A famous psychologist once wrote that we need to reinvent psychotherapy for every client. This requires of the therapist, not only a firm grounding in understanding the mind, but a willingness to be creative, spontaneous, playful and deeply human in every session. Why is this necessary and what does this even mean?
We have many selves. We know this when we use terms such as “I’m not myself today” or when we describe someone as being really “on” or “on-point,” or “I’m at my best when…” When clients come to therapy, they are seeking answers and help with their complex problems in life- problems which typically bring out one’s worst self. But psychotherapy, as we see it at Insight, aims to connect with a person at whatever level of self they are on that day and help them become more of who they want to be, and stay that way for longer and longer periods of time. So how does this work?
In every session, through ordinary conversation with the therapist, a client re-creates a verbal illustration of his or her essential wishes, struggles, dreams, and fears. Through careful dialogue, the therapist helps the client recognize patterns in the things they say, talk about, or particular interchanges they have with the therapist, and link those patterns to formative experiences a person has had in their lives. How does dialogue accomplish this?
Therapists become mirrors. I oftentimes like to talk about mirrors in a funhouse at a carnival. They have those weird shapes that make you look funny or scary! Imagine a child growing up in a funhouse- they will get the sense that that is what they truly look like. Then when they go out into the real world with perfectly flat mirrors, they will start to laugh, seeing themselves portrayed that way. Same thing in therapy- in the verbal exchange, therapists hold themselves up as flat mirrors trying to reflect as accurately as we can what we see in the patient. The patient might not be used to seeing themselves reacted to in that way because they’re so used to getting other responses out of people in the past, and they unconsciously act to re-ellicit the same responses from others in the present. We, as therapists, are trained to see past that. We have the advantage of having no agenda other that an honest reflection of the patient. When patients understand that and are able to accept a therapist’s honest feedback, it is a powerful and transformative moment. This is called accurate Empathy. Empathy isn’t always compassionate; it is not the same thing as sympathy. Empathy means you “get” the person. And when a person feels understood, they can begin to be flexible with the kind of self they are. Feeling safer, they can grow a little more, take more risks, even allow for multiple or even conflicting understandings of the same thing at the same time. In short, being comfortable with things like agreeing to disagree and compromise. It opens up room for hope.
This is how weekly therapy sessions enable a person to connect with their best selves, the selves that strive to love and be loved, to create and provide, to explore and discover, to take into possession and then gracefully give away as a gift. And this kind of therapy gives you a mental workout. It is absolutely like going to the gym. You push yourself, you get your heart rate up, you break a sweat, you might even feel sore in your muscles- that’s how you know you are actually doing something.
I find that computers often make good metaphors in therapy as well. Computers and devices don’t seem to ship with manuals anymore- at best you get a quick start guide. But how to operate a device or play a game is something you just kind of figure out. You might look something up on the internet or YouTube, or ask a friend, but a lot of it is based on what you already know as well as what you might intuit. But there’s no one real authoritative manual.
Same thing with life- there’s no manual. We operate in the present based on how we saw things operate in the past, usually by parents, teachers, older friends and relatives, or how we’ve operated in the past through trial and error, and what we intuit to be the case. But oftentimes our impressions of how things should go are not totally accurate. Or they may be accurate only part of the time, and the other part of the time it backfires, but we have no idea why. In therapy we dig into why we assume certain things, why things should go one way or another, and our expectations of our relationships with others. Then, we get to try out different ways of doing things and see the positive results.
We invite you to try it out yourself, and see yourself in a new light.
Feel free to give us a call.