Psychotherapy seems to be changing. More and more, people seem to want a quick fix for their problems. They want a therapist who will take charge and do something to them that will make them feel better soon. I believe that is a major reason I’m getting so many new clients who want eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)—because they view it as promising to fulfill that wish. Indeed, EMDR can sometimes work very much like that. Many people have come to me experiencing nightmares, phobias, fears, grief that isn’t resolving, flashbacks, etc., and within a few sessions they weren’t experiencing these aftereffects of trauma anymore. Obviously, this is a wonderful, miraculous phenomenon, and I embrace it!
My problem is that I believe deeply that people are hard-wired to need to talk to other people about their suffering. Sometimes, even when EMDR resolved the trauma symptoms people came to me with, they want to continue coming just to talk with me. Others come for that in the first place, but not nearly as many as 15 years ago. On the surface, people cite the economy and having to be more prudent with their money. They say that people can’t afford to pay to have someone to talk to, but they can afford someone who can quickly take away their symptoms. They also say that many people have had years of therapy and haven’t seen it work. But people are still suffering, so they are looking for something new—something effective and economical.
That’s logical, but it’s hard to believe that other changes in our culture haven’t contributed to this view. We all know there has been a huge movement over the past half-century or so toward making everything faster and requiring less effort. Whereas that used to mean microwave cooking and electricity-powered windows, tools, and appliances, now it also means human contact and communication. In the 1960s, to see a friend we had to call him or her, and call when they happened to be home. Then we would have to set a time and place to meet, then get ourselves there. Now, we take a few seconds to text, Facebook, tweet, message, snapchat … and we’ve had our social contact. Because social media are so public, the quality of communication tends to be superficial. It only exposes what people feel comfortable exposing to everyone they know and everyone those people know—which is obviously very little, especially in the emotional, vulnerable realm. This is built on top of an American culture wherein suppressing feelings has long been valued.
Add to this the image of psychotherapy in the media, much of it representing therapists as deeply flawed creatures who really don’t do anything but keep people dependent on them for years, exploiting them in any number of ways. On top of that, it’s been the stated goal of insurance companies to put individual psychotherapists out of business, and to save themselves money by paying a minimal amount for a minimal number of sessions. This orientation has given people the expectation that therapy is quick and cheap.
What has tragically gotten lost in these cultural shifts (in terms of therapy) is the core human need to talk to a wise, compassionate, other human being about our suffering. When I say suffering, I certainly mean depression, anxiety, and all the symptoms that motivate people to go to therapy, but I also mean the ordinary suffering of being human. The reason I thought of this is because of my own therapy. I’ve been in therapy on and off for most of my life, with various therapists, doing various types of therapy. I think I’ve resolved what’s resolvable, and my life is very, very good now. I also have many close relationships with people who have known me on a deep level for many years, who know how to listen and are wise and compassionate. So why do I go to therapy? Because I find my therapist to be comforting and encouraging. She gives me her perspective based on knowing me well and having decades of her own experiences as well as witnessing other people’s experiences. She feels like a home base in a different way than my intimate family connections—because she is outside of the rest of my life. She is utterly respectful, but in a way she is a parent or grandparent that I no longer have anywhere else. I think most of us need a good parent for our entire lives, even when we are good parents to ourselves and are self-sufficient and well-functioning.
I have my own children I enjoy tremendously, a dear spouse, and plenty of friends, so I don’t need clients to fill a hole in my life. Yet what I love the most about doing therapy is that vulnerable connection between human beings, and the long-term relationship that is both the natural outcome of that connection and a strengthening influence. I think it is essential to the health of our population that we return to valuing those connections. They could be with spiritual leaders, teachers, or elders, but we have systematically shed ourselves of opportunities for anyone to play this role in our lives. Therapists are trained and good at this role, and the easiest, fastest way to implement this function back into our culture. I would like to see our culture offer permission to pursue the life-giving experience of being vulnerable and expressive with a trustworthy human being again. I believe, as simple as it sounds, that this is gold in mental health currency.
Sometimes we just need someone to talk to.
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