Imagine with me for a moment that you’ve never been in a traditional classroom before. Perhaps you’ve been homeschooled your entire life, or you’ve lived in a country that doesn’t have American-style schooling. You know of others who have been in school, all with mixed results. You’ve seen school portrayed on television, but you wouldn’t want your experience to be anything close to what’s shown on the screen.
For many people, that is what their views of therapy are like, particularly if they've never attended a therapy session. You may have a general idea of what therapy is supposed to look like, which is often informed by friends and the media. Today, I’m hoping to set the record straight.
What should I expect from therapy?
In a basic and traditional sense, psychotherapy involves sitting across from a trained professional (psychologist, counselor, or social worker) who asks questions and offers you tools to improve your mental health. I like one therapist’s simple explanation of therapy as a place to define the problems that plague you, figure out what can be done to change your situation, deal with the underlying roadblocks that are getting in the way of resolution, and help you gain the confidence and courage to change.
But this basic description barely scratches the surface of what therapy and your therapist can represent in your life. Therapy is a place to be seen and known and to learn the fundamental truth that you are not alone. Therapy involves a journey – often arduous and sometimes exhausting, but ultimately rewarding you with the gift of a changed life.
Here are some general ideas about what therapy is:
Therapy is a place to heal relationally. Wounds happen in relationships, and therefore must be healed in relationship. The relationship you have with your therapist can become one of the most important relationships in your life. Similarly, group therapy can offer a catalyst for healing through interactions with other group members.
Therapy is intended to be a safe environment for understanding and growth. In the therapy office, you are encouraged to share emotions and experiences that have been painful or difficult. You can talk about the darkest corners of your life, the areas that feel the most private, and know that your therapist not only holds your story in confidence, but also accepts you as you are.
Therapy is meant to challenge your thoughts, worldview, and patterns. Often, in the course of therapy, you’ll be challenged by your therapist to view patterns of relating or thoughts that are destroying your life. You may be clinging to certain coping strategies, hoping they will eventually work. But as the common adage in Alcoholics Anonymous states, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Your therapist can provide a fresh set of eyes that offer an alternative perspective. This challenge creates clarity in your values and decisions.
Therapy is about empowerment. Often, you walk into a therapy office because you feel powerless against your thoughts, behaviors, feelings, or circumstances. Therapy is meant to give you the resources and support to regain confidence in your life.
Therapy is about acceptance and patience. Healing in therapy will likely take longer than you would wish. Part of therapy is learning to trust the process and grow in patience with the way change happens: slowly over time. An image that represents therapy well is this: you and your therapist are miners in a deep cave. Most of the time it feels like you’re just moving piles of dirt, and your therapist suggests which piles to sift through. Eventually though, in all the sifting, you’ll find glints of something gold.
Similarly, here’s what therapy is not:
Therapy is not a magical solution, a quick fix, or a guaranteed promise of an outcome. Be wary of therapists who make these types of promises or guarantees. The tools therapists teach are truly meant to bring lasting change to your life and your relationships. However, the biggest factor of what causes change in therapy is your motivation and willingness to put in the work to get there. Implementing skills and tools learned in therapy is crucial in seeing lasting change.
Therapy is not just getting advice from an expert. As your therapist gets to know you better and understands your life and circumstances, you will be led to explore options for yourself and make your own personal decisions. This often happens over the course of long-term therapy: the more time you and your therapist spend exploring the narratives of your life, the more clear your decisions and next steps will become.
Therapy is not intended to be a place where you end up more wrecked than healed. It is true that often at the beginning of therapy, you’ll feel a bit worse before beginning to feel better. That is a natural result of talking through painful experiences, both present and past. But if a therapist pressures you to uncover repressed traumatic memories or share beyond what you’re comfortable, that’s a red flag. The point of therapy is to create safety and comfort around talking about those deeper issues, not create further trauma by forcing you to go further than what feels safe.
Therapy is not a way to blame others for everything that’s gone wrong in your life. The stereotype of therapy is that the blame always falls on the parents for the child’s problems. While childhood and family experiences are part of what’s discussed in therapy, there are many other factors that play a role in mental health issues that affect you today. The goal of therapy is to learn to take responsibility for yourself and the changes you can make so that your actions moving forward reflect a more wholehearted life.
Ultimately, my goal as a therapist is to create a safe environment for you to explore the many facets of your life experience in order to create your more grounded and authentic way of living.
Have you always been a little bit afraid to try counseling? Have you seen depictions of therapy in the media, or heard stories from your friends about their experiences? At Restored Hope, I’d love to dispel those myths about therapy and give you the opportunity to experience the gifts and benefits that counseling can offer you. Give my Ann Arbor office a call at 734.656.8191 or fill out the form here to hear more about how therapy can help you.