Often times, the concept of therapy is a mystery to people. Many draw conclusions about what to expect from television shows, movies, books, other’s opinions, perceptions of medical professionals, etc. I have found it laughable at times when I have observed a therapy client depicted in a television show – the “therapist” on the show seems to be able to read the client’s mind, expects them to lay down on a couch, and provides loads of advice on what the client should do regarding the given situation. I feel this is a misrepresentation as to how therapy generally looks and as a way to demystify therapy, I would like to explore what therapy is and is not.
Therapy is not a meeting comprised of the therapist “fixing” all of the client’s problems. Instead, depending on personal style, the therapist will use different techniques to facilitate a person to resolve their own problems. This is done through a collaborative process with the ultimate goal being to empower the client. This means that the therapist equips the client to be able to respond in certain ways to internal and external experiences, thus fostering awareness and change outside of the therapy room. Part of empowerment is to unconditionally accept the client. When the client is able to experience unconditional acceptable, a person is able to make themselves vulnerable both to the therapist and to themselves. Defensiveness is able to resolve so that the person can begin to change behaviors that feel problematic.
Therapy is a process. It is complex and requires time. Many therapists follow the rule of thumb that a client’s difficulty generally takes at least the amount of time it has been present to resolve, if not longer. Although not all therapists practice based upon this idea (as many therapists practice brief therapy), it is important to remember that human experiences are complex. This is why it is not always easy for individuals to work through their issues on their own, advice from others doesn’t work, and they end up seeking therapy. It is hard to rush the process of change, and individuals must navigate it at a pace that fits for them.
Therapy does not require individuals to be laying down on a couch in order to elicit and experience change. Clients do, however, need to share their experiences with their therapist. Effectiveness of therapy depends greatly on the relationship that the client develops with his/her therapist, so this requires opening up. As I mentioned, sometimes it can take a while for a person to open up. However, that’s why clients should typically stick with therapy for at least several sessions before determining whether or not it is benefitting them.
Contrary to the belief of some, therapists are not mind readers. They have, however, been trained to be empathic – one of the core ingredients of therapy. This training allows for the therapist to gain a deep understanding of a person and to convey this understanding to the client. Through this interaction, clients can begin the process of understanding themselves and start walking the path of healing and change.
A common misconception is that the therapist is going to make some analysis as to why the client is the way they are and attempt to break down their “defense mechanisms” to get them to see what they are actually doing. Although it is true that a therapist may wish to foster a level of awareness that facilitates change, a therapist is more like a guide who tentatively points to different hypotheses regarding sources of distress, behavior, or emotions. The client is encouraged to accept or reject such hypotheses based on whether it fits or not.
Therapy is also not an experience where the client freely talks and the therapist responds by saying “mmhmm” and nothing else. The therapist is real person who acts genuine and authentic. As social beings, humans define themselves through relationships. This means we make sense of ourselves, who we are, how we think and feel directly through relating with another person. It would be difficult to speak about one’s deepest thoughts and feelings to a robotic therapist! Instead, a genuine and authentic therapist is fully present and fully themselves with the client during the session.
In conclusion, therapy is a collaborative endeavor between the client and the therapist. It is comprised of a relationship where the client feels understood and unconditionally accepted by the therapist who is also a real person in the room. The process of therapy includes facilitating self awareness and change through learning the sources of problematic experiences and gaining empowerment to change responses to them. This is achieved by experiencing the core ingredients of therapy and through various techniques utilized by therapists. Many of these techniques foster change by facilitating a new way of responding and being.