What Therapy Is (And Isn’t)
Recently, I got into an interesting discussion with someone who had been seeing a psychologist for therapy for a little while. He told me how he had been frequently frustrated in therapy as his psychologist just ‘didn’t tell him what he should do’. The more I challenged him on this belief, the more he became firm that this is what therapy should be for him.
What therapy isn’t.
The thing about therapy is that it isn’t about you telling your therapist what is troubling you in life and your therapist simply reeling off a list of answers like some old, wise guru that you should go and follow.
It isn’t that way for a few reasons.
Firstly, you’re working on the assumption that your therapist knows all the answers to all the problems that life has to offer. Now, your therapist is just a normal, everyday person. Chances are that they have problems of their own that they need to work through. It would be a completely unrealistic expectation to think that your therapist knew how to handle everything nor would they want the responsibility and pressure of being that ‘know it all’.
Secondly, what might work for them may not work for you. They have different skills, different ways of being around others, and perhaps even different levels of confidence. For every scenario that exists, there could be a handful of ways in which a person could respond and being directed as to how to address a problem is not going to lead you towards what the purpose of the sessions are all about.
Imagine the therapist tells you that you need to ‘just tell that person what you think?’ Imagine if you’re terrified of doing that action, no matter how much your therapist has explained why, logically, it makes sense to do that. Are you likely to commit to doing it? Of course you’re not! Chances are that the suggestion will be too far outside your comfort zone as it was a suggestion that just didn’t sit well with you.
Can you imagine what would happen if you followed what you were told to do and it didn’t work when you did follow through? You would be so disappointed with how it all turned out and probably furious, unfairly, at your therapist. Worse still, can you imagine what would happen if you followed what you were told and it did work out that time? You might think, ‘great, that problem is solved’, but you haven’t developed any skills with the situation and the same ‘solution’ applied to a different problem down the track may have terrible outcomes.
So if the purpose of the sessions are not about being told what to do and taking the problem away from you, what is the point of therapy?
What therapy is.
When you come to see a therapist with a problem, their goal is to help you to develop new skills so that, as similar problems come to you in future, you are more self-sufficient and capable of coming up with solutions that feel congruent with you and your values.
The therapist will want to know what your presenting issue may be and they may also gather information around the problem however what they’re ultimately wanting to do is to use their therapeutic model to help you approach the problem in a different way and to consider what options exist and what course of action is appropriate for you.
They’re not being paid to tell you everything is going to be ok or to stroke your ego. That’s what your friends are for. Your therapist is not going to offer their opinion on what you should do; the sessions are not about them but they’re about you. Your therapist is most likely not going to tell you even things about themselves or what they’ve done in similar situations as, again, they’re not going to want to indirectly lead you or suggest outcomes as it is important to the process that you, as the client, come up with options that seem realistic for you.
When I first started studying counselling, I remember one of my lecturers wisely saying to me, ‘you’re not here to save people’. This really conflicted with my values at the time because I thought I was studying to be in the business of helping people to work through their problems. As I continued my study, I realised just how true the words of my lecturer were. We need to be fully present for our clients. We need to be able to offer them an environment where they can be themselves and know they’re not judged. We need to be real for people too. However, in the same way, we can only change ourselves, we can only save ourselves too. As therapists, our best use is to offer our skills to encourage, support and to create an environment where people can discuss what is causing them discomfort and anguish without fear of being judged. In that space, allowing the problem to be spoken, people discover that they’re far more capable of looking at their problems objectively and, with the assistance of a skilled therapist, come up with the best solutions for their problems.
In those moments, a client may have a new insight or awareness that had escaped them before. They may consider their thoughts and feelings that drive their behaviours and consider other, more beneficial and realistic options. They may consider times when their problems haven’t existed and what was happening to allow that problem free state, or to look at what small steps they could take to improve their situation. In those moments, they may look at their values and beliefs and consider what kinds of behaviours will bring them closer to the kind of person they want to be and what will make their life rich, full and meaningful. Sometimes, it isn’t even about ‘answering the problem’ because some problems are just not going to have an obvious or easy answer but it is about exploring how the problem fits in with your life and what you can do to help manage those issues so that they have less impact on your life. Those moments are what makes therapy such a wonderful, rewarding and unique experience for many people, including both the client and the therapist.
We live in a culture that often tells us to be strong and to ‘suck it up’. We’re often quite stoic in the face of terrible news and we often try to push aside or work around those emotions and thoughts that are difficult and uncomfortable to sit with. We should never underestimate the value of therapy. Therapy isn’t a sign of weakness. In fact, it takes a lot of courage and strength to decide that it is time to call ‘enough is enough’ with a problem that exists in our lives. However, the rewards of therapy, when the therapeutic relationship and framework is collaborative and productive, is going to have an impact that can easily last the rest of your life.
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