It’s All Connected: Why Nothing Is Irrelevant in Therapy

Sunlit view of train yard with several connected switching train tracks Everything is connected.

Perhaps you have heard your therapist say this after you began talking about something you dismissed as tangential or irrelevant. The thing is, there really isn’t any such thing as irrelevancy in therapy.

When you allow yourself to talk about that strand of an idea, that fleeting thought, or even that object on your therapist’s shelf that caught your eye, the potential is there for you and your therapist to move into a deeper space—one that may very well be connected to what it was that brought you to therapy in the first place.

We call the thing that brings us to therapy the “presenting problem/issue.” Effective therapy doesn’t lose sight of this, but rather allows space for other things you discuss to provide valuable insight that may be quite relevant to the presenting issue. No matter what you’re talking about, there is a good chance it will lead us back to what is causing you difficulty. This is an opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of the issue and perhaps identify a path to relief.

How Something Off-Topic Can Be Anything But

Once, during a therapy session, an offhand comment about a detail I remembered from another session prompted a question about my memory. “This is off-topic,” the man said, but he noticed that I don’t take notes … so how could I have remembered that? I didn’t think it was such a feat, so I asked him about himself—did people usually remember things he said? This led to a deep discussion about his parents forgetting his birthday when he was very young. Something he thought was “off-topic” was, in fact, connected to what he was more actively exploring in therapy.

Unsure of the benefit, people in therapy are often reluctant to talk about things they believe are unrelated to why they’re there, but let’s take a look at some important issues that can come up because you’ve been brave enough to travel down that rabbit hole with your therapist:

  • Worried your therapist wants to keep you in therapy? Maybe it’s time to talk about concerns about becoming dependent.
  • Think you’re forcing a topic? Perhaps you’re connecting to how much you prefer to have things planned out before you speak. Letting go of control (just a little bit) could be fruitful for you.
  • Not sure what you want to say is important or “therapy worthy”? Let’s talk about self-criticism and whether you tend to judge yourself.

Deepening Self-Understanding in Therapy

Some people may be skeptical about all this. I get it. If I went to my doctor for a sore throat and instead the topic turned to my gallbladder, I’d be skeptical too. I’d wonder if the doctor was trying to order up a test I didn’t need or, worse, didn’t know what they were doing. Maybe my skepticism would be justified. But maybe not.

On one hand, I’m talking about trusting your therapist, but more than that, I’m talking about trusting yourself.

The brain, though, is a bit more mysterious. Past events—“big T” and “little t” traumas—get stored in different parts of us, different ideas. We don’t always know up front the way in, so we learn to trust our core self. We trust the part of us that has an association with a topic and we dive in. Or dip our toes in, at least.

On one hand, I’m talking about trusting your therapist, but more than that, I’m talking about trusting yourself. Trust the part of you that says, “Examine this memory for a moment, would you? Take a look at this story or why this particular feeling is popping up.”

Therapy supports our growing awareness of ourselves. It helps us become more connected with us—which, by the way, goes a long way toward having better connections with others.

It really is all connected. You are a pretty fascinating being. When we get down to it, we all are. And if we follow our humanness in whatever direction it leads us, there is a wealth of freedom and self-understanding to be realized.

© Copyright 2016 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Justin Lioi, LCSW, therapist in Brooklyn, New York

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 10 comments
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  • Aidan

    Aidan

    November 5th, 2016 at 8:14 AM

    I haven’t always believed that myself but the longer I have worked with my therapist the more I see that this is the absolute truth. Most things that happen in our lives are the direct result of something else, things that may not have happened even remotely close to one another but still, they are related and have caused one thing to lead to another. It can be liberating in some ways to look back and have that aha moment!

  • sue

    sue

    November 7th, 2016 at 10:23 AM

    Oh yes there is always a connection whether we choose to admit to that or not

  • Phyllis

    Phyllis

    November 7th, 2016 at 11:18 AM

    You might think that something is insignificant but you have to speak up about it anyway/
    What if this happens to be the key that would unlock the answers to everything for you?
    Or could at the very least get you started in the right direction.
    If you think that it holds any bit of significance and relevance at all, I say share and just see where it goes from there

  • Bill

    Bill

    November 7th, 2016 at 12:50 PM

    Well said, Justin. This is the essence of all forms of psychodynamic therapy.

  • Jennifer

    Jennifer

    November 8th, 2016 at 7:55 AM

    You are essentially doing yourself a huge disservice if even you are willing to gloss over certain points. Everything in life happens for a reason,

  • Robert

    Robert

    November 8th, 2016 at 1:35 PM

    I’m a skeptic. There can’t be relevance in every single thing that has ever happened to you.

  • A.

    A.

    November 12th, 2016 at 5:44 AM

    Robert, no, certainly not every single detail pertains to relevance. This is why therapists are trained to do what they do, they see a possible puzzle piece, body language, a small flinch or upturn of the mouth toward smile. The point is, you go to therapy for self-discovery, not just to be “fixed”. An open heart and open mind allows one to safely explore every little thing in the event it does pertain to a key factor. My therapist has done this to me more times than me making my own connections.

  • Victoria

    Victoria

    November 11th, 2016 at 11:31 AM

    Therapy is something that you very much have to enter into with an open mind and an open heart.

    If this is not where you are in your life then therapy is not going to be an easy task for you nor will you ever get as much out of it as you probably could otherwise.

  • Anne G.

    Anne G.

    November 13th, 2016 at 2:50 AM

    What a great article. I agree entirely; insistence on sticking to a certain line of enquiry in therapy invites foreclosure and a closing off of opportunities for insight.

  • Dr. Jasmine

    Dr. Jasmine

    October 2nd, 2017 at 6:50 AM

    Informative article. Thank you.
    Dr. Jazz

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