Updated: Jul 21, 2020
Many of us are hesitant to speak with a therapist. Why wouldn’t we be? Therapy is a thoroughly strange process. We go talk to a stranger (something we don’t usually do) about the most personal details of our lives (stuff we don’t usually share) in an attempt to change troublesome aspects of our lives. Also, we don’t necessarily know what to expect. Most of us have seen movies and TV shows that portray psychotherapy with varying degrees of accuracy, but the mechanisms through which talking to someone leads to feeling better aren’t immediately apparent. In this series of entries, I will demystify the therapeutic process by addressing some of the ways that therapy helps people and providing some suggestions as to how to get the most out of therapy.
In our last entry, we discussed some of the ways that the relationship between client and therapist can be healing in and of itself. In Part 2 of this series, we’ll explore some of the more direct ways that therapy helps us. In other words, we are going to be looking at the work that therapists and clients do together.
Often, we seek therapy to address troublesome patterns that emerge in our lives. Undesirable patterns may occur over a broad period of time. For instance, we may find that our romantic relationships seem to follow a recurring and unsatisfying script, or we may find that we are always beginning projects with great enthusiasm, only to eventually become disenchanted and abandon them. We may also experience distressing patterns that repeat with much more rapidity. We might experience panic attacks every night before bed, or we may lose several hours a week to rituals meant to soothe our anxiety, like repeatedly checking to make sure the door is locked before leaving home. When such behaviors become consistent disruptive patterns, we may need the help of a therapist to figure out a way out of these bothersome routines.
One way that therapists can help is by providing a novel perspective on the material we bring to them. Patterns in our behavior, thoughts, or feelings form because they are useful to us in some way. We develop ways of doing things because they produce desirable results for us. Over time, however, our contexts change, and our ways of responding to them are no longer helpful. In a perfect world, we’d adapt smoothly and easily. We’d say, “Things have changed, and this pattern no longer serves me.” However, we’re often not fully aware of the patterns that we engage in. What’s more, because they were once helpful, we are invested in them. Our therapist, on the other hand, doesn’t share our investment in these patterns. Because they are not as enmeshed in our daily lives as we are, a therapist may be in a better position to recognize our self-destructive patterns. This puts them in a unique position to help. A good therapist can help us identify the actions we repeat and encourage us to part with the unhelpful ways of doing things to which we may be attached. We are then left with a secure space where we can experiment with possible paths forward.
Sometimes, the breaking of old patterns requires the introduction of new experiences. Many of the most troublesome patterns in our lives are avoidant in nature—they initially emerge to help us avoid something unpleasant. While we all want to steer clear of that which causes us discomfort, our lives are more rewarding when we are moving toward things that we appreciate than when we are moving away from things we find distressing. A therapist can help us leave behind avoidant behaviors by providing us a structured and secure space in which we may come into contact with that which we’ve been avoiding. With repeated exposure in a supportive setting, our relationship to that which we fear may change, and we can reorient our energy toward that which gives our lives meaning.
Therapists may also help by sharing their knowledge. Sometimes, unrewarding patterns persist because we don't recognize that they are causing us trouble, or we simply don’t know another way. Therapists are knowledgeable about how various behaviors can impact our wellbeing, and they can help us become informed as to what changes we could make to feel and function better in our daily lives. Furthermore, many therapists will suggest specialized techniques to help us cope with, or resolve, difficulties that we experience. Therapeutic techniques and exercises can include coping skills we can use when in acute distress, daily practices we can engage in to manage symptoms, and helpful habits we can adopt to improve our quality of life. With the guidance of a well trained therapist, we can decide what patterns are no longer serving us, as well as what new practices we want to help shape our lives.
There are many ways that a therapist might go about trying to help us, but ultimately, the way that we approach our own treatment is even more important. In the third and final entry of this series, we will explore our role as the client in getting the most out of therapy.
Thomas Shooman is a mental health counselor practicing at Resolution Psychotherapy in Poughkeepsie, New York. Thomas’ clients include individuals dealing with issues such as anxiety, grief, and obsessive thinking. He enjoys helping people navigate uncomfortable circumstances and find solutions that are in line with their personal style. Thomas is a member of the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science and the International OCD Foundation, and he is currently accepting new clients. For more information or to schedule a session with Thomas, please visit www.resolutionpsychotherapy.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.