Most people enter therapy wanting something. They seek relief from debilitating symptoms. They want help making a life-changing decision. They long to heal past hurts. Couples need tools for communication. Some want better self-control. Others search for the ability to reach their potential. The list goes on.
If their therapy has the right formula of therapeutic competence, perseverance, compatibility, and good fortune, those individuals will likely reach those goals. They’ll learn what they need to learn, internalize the therapist’s message or voice, and charge into the next challenges of their life.
But many people find that therapy also provides some unexpected benefits. When they leave, they realize they’ve gotten more than they bargained for—sort of a bonus for engaging in the experience. Here are four unexpected benefits of therapy I’ve seen in my own practice:
Depth: In polite society, we’re accustomed to having mundane conversations revolving around the weather, bullet points from work, some celebrity/sports highlights, and the story we just heard on NPR or Fox News. We skip along the surface because doing so is safe and universally accepted. Therapy pushes beyond the superficial to deeper introspective questions of personal experience, historical precedents, deep feelings, and drives—a variety of topics that would never end up on a Facebook status update. When people realize talking on this level is not just interesting, but also productive and healing, they want to recreate this depth in other relationships.
Empathy: It’s kind of ironic: The majority of people come to therapy wanting to understand their own problems and why other people impact them the way they do. But once they delve into their own issues, they discover insights that help them understand their lovers, their friends, their co-workers, and their bosses on a whole new level. A light bulb goes off and they may think, “Oh, that person’s worst experience was when he was abandoned by his dad. I understand why he reacted so strongly when I bailed on our plans.” People often learn to understand the people who inhabit their lives nearly as much as they understand themselves. Or maybe they become curious and ask a few more questions, which leads to this deeper understanding.
Contagion: I can’t count the number of individuals who came to therapy to learn more about themselves and before long, their friends were interested in finding their own therapist. It happens all the time. People feel empowered and excited about growing. Their mood, attitude, and/or behavior changes, and their friends are intrigued. Occasionally, individuals in an entire friend circle will seek their own help and everyone relates on a deeper, more functional level. Fixing your friends is not a reason to seek therapy, but it sure can be rewarding when this is the outcome.
Listening: When a person spends significant time with a professional listener, that person often develops the ability to listen. They sit for many hours with someone who keeps eye contact, pays attention, and indicates reflecting or recalling past information. People in therapy know how good it feels to be on the receiving end of that kind of attention and are more likely to replicate that for their loved ones. They’ve reaped the benefits of close focused attention, had it modeled for them, and can now show it to others.
At the risk of sounding too pro-therapist, the common thread here is that therapy helps people learn to adopt some basic therapeutic characteristics. They learn to talk on a deep level, to empathize with others, to discover the thrill of self-knowledge, and to listen well. This is to be expected, as we humans often take on the characteristics of the people we spend time with, from attitudes to behaviors to communication styles.
Like I said, these are the bonuses of therapy. The main objective is helping people relieve their symptoms and underlying issues. But if they can resolve their problem while becoming better listeners and empathizers with an ability to discuss deep issues in a way that positively impacts their inner circle, what’s the problem?
Sounds like a bonus to me.
Ryan Howes, PhD, ABPP, is a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, California, the founder of National Psychotherapy Day sponsored by GoodTherapy.org, and a writer for the Psychotherapy Networker Magazine.
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