I was inspired to write this as I often encounter the question, “How does therapy work?” which I believe should always be asked, even though the answer is both elusive and varies greatly among therapists. It also takes time for therapists to understand how they are helping their clients, as unlike other healthcare-related fields it is not as much of an exact science, and more of an art. This gives it a flexibility that can confound clients and beginning therapists alike. So, here is my blog-take on how therapy can work when working with me.
It would seem that most of the psychotherapy world believes that our current behaviors form out of our childhood experiences. And I agree; they are our “formative years” for a reason. These experiences and how we took them in as younger versions of ourselves are going to have the largest impact on our current functioning. And then, how we understand ourselves and tell our own story made up of those formative experiences, up until now, is crucial to our overall emotional health and security.
But then there is what happens from now. I see us being able to look at our life in three segments: the past (see above, the “up until now”), the “here and now,” and the “from now.”
When we can successfully attune with ourselves, we are able to sit with our body and ask (that which may not be clear and conscious), “what needs my attention right now?” In a sense we are going to ask what is going on in our life, including our behaviors, our emotions, all of it right now, and then pay attention to whatever it is that comes up for us (as if coming from the unconscious into the conscious). That might also not even be explainable through words, but might appear as images, colors, sounds, etc. But all of that, then, is the “here and now.” I might use a guided attunement with a client who might for whatever reason have difficulty that day organizing their emotions around “right now.” However we get that “right now” experience, that is the felt sense.
And while it might seem that the bulk of work in psychotherapy is around understanding the past, most clients will feel a true sense of relief when they can experience some path forward. Like getting the felt sense, this path forward is initially going to look vague and fuzzy. We may never have a truly clear path forward that we visualize as if we had 20/20 eyesight. Perhaps the most clear kind of path forward that comes to mind might be falling madly in love, because we might know at that moment that this is the person we want to be with – though even then it is only one part of our complex lives, so not a complete path forward. And still further can insecurities, fears, and doubts creep in that make that path forward not quite so clear and straightforward.
Sometimes, though, we don’t have the ability to see any path forward. Sometimes it might be too challenging in the “here and now” to conceive of an opening around us. Sometimes, the best work we can do together in our space is to undo barriers that we are experiencing all around us. This work would best be done utilizing the “past” and the “here and now” to understand what is needed to both move some of the barriers and to recognize past successes as informative for future paths.
Most (all?) people have developed patterns of behavior over long periods of time (beginning in those formative years) to the point where they have become ingrained, but not exactly eliciting desirable outcomes for themselves. However, we can still consider those patterns to be our “comfort zones” – where “comfort” here is synonymous with “familiar.” So, in coming to therapy, we might believe that the way forward involves understanding “why” those patterns are the way they are, and then from there they can organically shift. However, comfort zones are there because we will not be inclined to shift out of them without some sort of push. It’s why developing self-awareness is important, but not the only role of therapy.
From now, we use that same self-awareness we are continually developing through the emotional processing of our lived experiences – both the difficult and the satisfying – to inform not only that we do need to stretch our comfort zones, but also to understand how we build for ourselves a path forward. What is it that we have learned about ourselves from those lived experiences that will help us better plan for what we truly need in our lives. Depending on how familiar and comfortable we are within our comfort zone, it might seem extreme when we lay out the sense of that path forward. But, we have the option to trust that the process of therapy, and other lived experiences,informs us that the path forward is what is right for us, utilizing that same self-awareness that we gained. Otherwise, we may never exit that comfort zone.