The ABC's of Psychotherapy
 
Tuesday, November 24, 2009

By: Terry Tempinski, Ph.D.

Deciding to pursue therapy, finding a therapist, making that first call and keeping that appointment are, from my perspective, huge and courageous steps. Moreover, these initial steps are usually taken partially in the dark, so to speak. You do not know this person, you have no clue as to whether they can help you, and here you are deciding to lay out for them intimate details about your personal life and struggles!

People typically have all sorts of questions and concerns in beginning psychotherapy. Here I will attempt to address some of these.

1) Your Passion for Health:

I touch on courage, above, first because it is a combination of your courage and desire to be your most healthy self that are the biggest indicators of success in psychotherapy. If you think of psychotherapy as a journey to become your healthiest self, your courage and passion for health can best be understood as the gasoline in your car. This is not to say that you even need a clear picture of your desired destination or goals; in starting psychotherapy, it is not uncommon for people to feel confused about why they have even come. They might just have a strong sense that they could potentially feel much better. So, in short, if you can supply the gasoline, the trip is a go!

It is this hopefully passionate sense of wanting to feel better that is, in my opinion, the single best predictor of success in psychotherapy.

2)The Work of Therapy:

The work of the therapy is a journey that requires something from both the individual and the therapist. It is the individual’s responsibility to make a commitment to the therapy such that he/she comes to appointments with regularity and promptness and does their best to openly share their thoughts and feelings. It is the therapist’s job to reciprocate with promptness, reliability and a commitment to the work and, moreover, to use their analytic skills.

We work with the assumption that, regardless of what an individual is struggling with, there are reasons for the struggles which can be uncovered, appreciated and resolved. To do this, the therapist must listen and understand.......not only what the person is communicating on a conscious level, but - more importantly - what he/she is conveying at a deeper, unconscious, level. It is this understanding that helps to resolve what we call conflicts (eg., struggles between what the person consciously wants for themselves and what tends to evolve for them due to unconscious, unresolved matters). As you can see, the essence of the therapeutic work is analytical and introspective.

This process of understanding that is the work of the therapy needs to take place both on an intellectual plane and an emotional plane.

3)The Relationship with the Therapist:

The task of developing an intellectual understanding of our feelings is the easy part. Developing an emotional understanding and working through our difficult emotions is the hard part ......... and that is where the relationship with the therapist is critical!

Perhaps you have been to therapy and left feeling the same, but smarter. One step along the way in therapy is that people begin to intellectually grasp all the reasons they have felt so unhappy. They will say, “I think I understand now why I have been so unhappy, but I still feel the same.” This means that there is yet another step left; it is this step that comprises the “guts” of the therapy. This is the process of “working through” or resolving the feelings which have been uncovered. It is the difficult nature of this process that explains why therapy takes time. Difficult feelings cannot be overcome or resolved in the blink of an eye, no more than a truly bereaved individual can overcome their loss in a brief period.

It is this phase of the therapy that involves an intimate working with the therapist to get through the difficult feelings. On this journey, the therapist will alternatively be perceived with mixed feelings, sometimes nudging you toward feelings you would rather sidestep or even toward ideas you vehemently disagree with. Hopefully, for the most part, however you feel warmly understood. The therapist is like a trustworthy friend and tour guide who knows the terrain well, has no fear, and can help you find your way through confusing, overwhelming emotions.

4) The Myth About Our Childhoods:

Many people are discouraged about the fact that they have had difficult or traumatic childhoods. There is a perception that when one suffers greatly as a child, that he/she is permanently damaged. While this does happen in some instances, the opposite is also true. Stories abound of people who have had horrible beginnings and come out of them smelling-like-a rose, so to speak. Ideally, therapy helps people master and recover from early life wounds so that they are free of those experiences.


In my experience, a central determinant in one’s prognosis is not what type of childhood one has had, but - rather - what one does with their experiences.

5) Why Don’t Those Self-Help Books I Read Help?

Self-help books are great, and I do believe they do help many people. For the most part, they drive the message home that one has control of one’s life to make of it what one wants. Nothing could be more true! Positive thinking, the value of meditation and the gift of spirituality are all potentially very helpful. However, one should not feel discouraged if learning about these things does not change how you feel. It does not mean things are hopeless, and it certainly does not mean you are not trying hard enough. Rather, it simply means that there are feelings that need to be resolved before you can begin implementing and benefitting from these concepts and practices. Fortunately, or unfortunately, however you choose to see it, our psyche’s do not allow us to forever ignore our unresolved issues and feelings. At some point they raise their head. We then have the choice of whether to confront and master them or not. If we cannot bring ourselves to tackle them, they will continue to burden us. When we choose to master them, therapy can help us on this journey. In my experience, it is toward the end of people’s therapy that they typically begin benefitting from the power of positive thinking. They are then freer to pursue and implement all sorts of healthful influences into their lives and to creatively become their best selves.



Author : Terry Tempinski Ph.D.
Dr. Tempinski is a clinical psychologist with more than 25 years experience treating adult individuals. She is fully licensed in the state of Michigan. Her solo private practice has been designed with the goal of maximizing client confidentiality. To learn more about Dr. Terry Tempinski please click here.