Over the next few weeks, we will share articles with the aim to demystify psychotherapy. As therapists, we often hear our clients say that the hardest step for them was reaching out, scheduling the initial appointment, and sitting with uncertainties such as what will happen once they meet with the therapist and how will therapy help. We hope that our Demystifying Psychotherapy series puts those of you who are wondering about psychotherapy or feeling unclear about whether it is for you at greater ease.
We start with the most fundamental of questions, namely:
What is psychotherapy and why try it?
Ask ten therapists to define psychotherapy and you will hear a number of commonalities in their responses but also notice differences. The latter stem from the fact that there are multiple pathways to health and healing and a great diversity of psychotherapy traditions and modalities. This reflects the awe-inspiring complexity of the human experience and the thousands of years of effort to understand how people think, feel, and experience themselves, others, and their world.
In other words, there are many routes psychotherapists might take to guide their clients towards the nearly universal set of goals that bring clients to this process in the first place. What are those goals? People pursue psychotherapy because they want to lead connected, meaningful, and happy lives. It is worth noting that the decision to devote time and energy to making that possible is fundamentally a very healthy one. It is fascinating how our pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps culture has for some managed to twist this meaning, turning the sane and healthy decision to make a concerted effort to improve one’s life into a sign of weakness. If you are someone who judges themselves as weak for deciding to seek the help of a mental health professional, rest assured that your therapist will work with you on dismantling that belief as quickly as possible.
Psychotherapy is a collaborative process unfolding between the therapist and the client which entails the ongoing exploration of pathways and directions that are likely to be most effective in helping the client achieve their goals and the actual work and effort of taking the many steps involved. This may include increasing your understanding of yourself, accepting difficult parts of your past or present experience, learning how to alleviate your emotional distress, and making concrete changes that reflect your desires and aspirations. Importantly, the therapist is not the one doing all that – you are. It is, after all, your journey, and you are the first and foremost expert on your life. The therapist brings their professional knowledge, experience and presence to help you examine yourself, acquire new tools and insights, and to motivate and guide you when you feel lost or stuck.
This brings us to the central aspect of psychotherapy that mental health professionals tend to agree on, irrespective of their chosen theoretical orientation: the importance of a solid relationship between the therapist and the client. Stepping outside of your comfort zone to make meaningful changes in your life is risky emotional business. It will make you feel uneasy, raw and vulnerable at times – there can be no overcoming of our struggles without facing them head-on. This is why having a therapist who makes you feel comfortable and accepted, and who is genuinely committed to you and the effort you are making, is critical. Decades of research confirm that a strong alliance between the therapist and the client is one of the most important, if not the most important factor, in positive psychotherapy outcomes. This is why psychotherapy is not just a set of cookie-cutter techniques and insights, but a dynamic, authentic and caring collaboration between the professional and the client that is brought to life and animated by the client’s hopes and goals.
So why try it? Because it is a highly effective means of improving your mental health and overall wellbeing; because it is likely to make you a better human being – and thus a better partner, son or daughter, friend, and parent; because the pain you are in right now may be too much and something needs to change; because it fosters accountability and will help you not just make but also sustain positive changes in your life; because having a therapist in your life whose main mission is to help you achieve your personal goals and who believes in you can just feel just really wonderful. Find your own “because” and see for yourself if it is worth it.
In one of the next Demystifying Psychotherapy articles we will talk about having realistic expectations about the process; something you will learn if you decide to enter psychotherapy is that like with most meaningful efforts in life, this too requires patience and commitment. We will also talk about how to make the best use of psychotherapy.