A new client, visibly uneasy.
She’s been to therapy before but never had a good experience.
One therapist was mostly silent, which made her anxious.
Another gave her articles to read about feelings and relationships. It felt like school, she says.
A third shared so much about her own personal life that my client felt impelled to comfort the therapist. (This was especially disappointing because she has a history of getting lost in relationships.)
And one, an older man, actually dozed off in session.
(“What did you do?” I ask. “Waited for him to wake up.” she shrugs)
She asks me how I do therapy.
She asks this near the end of the hour.
I answer briefly, but promise more in writing.
The next day I send her this.
The goal of therapy
A client once asked me what I thought the goal of therapy was. The question startled me. No one ever asked me that before, and not being able to answer immediately made me feel like a jerk.
But I thought about it, and what came to me was something Michelangeo said about being a sculptor.
The sculptor’s job, he said, was to free the statue from the stone.
So I told my client that, and that I see the therapist’s job as similar.
“The therapist’s job is to help the client scrape away everything that isn’t really him/her,” I said. “All the defenses, all the false beliefs and assumptions, all the unnecessary anxieties and fear.”
I still like that analogy. My job is to help people locate their real selves, and then to help them to be their real selves out in the world.
You and I have already talked some about why that’s hard to do.
As children we each learn a Plan A that is basically distorted, an overgeneralization from our childhood experiences. If Dad is angry and scary, we learn to fear and avoid all angry people. If Mom calls us “stupid” we believe it’s true, even though what Mom says may have less to do with our limitations than her own. And so on.
So we all grow up hypnotized into believing things which simply aren’t true, about ourselves and other people and feelings and relationships.
The work of therapy is to scrape away that trance, to wake up and see things as they really are.
How do we do that?
The experience of therapy
I’m a great believer in what I call corrective emotional experience.
I think one way to scrape away the false beliefs of Plan A is by replacing them with new experiences.
For example, some people grow up surrounded by abusive or scary people, which led them to see relationships as dangerous. The job of therapy is to teach such people that relationship can be safe and comforting.
Some people grow up learning that expressing how they feel leads to discomfort or rejection. Therapy’s job is to teach them that, in a healthy relationship, expressing feelings can make you feel more comfortable and more connected, not less.
Some people (like the kid whose Mom calls her stupid) grow up with distorted views of themselves, both their weaknesses and their strengths. Therapy’s job is to replace that with a more realistic view of themselves, by providing a less distorted mirror — i.e., the therapist.
Those are all corrective emotional experiences.
It’s what helped me in therapy.
I went into it not liking myself very much.
Luckily my therapist liked me more.
And over time she taught me to see myself as she did.
The method of therapy
So how do we create corrective emotional experiences?
There are many ways.
The most fundamental is to make the therapeutic relationship as safe and predictable as possible.
We meet regularly, at the same time if possible, for the same length of time, and for a fee that does not change.
We meet in private, and I promise you confidentiality, i.e., not to disclose anything we talk about. (The only exceptions to confidentiality are if I think you’re in danger of hurting yourself, hurting someone else, or if a judge orders me.)
Though it sometimes feels like other kinds of relationship — friendship, for example, or parent/child — our relationship is strictly professional. That means it serves your needs and focuses on your feelings, not mine.
I work for you. You owe me nothing but to show up for appointments, pay your fee, and be as honest with me as you can.
Most of the time I won’t share my own personal life with you. If I do (as I did above, by mentioning my own therapy), I will do it only because I think it will help you in some way.
These may seem like small matters, but they’re not. They are essential to creating a relationship that’s safe, predictable and therapeutic.
Feelings in therapy
I was trained as a Gestaltist. Gestalt therapists believe that we are self-regulating organisms who develop emotional and psychological problems when we interrupt our own natural self-regulating behaviors — expressing feelings, for example.
Most of us learn as children that expressing feelings can be risky in a number of ways. Our feelings may make others uncomfortable, and they may respond with defensiveness or judgment or anger or rejection or even abuse. Which, of course, teaches us to hide our feelings, to shut down.
So the basic goal of Gestalt therapy is to provide a place where the client can unlearn that defensive reaction, and express feelings without fear or shame.
This is usually easier said than done. The Inner Child (you may remember reading about her) is usually convinced that expressing feelings is dangerous, and it can take her a long time to believe otherwise.
But I can think of nothing more healing and empowering than regaining what we each had at birth — the ability to listen to feelings, identify them, trust them, and express them in healthy ways.
In short, to be your emotionally authentic self.