I love being witness to the process of courageous individuals choosing to look within for answers to their struggles. I love sitting with them as they open up to new ways of knowing themselves. I love to see the deep transformation that unfolds when they begin to have self-compassion and acceptance of their humanity. I love to witness the sense of spaciousness that begins to develop in their lives as they discover deeper aspects of who they are. I love the constant challenge of discovering where my heart is closed off to their pain. As I bring awareness to those areas, I am pushed beyond my comfort, my heart expands, my capacity to sit with difficult experiences grows, and the joy of doing my work also grows.
As a therapist, I have the privilege of experiencing all of these things I love on a regular basis, and I am very grateful for that. However, I also know firsthand what it feels like to be on the other side of the therapy room. I have spent many hours there and have gained some understanding through direct experience of the healing process. My pain and vulnerability have become some of my greatest allies in my work with others, and I am also grateful for that.
In the following paragraphs, I will describe two aspects of psychotherapy I believe are important from both the perspective of the therapist and that of the person who has come to therapy. It is not possible to capture all the processes that go on in therapy in a single narrative, and there are several hundred methods and orientations in the profession, each with its own depth and complexity. These are the opinions of a single therapist who is passionate about the process, but by no means is a comprehensive description of what makes good therapy.
1. Discovering What Works
I see therapy as a process of collaboratively discovering new ways of meeting the parts of ourselves that are closed off, gaining new perspectives on the issues at hand, and expanding our capacity to feel and be with our experience. This is a courageous process of repeatedly going into the unknown. It is also a continuous refinement in which we are constantly finding out what is the right approach to the present experience. Any given moment requires something different, and there is no formula to know what is needed for healing to happen.
As therapists, our job is to be keenly attuned the people we work with and how they respond to our interventions. Not just how they respond verbally, but how their whole being responds. We study all kinds of theories and methods about human change. These are very valuable, and it’s important to have a sort of map, but at the end of the day, when we are sitting in front of the people we work with, how we respond requires a sensitivity and an alignment to the moment that no theory or method can teach us.
The more open and less defended we are during the process, the easier and smoother the therapeutic process typically goes.
As consumers of therapy, our job is to (as much as we can) tell our therapist what is working and what is not. This can be difficult depending on factors such as our past conditioning and how open our therapist is. However, assuming our therapist is relatively open, the more we are able to name our needs, likes/dislikes, and preferences, the richer the therapy can become.
As participants of therapy, we also want to have an open attitude to try new things and challenge old ways of being. This attitude does not have to be radical or extreme. It just has to be a willingness, even if it is small. Even a little bit of willingness to experiment can go a long way. The more open and less defended we are during the process, the easier and smoother the therapeutic process typically goes. However, in our process we will always encounter places where we are not open. When we encounter those places, our job is to be curious and open about them. We can ask questions such as: How can I meet this experience? What is the right approach in this moment? What is the most supportive way of being with this experience? The idea here is not so much to try to get rid of the defensiveness or closed-off part, but to bring curiosity, kindness, and openness to the closed-ness itself.
2. Meeting the Parts We Disown
We all have aspects of ourselves we disown. We may reject emotions such as hatred, anger, envy, and so on. Or we may reject thoughts or aspects of our personality that don’t match our ideal sense of self. Most of the time, this process is unconscious.
As therapists, we must do whatever we can to keep our biases and personal issues in check. To do that, we must be willing to be as undefended as we can be and hang out with our own shadows. By going to our own therapists, consultants, groups, or teachers, we walk our talk. I have seen in my own process that the more I am able to hold with kindness the parts of myself I tend to reject most, the more I am able to be open and compassionate with the people I work with. The more we do our personal work, the less our own difficulties interfere in our work with others.
As consumers of therapy, again, all we really need is willingness to be open to the difficulty— even if it is just a bit. In fact, we want this process to go little by little; too much too soon and it can overwhelm us. When we grapple with difficult inner experiences, it can feel as if we don’t have the capacity to tolerate the intensity that can come with them. However, with the help of our therapist and other modalities, such as mindfulness meditation, we can develop the capacity to meet these experiences. We can learn to dance with them or ride them as if they are waves in the ocean. If therapy is working, we are building our internal capacity to meet and transform what we couldn’t tolerate before.
Although there are hundreds of theoretical orientations, psychotherapy can be said to be a process of going within to find answers to our emotional difficulties and past pains. In this process, we find new ways of knowing ourselves; develop self-compassion, acceptance, and spaciousness; and we know ourselves in increasingly deeper ways. Armed with compassion, curiosity, openness, mindfulness, and a willingness to hang out with not knowing, both therapist and person in therapy dive into the murky depths of the inner world prepared for an incredible adventure.
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