H o w   T h e r a p y   W o r k s
There are as many answers to this as there are people in therapy. Here are some of mine:
Therapy Exploits our Inborn Drive to Heal
The drive to grow, learn, heal and self-right is wired deep into our brains. Its expression can sometimes be warped by difficult experiences and the distorted beliefs that develop in response to them. However, when conditions are right those innate tendencies will find healthy expression and lead naturally to flourishing. A therapist can provide those conditions of safety, spaciousness, acceptance, and stimulation that invite the drive to thrive to the fore and then you can both watch with amazement and appreciation as it operates and unfolds in your life.
Every blade of grass
has its Angel that bends over it
and whispers "Grow, grow"
Therapy Cultivates Curiosity and Acceptance
Our most hidden, vulnerable and unloved parts will not show up in the therapy room (or anywhere else) until they feel they will not be judged, criticized or ridiculed. Often, the harshest judges are inside us. By modeling curiosity and acceptance, a therapist can show you how to relate to those parts of yourself in a way that invites them to come forward, be known and be healed. And the same spirit of curiosity and acceptance, when applied to your relationships with others, has great results.
Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell about it.
- Mary Oliver
Therapy Increases Self Awareness
Until we become aware of the thoughts, beliefs, and habits that cause us suffering, we live life on automatic, buffeted about by highs and lows, without an inkling of how to move toward freedom and happiness, just hoping for the best. The therapy hour is devoted to paying attention to and learning from your experience. This sounds easy, but actually requires a lot of practice and help. A therapist helps you to stay with your experience and notice the subtle and not-so-subtle ways in which you take in nourishment or shut it out. This kind of awareness is transformative in and of itself and also a catalyst to further transformation.
is the beginning of all wisdom.
Therapy Expands our Notion of who we are
Often we identify only with certain parts of ourselves and unconsciously deny other parts. For example we might relish our role of helper, but suppress our own neediness. We might accept our sadness, but not our anger. We might be comfortable with our cooperative side, but not our competitiveness. Or we might over-identify with a label (like "shy" or "depressed") and forget that we are much larger and more multifaceted than that.
Whenever we deny a part of ourselves, it's like cutting off a limb and losing access to the unique movements it was capable of. Contained within each of us is kindness and cruelty, madness and sanity, and every human urge and impulse from dark to light. A therapist can help you stay safe and contained while you get to know all your parts and gain access to their tremendous sources of complexity, juiciness, energy and power.
You are not a drop in the ocean.
You are the entire ocean in a drop.
Therapy Helps us Use Whatever Life Deals us for Transformation and Healing
In the therapy hour, your present moment experience, whether it be joy or despair, uncertainty or boredom, can be the subject of inquiry and a source of insight. At first you will most likely need help opening to each moment and gleaning its gifts. That's what therapy is for. A therapist will help you become more interested in what "is" happening than what "shoud be" happening. With support, acceptance and awareness, even hard blows become rich opportunities for insight, growth and transformation.
Fate is like a strange, unpopular restaurant
filled with odd little waiters
who bring you things you never asked for
and don't always like.
-- Lemony Snicket
Therapy Helps us to Gain Access to the Wisdom of our Bodies
Our bodies are a resource and a source of information about safety, vitality, passion, pleasure, fluidity, openness, and more. By tuning into their signals, we learn what excites us, where we"re stuck, what we should move toward and when we should retreat. By paying attention to the signals from our bodies, we learn to recognize the physiological precursors to our emotions so we have time to form thoughtful responses instead of getting caught in automatic reactions to them.
By experimenting and practicing, we can learn to maintain our arousal within a comfortable window, dialing it down when excitement starts to cross over into anxiety or mania, and revving it up when we are in danger of shutting down or becoming depressed. Even better, we can widen the window of tolerance so that we can comfortably experience the high energy of exuberance as well as the quiet and still energy of deep rest and peace.
Forget not that the earth
likes to feel your bare feet
and the winds long to play with your hair.
Therapy Helps us Tap in to the Power of our Emotions
Our emotions are a source of important information about safety, comfort, nourishment, desire and more. They are a catalyst for action and a wellspring of insight. While unprocessed or unresolved emotions can stifle the free flow of energy, creativity, and resourcefulness, emotions that are followed through to completion (even very painful ones), lose their grip on us and leave us more open, adaptable and resilient.
A therapist will help you tune into your feelings, stay present with them and move through them to discover what they are communicating a need, a desire, an impulse, a direction. A therapist can help you learn the language and logic of feelings, how to recognize them, how to listen to them, how to regulate them and how to skillfully communicate them. Once you are able to work with your own emotions, reading, understanding and skillfully responding to the emotions of others becomes much easier.
This kind of "emotional intelligence" is more correlated with happiness, physical well-being and success (academic, occupational and relational) than intellectual intelligence.
I have been bent and broken,
but - I hope - into a better shape.
The Therapeutic Relationship Itself is Healing
Science is becoming more and more clear that our nervous systems are not self-contained, closed systems. We are continuously influencing each other's heart rhythms, breathing, immune systems, emotional states and more. That makes healthy relationships act like vitamins, says author Daniel Goleman and unhealthy relationships, like poisons.
The therapeutic relationship is a powerful and sacred container in which you recieve the kind of undivided attention that is hard to get in the outside world. Being the center of someone's attention, an object of curiosity and delight, and the focus of caring and concern stimulates the release of hormones that facilitate healthy wiring in your brain.
Building a close relationship with your therapist will not necessarily be easy. Whatever challenges you face in other relationships will most likely surface in your relationship with your therapist. It is helpful to work through those challenges in the context of therapy because a good therapist can name what's happening, stay clear and calm enough to navigate the waters safely and ultimately help you become more conscious of when your usual roles and relationship patterns are not serving you. This kind of deep, authentic relationship provides you an experience of healthy relating that will gradually transfer to your other relationships.
In everyone's life, at some time,
our inner fire goes out.
It is then burst into flame
by an encounter with another human being.
- Albert Schweitzer
Therapy Rewires the Brain
From the very first moments of our lives until our very last breath, our brains are changing in response to other brains. We are born with “resonance circuits” that enable us to feel into and be affected by the brain state of another person. Certain brain states which come about in the context of close relationships facilitate the growth of new neuronal connections that integrate the brain and lead to greater coherence and stability.
Our needs for closeness, security and care are biologically based. If these needs are not fulfilled at an early age, brain development is negatively affected. The good news is that new experiences (such as close, healthy relationships) change the brain. A therapist with a coherent and regulated nervous system who is attuned and responsive to your needs is providing exactly the kind of experience your brain needs to rewire itself. Your nervous system learns to regulate by coming into resonance with another, more stable nervous system. It sounds like magic, but it’s not. It's neuroscience.
"Interpersonal neurobiology” is an exciting, fascinating, cutting-edge field with a lot of relevance to therapy. If you want to read more about it, see the resources page for articles, books, podcasts, etc.
If we have not peace,
it is because we have forgotten
that we belong together
Therapy Helps us Transform Limiting Core Beliefs
When we are very young, we make assumptions about ourselves, about others and about the world that make perfect sense given the environment we are immersed in. Because these beliefs get wired into our brains at a very early age, we take them for truth. It doesn’t occur to us to question them any more than we would question gravity. Unless somebody or something opens our eyes, we carry these beliefs into adulthood.
Here are a few examples of core beliefs that cause us suffering:
A therapist can help us recognize the limiting core beliefs that we live with and begin to question them. Once we start down that road, instead of applying them across the board, we learn to assess each situation to see whether they apply. Some people can’t be trusted, but some can.
- People can’t be trusted.
- There is something wrong with me.
- The world is not safe.
- I’m a bad person.
- I have to take care of myself.
- I am not enough.
- I am too much.
- It’s not safe to show anger.
- My needs are not important.
- My needs are more important than anybody else’s