How Therapy Works: Understanding the Therapeutic Process
What does it mean to go to therapy? How does therapy work, and what should you expect from the therapeutic process? In this article, I’ll explain more about the therapeutic journey, the parts of yourself you might explore in therapy, and the importance of the relationship between you and your therapist.
The Misconception About Therapeutic Tools
Over the years, I have heard many of my clients say that they would like to find concrete solutions to their problems, receive clear advice on how to address particular issues, and collect ‘therapeutic tools’.
When I hear the word ‘tools’ I see a picture in my mind of a construction worker who fixes buildings and makes everything neat again. When their work is done the building might be pleasant to look at, with no evidence of the previous flaws. It would be convenient and less exhausting if emotional problems could be solved in this way.
However, I do believe that this view limits the possibilities that therapy could offer to a person.
Perhaps therapy is more about seeing the “house” with all its flaws, while at the same time exploring different rooms and recognising that the “flaws” are only a part of the house.
In the same way, the therapeutic process is not always clear cut. It involves exploring different aspects of yourself, even the less desirable parts; the cracks you might want to cover up with plaster. It’s not about correcting these parts of yourself, but about fostering a greater understanding and acceptance of them.
Therapy Can Be Messy
Therapy can often be a messy process. You might experience it as a struggle. It might make you feel confused and leave you feeling emotionally exhausted and fragile at times.
The reality is that therapeutic change frequently emerges from the messiness. The therapeutic journey is unique to each person. Therefore, it’s impossible to predict exactly what it might reveal. You might have an idea of the types of things you would like to discuss during your session, but new things often emerge from the interaction.
The Process Elements of Therapy
Amongst other things, the process elements of therapy include:
- Listening to unconscious content
- Making space for the expression of emotions
- Focusing on the relationship between you and your therapist, and
- Enabling a process of self-exploration
Together with listening to the explicit content of what you share, your therapist might listen to the unconscious emotions and ideas you might be revealing about yourself. In other words, a therapy session might reveal those rooms within yourself that have remained unexplored or left in the dark.
Through exploring these parts of yourself deep within your psyche, you might discover unexpected inner resources which can guide you to deal with issues in a more helpful way.
So your therapist might not fix your problems in a direct way, but might help you to connect to your own inner wisdom and help you to tolerate difficult feelings and experiences.
It might sound like a strange idea, but people learn and grow through the process of being allowed to explore and express unresolved feelings. Your therapist often acts as a container into which emotions can be poured, much the same as liquid can be transferred from one cup to another.
In sessions, your therapist holds certain emotions temporarily on your behalf, which can ease your load and eventually help you to acknowledge and deal with difficult emotions in a more helpful manner.
Transference and the Importance of the Client-Therapist Relationship
Therapy furthermore involves exploring the relationship between you and your therapist. The word ‘transference’ is often used in psychology to express what happens within this relationship and to describe the parts of yourself you might unknowingly project onto your therapist.
The type of interaction you have with your therapist and the kinds of feelings this dynamic evokes in you, might reveal the type of relationships you foster with other people in your life and might even give you insight into the neglected parts of yourself that you, perhaps, project onto other people.
We all project unwanted parts of ourselves onto other people. Sometimes these parts of ourselves are too difficult to tolerate on our own. We need the other who can hold these parts of ourselves before we are ready to acknowledge them within ourselves.
Most therapists would agree that the relationship between the client and therapist is the most important part of the therapeutic process. It is through the mechanism of this relationship that most of the growth and change takes place.
Through this relationship, clients learn to relate to themselves and other people in a more loving and constructive way. The word ‘corrective emotional experience’ is often used to refer to a healing therapeutic relationship, where clients are allowed a more constructive connection than what they may have experienced in their earlier lives.
The Therapeutic Journey
Therapy is therefore a rich journey of exploration, discovery and deeper connection. It does not merely entail receiving advice and specific solutions or tools. Rather, it allows you to work through difficulties on many different levels.
The therapeutic process is about opening up new doors and windows and allowing some air to move through the house. It is not merely a systematic method of fixing broken shelves and walls, but more a process of creating, expressing and illuminating the ‘house’ of the psyche.