You don’t go to therapy
“Do you go to therapy?” I hear this question often, but this week it hit me in a new way. I want to explore what you might not know about therapy, and what you can do about it.
THERAPY MIGHT NOT DO WHAT YOU THINK IT DOES
Let’s start with some assumptions about what therapy is supposed to do. Here’s some common ones that come to mind:
- Therapy gives me “tools” to handle relationships.
- Therapy gives me advice to solve problems.
- Therapy helps me control my thoughts and feelings.
These things – the tools, advice, etc. – can happen in therapy. Sometimes these things are helpful. But, these “things” are a lot like features on an airplane. You might appreciate the wifi, peanuts, or leg-room offered. However when we only talk about these things we might not fully realize that something else is going on: you’re flying.
What is it we miss when we talk about “therapy”?
THERAPY IS A THERAPIST
Unlike a surgeon or dentist, therapy is not an appointment where the professional remains removed and offers you a service. It is a relationship with a real person who devotes himself fully to joining your experience in a new way.
Sound a little too close for comfort?
It’s sometimes easier to talk about “therapy” than a “relationship with a therapist”. Yet it’s important to know that there’s more to this thing than peanuts and leg-room.
So why is the relationship important?
We are relational creatures. Modern neuroscientists like Daniel Siegel and Daniel Stern tell us our brains are built to grow and develop in the context of rich social relationships. This means we don’t grow through advice and tools. We grow through a certain kind of relationship that helps us thrive. Essentially, the therapeutic relationship is the central thing happening when we go to therapy. The relationship with a therapist is the flying plane that gets you to your destination.
So, you might be asking, what does a therapeutic relationship help us do?
- Practice for other relationships. Seeing a therapist builds new procedural memory, like riding a bike or playing tennis. The dialogue that happens in the therapy office helps us learn new ways of relating with others and ourselves.
- Regulation of emotion. The practice of expressing emotion with a therapist helps us to experience our emotional life as balanced and interpersonal.
- Long-term change. As we know from parenting studies, caring relationships have the power to form and develop interpersonal capacities that help us pursue positive relationships and a purposeful life.
THERAPISTS ARE DIFFERENT
If it’s more true that we “go to a therapist”, then the person of the therapist is the most important thing. More than a degree or letters behind a name, the therapist himself will make the difference for you as you sit across from her week after week. Each therapist will respond to you and your story in a completely unique way. You could see two therapists, both trained in cognitive-behavioral therapy from the same school and have a completely different experience with each.
WHY DOES THIS MATTER?
When you’re not distracted by the “features” of therapy (the degrees, the approach, fees), you’re free to focus on finding the right therapist for you. And finding the right therapist makes all the difference.
- Shop for a therapist, not therapy. Who you choose is important. If you’re looking for a therapist, look less at the person’s approach or degree (though those things can be helpful) and follow your intuition. You should feel comfortable and safe to express yourself with your therapist.
- Consider looking outside your insurance plan. Your insurance plan does not know what therapist you’ll do the best work with. If the relationship is the most central aspect of your treatment, then therapy with an in-network person that you don’t connect with will be unhelpful. Consider trying some therapists outside your network to explore other options.
I want to help you take a step forward. Let’s schedule a free 15-minute consultation to talk about where you’re needing help in your life right now.