate concern such as a relationship conflict or vocational issue.

Conversely, in psychotherapy the problem is the person. People come to therapy because defenses that have served them in the past are no longer working; thus, they are seeking a deeper, more pervasive change in the way they function as a whole. Psychotherapy, therefore, is concerned with outer issues only to the extent that they provide a vehicle for exploring inner, psychological processes.

As the reader may surmise, consulting [or counseling] astrology is similar to counseling psychology, whereas psychological astrology is similar to psychotherapy. Again, counseling astrology is the broader term in that virtually all astrologers who read charts are doing counseling. Psychological astrology, on the other hand, constitutes a subfield of counseling astrology, and as such is more specific and narrow in its focus. Perhaps the defining attribute of psychological astrology is its focus on integrating the birth chart and, thus, supporting the human potential for growth and change.

Counseling astrologers provide practical guidance for personality issues and problems of everyday living. The focus is more educative, supportive, conscious oriented, and directed toward limited, concrete goals. For horary astrologers, this may mean answering a specific question with regard to a relationship. A predictive astrologer might advise his client with regard to the best time for taking a vacation. An electional astrologer could counsel his client about optimal times for launching a new business. Stock market trends are the realm of financial astrologers, and business astrologers provide advice pertaining to hiring employees, personnel decisions, expanding market share, and so on.

Psychological astrologers, on the other hand, are interested in depth, unconscious processes and the promotion of personality integration and transformation. Psychological astrology is synonymous with what is sometimes referred to as “therapeutic astrology”.

Branching out from psychological astrology are a number of related subjects, including developmental psychology and psychopathology. Both of these are extensions of psychologically oriented astrology in that they (1) have relevance to a psychological approach, and (2) can be integrated with astrological concepts and practices. It can be assumed that psychological astrologers have at least some training and familiarity with these subjects.

Psychological astrology generally entails from one to three sessions. However, even in one session the goal is to formulate an interpretation that defines and addresses psychological complexes, shadow issues, wounds, defenses, and other issues that may be operating outside the client’s awareness. Like their psychotherapist counterparts, psychological astrologers do counseling, too. They provide advice, direction, and guidance. Again, however, they are not limited to that.

A psychological astrologer is particularly interested in how the chart depicts the psychic structure and process of the individual. This is what is meant by the term psychodynamics, which refers to underlying drives, feelings, and beliefs, the interaction of which generates observable behavior and events. Instead of focusing exclusively on outcomes—observable behavior and events—the psychological astrologer explores how outcomes derive from deeper, unconscious realms of the mind (psychodynamics). Behavior is not explained in terms of alleged astrological causes; rather, astrological symbols are utilized to understand and explain psychological processes that are regarded as the true cause of behavior and events.

Psychological astrology places responsibility for life experience with the individual rather than with presumed external causes originating in the planets. The goal is to empower the client to take accountability for what s/he attracts and creates. At the heart of a psychological approach is an emphasis on facilitating the client’s growth and development toward an optimal state.

Astrology and Psychotherapy

Differences between psychological astrology and psychotherapy are more a matter of degree than of type. Both practices have similar goals and may utilize similar techniques. For example, insight into unconscious, maladaptive beliefs typifies both practices, and each depends upon empathic confrontations and artful interpretation. Likewise, promoting personality growth and healing is implicit in both procedures. It can even be said that one session of psychological astrology can encapsulate an entire process of psychotherapy, if only in microcosm. Disconfirmation of pathogenic beliefs, emotional release, and subsequent integration of disowned parts is at least possible in a single astrological consultation.

The most obvious difference between the two disciplines is the amount of time expended in the process. In the vast majority of astrological cases, a client will come for a single session, although multiple sessions are not uncommon. Even here, however, it would be comparatively rare for a client to come for more than three or four sessions. There’s only so much one can say about a chart or an issue before it starts to become redundant. Psychotherapy, on the other hand, generally unfolds over a period of several months to several years and focuses more on supporting the client in a process of internal exploration and discovery.

This highlights an essential difference between the psychological astrologer and the psychotherapist. The former utilizes astrology for the sake of clarifying psychological issues and conflicts; the latter utilizes psychotherapeutic techniques for the sake of resolving psychological issues and conflicts.

Psychological astrology is best utilized as a diagnostic tool that can quickly illuminate what is unconscious and pathogenic in the client. While this may have some immediate therapeutic benefit, in most cases true growth and healing comes from a slower, more thorough exploration of the issues that have been uncovered. In the typical astrological consultation, there is simply not enough time to engage in such a process.

Like a map-reader, the astrologer can point out the various challenges, difficulties, and obstacles that a traveler might encounter on his or her path of unfoldment. The astrologer might even provide some useful suggestions for how to best negotiate the journey. It is the psychotherapist, however, that accompanies the seeker on the actual route, helping, advising, and supporting every step of the way.

An astrologer’s greatest value is his or her ability to accelerate the uncovering of meaning. Clients often seek consultations when they are struggling with a personal difficulty. Such difficulties are generally rooted in intrapsychic conflict, which is inherent in the psyche and symbolized by the astrological chart. Intrapsychic conflict manifests as pathogenic beliefs and self-defeating behavior.

Outer problems and struggles are synchronistic manifestations of the psyche/chart, and provide a vehicle for the resolution of internal conflict. The advantage of an astrological consult is that it can quickly reveal how inner and outer factors are tied together. A configuration like Sun square Pluto can symbolize an internal conflict, a resultant pathogenic belief, and the synchronistic import of corollary events.

All of this is equivalent to pointing out the direction of healing, a kind of warm-up or prelude to the real thing. Psychological astrologers recognize that personality evolves over time and that one’s fate changes accordingly. Transformation is not something that automatically follows an astrological revelation. Most people would agree that enduring change takes time, patience, and continued effort. Ideally, one’s commitment to change is a life-long process. Astrology’s role in this process is primarily diagnostic and prognostic; that is, a good astrological session provides insight into the nature of the client’s difficulties, while also providing hope and direction for future change.

While opportunities for healing are implicit in everyday experience, psychotherapy can assist and even accelerate the growth process, especially during times of stress or crisis. Where this differs from psychological astrology is in the emphasis that is placed on self-exploration and emotional release. In the astrological consultation, greater weight is focused on the process of interpretation—showing connections between past and present, and disclosing how pathogenic beliefs are synchronistically reflected in outer experiences.

In psychotherapy, however, the process shifts from primarily an interpretive process to one of facilitating exploration and self-discovery. The onus of responsibility is now on the client, who is expected to engage in a process of introspection. The client’s primary focus is on exploring feelings—worries, concerns, conflicts—and following where they might lead. This necessarily requires a more supportive and receptive stance on the part of the psychotherapist, who must not intrude with premature interpretations and quick fixes.

If all goes well, the client will gradually feel safe enough to recall repressed memories and experiences that have been too painful or frightening to face. Accompanying these memories are repressed feelings associated with traumatic experiences, and the grim, pathogenic ideas that formed in their wake.

Discovery of this sort has an entirely different quality than insights that derive from an astrological consultation. It is fuller, more three dimensional, and carries an emotional component that allows for deeper understanding, personality integration, and real healing. Needless to say, dealing with this sort of material in a therapeutic manner requires considerable training and expertise.

Ethical Considerations

Given the subtle but important difference between astrology and psychotherapy, various ethical codes have sections that relate to “boundaries of competence”. Ethical issues arise when astrological clients request to be seen by astrologers for an extended period of visits. Their motivation for seeking help may be governed by a fear of formal counseling, the stigma that psychotherapy might entail, or the misguided perception that astrologers have the answers to all problems. However, once the process of helping extends beyond interpretation of the client’s chart, the astrologer may unwittingly be entering the territory of psychotherapy.

Unless the astrologer has at least some formal training in this area, it would probably be in the client’s best interest to refer him or her to a professional therapist who specializes in the client’s area of concern. A client suffering from clinical depression, post-traumatic stress syndrome, severe marital dysfunction, borderline personality disorder, or any number of other maladies is best served by practitioners who are trained to assess, diagnose, and treat such conditions.

Psychological astrologers ideally do have a therapeutic impact on clients. However, this needs to be differentiated from doing ongoing work with the psychological problems and concerns that might be uncovered during an astrological session. To the extent that such issues arise in the course of astrological work, it behooves the astrologer to respond with understanding, support, and sensitivity. However, unless they are also trained in psychotherapeutic techniques (and ideally licensed to practice psychotherapy), it would be unethical for astrologers to continue working with clients over an extended period of time.

Accordingly, in Section D.2.a. of APA’s (Association for Psychological Astrology) Code of Ethics, it states:

a. Boundaries of Competence
Consulting astrologers practice only within the boundaries of their competence and do not attempt to provide ongoing psychotherapy unless they have received the appropriate training, supervision and certification.

In the ISAR Code, a new wording for this section has been proposed:

a. Boundaries of Competence
Consulting astrologers practice only within the boundaries of their competence, do not misrepresent their formal academic qualifications, and do not claim to be psychologists or psychotherapists without the requisite training and certification.

Note that ISAR’s version introduces a subtle change in wording that actually weakens the intent of the original (APA) entry. The point of the original entry was to state that astrologers should not practice ongoing psychotherapy without the requisite training. The changed wording confuses the issue. It asserts that astrologers should not claim to be psychotherapists, but it does not declare that astrologers should not practice psychotherapy. The problem is that some astrologers do ongoing psychotherapeutic work with clients without necessarily claiming to be psychotherapists.

The question is whether it is sufficient to simply say that astrologers should not “claim” to be psychotherapists, or whether a code should provide a clear, definitive guideline that states astrologers should not “practice” psychotherapy. ISAR’s version is based on a concern that astrological counseling will sometimes overlap with psychotherapy. Prohibiting astrologers from practicing psychotherapy might be misconstrued to mean that astrologers shouldn’t provide any type of counseling, or should not interpret the chart in ways that might be therapeutic. However, this position is untenable. While the difference between therapeutic astrology and psychotherapy may be more one of degree than of type, I think that most reasonable people can differentiate between the two.

Again, the most obvious difference between the two disciplines is the amount of time expended in the process. Astrological work rarely extends beyond one to three sessions, whereas psychotherapy can last from several months to ten or more years. There are other differences, too. Astrological work may at times deviate from the chart and get into sensitive, emotional areas with a client, but almost invariably it will circle back to the chart as the primary means for conveying meaning.

Conversely, even for psychotherapists who use astrology, it would be rare for them to actually talk about the chart with the client; rather, the horoscope is used as a diagnostic tool that accelerates insight and deepens empathic rapport. The client benefits indirectly from the increased understanding that the chart affords the therapist. Reference to the chart is generally unnecessary, for it runs the risk of intruding into the client’s inner exploration and shifting the focus to a heady, intellectual realm.

If astrologers undertake the responsibility of working with clients on an ongoing basis, the problem is not that they can never help, but that without the requisite training in assessment and diagnosis it will be difficult to differentiate between those cases where they can and they can’t. To be really good at diagnosis takes years of education and thousands of hours of supervision. Psychological assessment and diagnosis of an actual client is an ongoing process. If a client turns out to have been molested as a child and suffers from borderline personality disorder, this might not be evident to a trained psychotherapist until several months into therapy even if they know astrology. Moreover, proper diagnosis is the key to proper treatment. Truly helping such a client could take years of intensive, painstaking work.

This same client might request from her astrologer that she be “helped” with her low self-esteem and tumultuous relationships. She asks to be seen on an ongoing basis. If the astrologer accedes to her request, he will be entering into a dark quagmire from which it will be difficult to extricate himself without doing damage to his client, himself, or both.

The point is that even if a client requests it, this does not justify accepting payment for “help” that one may not be able to provide. By opening the door to working therapeutically with a client on a regular basis, the astrologer runs the risk of being paid for services that he later discovers are outside his boundaries of competence. Once this is realized, it’s already too late, for the damage has been done. The client is poorer in both money and his or her mental health. An appropriate referral could have been made.

It is tempting to believe that astrologers can be all things for all people, but we cannot. Astrology is an enormously powerful tool, and astrologers must ever be on guard against the hubris that working with such a tool can evoke.

It is precisely because there is a fuzzy overlap between astrological counseling and psychotherapy that necessitates an injunction that astrologers not practice psychotherapy. Such an injunction does not prohibit astrologers from being therapeutic, sensitive, empathic, insightful, and so on. It simply establishes that one should not do “ongoing” psychotherapy unless one has received the appropriate training.

The keyword here is “ongoing”. So long as psychologically oriented astrologers do effective work with clients, they are vulnerable to accepting payment for extended services that are beyond their boundaries of competence. Financial incentives, not wanting to reject or disappoint the client, ego gratification, and various other factors can all contribute to difficulties in establishing clear boundaries in this area.

Summary and Conclusion

Consulting astrology is a generic term that encompasses virtually all types of consultations with clients. The general focus is on providing advice for dealing with everyday problems and concerns. Psychological astrology is a subset of consulting astrology, and strives for a deeper understanding of personality issues and psychic wounds. The emphasis shifts from the surface to the depths, from what is apparent to what is implicit, and entails the uncovering of unconscious conflicts and beliefs that underlay presenting problems.

Whereas consulting astrology provides education and direction, psychological astrology goes further in that it sets the stage for healing and transformation. The actual work of healing may best be facilitated by psychotherapy, which affords the support, structure, and time that enduring change requires.

While there are fundamental differences between all three models, there are overlapping similarities, too. Each discipline deals with the psyche at a different level; yet, all are dedicated to the process of helping the client surmount the challenges of everyday living. Astrology is of inestimable value in the process of psychotherapy, for it can accelerate the diagnostic phase, enhance empathy, and illuminate the path of healing.

It is precisely astrology’s value as a therapeutic tool that can seduce astrologers into doing ongoing psychotherapy with clients; yet, there is the accompanying risk of providing ineffective or even harmful treatment. Accordingly, it is imperative that astrologers practice only within the boundaries of their competence and do not attempt to provide ongoing psychotherapy unless they have received the appropriate training, supervision and certification.

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