How to be effective

The different psychotherapeutic approaches and schools tend to attribute the effectiveness of their treatments to different kinds of interventions and communications. Apart from the relevance attributed to therapeutic alliance and empathy, which are recognized as central or at least useful by virtually all the researchers and practitioners of our field, and whose effectiveness can be taken for granted (Lambert, 2013; Wampold, Imel, 2015), the differences among the theories of technique of the different schools of psychotherapy are often huge. From Socratic dialogue to transference interpretation, from support to specific homework, from the authenticity and congruence of the therapist to the use of exposition with response prevention exercises, from skill training to mentalization enhancing communications, each school has its own specific tools that are purported to be effective. But the empirical evidence supporting them is generally weak (and frequently there is no research evidence available at all).

In this regard, Control-Mastery Theory is different. First of all, there is no specific technique or manual descending from our theory.  Instead, there are practical indications that are broad enough to be applied by therapists with various theoretical backgrounds and styles yet precise enough for working in a “case specific” way with each different patient. The second great difference between CMT and many other approaches is that the therapeutic indications of CMT have a solid empirical basis, i.e., they are “empirically validated” (for a review, see Silberschatz, 2005; 2016). What are these indications?

We can describe them in three different ways that are substantially equivalent:

1)      Helping patients to feel safe with us;

2)      Disproving patients’ pathogenic beliefs;

3)      Helping patients to carry out their plan.

As we have seen, according to CMT psychopathology stems from painful, grim pathogenic beliefs developed as adaptions to traumatic environments and events.  These pathogenic beliefs make the patient feel endangered if s/he tries to pursue healthy and pleasurable goals, and for this reason patients are powerfully motivated to disprove them. Each communication and intervention that helps the patient to disprove pathogenic beliefs and to feel safe in pursuing her/his goals is, ipso facto, therapeutic (Weiss, 1993). 

But the more precise way of helping a patient to get better is developing, and following, a good formulation of her/his plan (Weiss, 1994; Curtis, Silberschatz, 2007). In fact, as we have seen in the previous post, patients, other than being powerfully motivated to disprove their pathogenic beliefs and pursue their goals, have also a more or less detailed plan about how to do it.  They test their pathogenic beliefs in specific ways; look for a specific kind of relationship with their therapist; want to understand their specific pathogenic beliefs including their origins and manifestations; want to master the trauma that are at their basis. Consequently, we may define “therapeutic” as anything which helps the patient to

(1) become clearly conscious and feel legitimate, capable, and supported in pursuing his/her goals without feeling too guilty, afraid, ashamed, and so on;

(2) become clearly conscious of pathogenic beliefs,  their origins, functions, and consequences, and ways of disproving them;

(3) become conscious of the traumas that are the basis of these beliefs and how to better master them, thereby retelling her/his own life history in a less guilty form.

(4) Along the same lines, a relationship is therapeutic in so far that  it is corrective, i.e. if the patient experiences that her/his tests are passed, and if the clinician demonstrates an attitude that is different from the attitude of the traumatic parents and from the attitude that the child adopted toward them (Sampson, 2005; Gazzillo, 2016).

Following the plan of the patient, being sensitive to the patient’s reactions, and being responsive to her/his coaching (Bugas & Silberschatz, 2000) provides a way of understanding if we are on the right track.  The plan formulation is also a useful guide for determining whether the patient is looking for a treatment that is based largely on interpretations (Shilkret, 2008), looking for a concrete help vs. finding her/his own way to solve problems, wants a silent or talkative therapist, wants an intimate or distant relationship, and so on.

If we want to be of help, we must be pro-plan. All the rest is commentary.




Bugas, J., & Silberschatz, G. (2000), How patients coach their therapists in psychotherapy. Psychotherapy, 37(1), pp. 64-70.

Curtis, J. T., & Silberschatz, G. (2007). Plan Formulation Method. In T. D. Eells (eds.), Handbook of psychotherapy case formulation (2th ed., pp. 198– 220). New York: Guilford Press.

Gazzillo, F. (2016), Fidarsi dei pazienti. Introduzione alla Control-Mastery Theory. Milano: Raffaello Cortina

Lambert, M. J. (Ed.), (2013). Bergin and Garfield’s handbook of psychotherapy

           and behavior change (6th ed.). New York, NY: Wiley.

Sampson, H. (2005), Treatment by attitude (pp.111-120). In Silberschatz, G. (edited) (2005), Transformative relationships. The Control-Mastery Theory of Psychotherapy. New York and London: Routledge.

Shilkret, C. (2008), Endangered by interpretations. Treatment by attitude of the narcissistically vulnerable patient. Psychoanalytic psychology, 23, 1, 30-42.

Silbershatz, G. (2005), An overview of research on Control-Mastery Theory (pp.189-218). In Silberschatz, G. (edited) (2005), Transformative relationships. The Control-Mastery Theory of Psychotherapy. New York and London: Routledge.

Silberschatz, G. (2016), Il fondamento empirico della Control-Mastery Theory: le ricerche sulle psicoterapie. In Gazzillo, F. (2016), Fidarsi dei pazienti. Introduzione alla Control-Mastery Theory. Milano: Raffaello Cortina, pp. 123-240

Wampold, B. E., & Imel, Z. E. (2015). The great psychotherapy debate:

         the evidence for what makes psychotherapy work (2nd ed.). New York,

         NY: Routledge

Weiss, J. (1993), How psychotherapy works: Process and Technique. New York: Guilford Press.

Weiss, J. (1994), The analyst’s task: to help the patient carry out his plan. Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 30, 2, 236-254.