By Joy Birnbach Dunstan, MA, LPC, MAC
What is Psychotherapy Anyway?
Few professions have as many misconceptions or are as shrouded in mystery as psychotherapy. People who might benefit from it hesitate to come in because they’re unsure what therapy involves. Potential clients have expressed concern that they were nervous to seek help because they think therapy is just for crazy people. I tell them the crazy people are those folks who are struggling with distressing feelings and don’t come in for help.
As part of discovering just what psychotherapy is, let’s start by mentioning a few things it is not.
Therapy is not advice-giving. Sometimes clients come in hoping for me to give them solutions to their problems. That’s not what I do. We all have our own answers inside, and through the therapeutic process, a person learns to listen to their own inner wisdom and figure out what works best for them. If I were to provide a solution, it would be what might work best for me, not necessarily anyone else. If it did work for them, I would get the credit, and if it didn’t, I would get the blame. Therapy is about getting in touch with your inherent wisdom and strength and taking responsibility for your own life.
Therapy is not about being made to feel good. There’s much more to therapy than just being cheered on by a supportive and nurturing person. As a matter of fact, sometimes in the process, you might feel worse before you feel better. If you’ve suppressed feelings or denied truths for a long time, addressing these issues may put you in touch with emotions that are uncomfortable. You can’t heal what you don’t feel. Through therapy, you’ll gain perspective and insight that allow you to work through these emotions in a safe and healing manner.
A therapist is not the same as a friend (nor is a friend the same as a therapist). Few things can strain a friendship faster than constantly dumping your problems on a friend. If you’ve got some serious issues, take them outside your social circle to someone who is trained to be helpful and can be supportive and objective without being emotionally involved.
So what exactly is therapy? Psychotherapy is a process of becoming more aware of yourself. It helps you recognize and understand the parts of you that want or do things that make the rest of you unhappy. Through therapy, you learn to make conscious choices and build skills to do things differently. This can make the difference between living life with intentionality vs. letting life just happen to you. A therapist offers a safe, supportive environment to explore different aspects of yourself and gain insights about your motivations and behaviors. In therapy you may also learn such things as communication skills to better express yourself to others and stress management skills for coping and relaxing.
Just as a carpenter needs more than just a hammer, I believe a therapist needs a variety of tools to help different people with different issues. In my practice, I use a blend of several styles, or theoretical orientations, to address issues on all levels: cognitive, emotional, physical, and spiritual. Every person is a unique individual who benefits from a slightly different approach. For example, some people operate primarily from their intellect and need to develop their emotional side, while others are primarily emotional and need to develop cognitive skills. Often, people have a strong reliance on one area to avoid uncomfortable issues in other areas (e.g. focusing on spirituality to avoid feeling emotional pain).
Regardless of technique, the most powerful healing factor is the relationship between therapist and client. That’s why I generally offer an initial consultation at no cost so that we can meet and assess whether it feels like a positive working arrangement. If you’ve got some areas in your life which are not working, consider giving yourself the gift of asking for help. Feel free to call or email with any questions you might have on this or any other psychology-focused topic.
(Ed. Note: Joy is a practicing psychotherapist in Ajijic. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Master Addictions Counselor. Please note: She has a new phone number: 766-4265 for receiving comments about this or other psychological issues. E-mail remains the same: email@example.com