One of my teachers at Pacifica Graduate Institute called psychotherapy “the hope manufacturing business.” And frankly, if my first meetings with a therapist left me feeling dejected, I’d likely think that person was pretty lousy at her or his job. Psychotherapy is time-consuming, expensive, and shines a spotlight on the painful stuff we have difficulty getting over on our own. Most of us are pretty miserable before we seek help from a therapist. And most of us go to therapy because we believe if we change, we’ll feel better, if not actually become a better person.
It takes courage to admit to a complete stranger how you are suffering and all the things you don’t like about yourself. The entire enterprise goes against the status quo of maintaining appearances as a likable, full-functioning, if not enviable person.
Yet working with a talented therapist (or social worker or life coach) trained in helping people get unstuck and living growth-centered lives can be positively life-changing.
Whether you are in therapy, or just contemplating seeking help, I’d like to give two suggestions for how to get the most out of the experience. One piece of advice is about beginnings, and the other is about endings. Both are about taking leaps of faith, which are central to growth-centered living, and thus apply to almost all types of beginnings and endings, but especially if you have a history of trauma.
Whereas it’s a good idea to know what you hope to get out of therapy — or any significant effort at change — this isn’t the real starting point. Rather, acceptance of yourself as you are — proverbial warts and all — is what gets the process going. I say this to save you time and money, but also so you’ll stop beating yourself up if you believe you need to be ‘fixed’. Self-judgment is the death knell of both happiness and deep, transformative change.
Nonjudgmental self-acceptance runs counter to the common habit of comparing oneself to others, which serves status-driven societies and the continual pursuit of MORE STUFF (and not happiness). Constant comparison is a zero-sum game. Think about it: If in the morning you compare yourself to another and judge yourself superior, by the afternoon you will have also found someone far superior to yourself. This is the golden rule of judgment: eventually, the overarching eye of comparison comes critically back at you.
Often when people seek therapy, they are overwhelmed by self-judgment, warring within themselves (as well as with others). They believe they should feel a certain way, or act a certain way, or want certain things. They may even be trying really hard to be the person they should be, but damn if something doesn’t keep getting in their way.
I say to this: Welcome to humanity. Internal conflict is common, especially in a society like America in which unspoken taboos restrain and dictate how we express ourselves, particularly around past traumas like childhood abuse, or painful emotions, such as shame, sadness, and anger. We learn early to split off and ignore aspects of ourselves just to fit in, if not also function.
Limiting self-expression is not necessarily repressive. Privacy still has its merits, even in the era of the Internet. Furthermore, to create cohesion within a group or culture requires some limits on its members.
Yet when people seek help from a therapist, often what has been silenced are the emotions, beliefs, and body sensations associated with big hurts such as neglect, bullying, assault, rape and other forms of abuse that people are often afraid to talk about because of fear of judgment, which likely would provoke feelings of shame. Usually there’s also pain, fear, self-incrimination, and feelings of betrayal that understandably most people want to avoid. When these are the kinds of reasons for seeking therapy, then safely (and sometimes slowly) bringing into awareness what has been avoided or denied is the work of therapy.
When we can acknowledge all of ourselves and what we feel, without pushing anything away or clinging to anything, we tend to act in a more integrated fashion, not against ourselves or others. (The habit of constant comparison also becomes a lot less interesting.)
Being human is a fallible and messy enterprise, especially when traumatic stress is thrown in the mix. Critical self-judgment rarely helps. But curiosity does. Better to approach therapy (or any effort to change, grow, or learn) with the attitude that you will accept first, change second. With the support of your therapist, give yourself time to observe how you organize experience and approach relationships. Such nonjudgmental awareness will actually get the process going much more smoothly and much more quickly. (And if you can’t accept yourself, accept that! Don’t judge the judging.) Likely, you will see you make more sense than you think. And hopefully, you will also take a leap of faith and trust you are lovable and deserving of love, no matter what has happened to you, or what you have done as a result of being overwhelmed by traumatic stress.
The goal of therapy should not be to avoid pain, but rather to change your relationship with pain, and thus how you suffer. Bad times are going to happen. Count on it. Suffering is going to happen. Count on it. Perhaps the best any of us can do is witness the present with nonjudgmental curiosity and openness to all its possibilities.
Another valuable approach to therapy for both therapists and clients alike involves focusing at the start on the end of therapy. You don’t need to articulate this inevitability every session, but it’s good to keep in mind, and revisit regularly. Regardless of how long therapy takes, it’s wise to regularly envision how you hope to feel and think about yourself at the end, as well as give attention to how you want to experience relationships and community without the support of your therapist.
Because this is the thing — therapy, like efforts to get unstuck (whether stuck in grief, depression, anxiety, fear, addiction, or an abusive relationship) is ultimately about letting go and moving on. But as you do the work of letting go of self-defeating habits and old defenses, and watch yourself grow stronger and more integrated, you may also grow pretty fond of having someone there to help you and cheer you on. And your therapist will likely grow pretty fond of you, too.
The bond between therapist and client might be compared to the person learning to paraglide (see photo above). When people first learn to paraglide, they don’t just walk to the edge of a cliff with parachutes attached to their backs and jump. Absolutely not! First, an experienced paraglider shows a student how the equipment works, demonstrates the basics of flight, and encourages attempts on small hills. Often, the teacher gets in the harness with the novice, and teaches techniques for a good and safe flight, as well as how to land safely.
A good therapist, like a good paraglider instructor, also keeps in mind that eventual solo flight. Yet too often, the dynamic between therapist and client loses focus on going solo. Rather than a guide, the therapist becomes like a parent to a perpetual child, continually activating unfulfilled attachment needs. In many regards, that’s okay; it’s part of the process. Therapy relies on the human capacity to revisit old hurts and unmet needs with openness and vulnerability, which can make us feel (and act) like children again. But like the would-be paraglider, these efforts need to be directed towards the eventual solo flight. And until you take that solo flight, you probably aren’t really a paraglider. Although once you do, then not only are you a paraglider, you are also part of the tribe of paragliders. Similarly, isn’t the goal of therapy to help a person feel part of the tribe, specifically the human tribe?
I like that the term tribe has been refashioned in the modern world as a way to suggest relatedness, interdependency, and shared purpose. However, even though dependency is central to membership in a tribe, the focus is on interdependency, which is not modeled by the therapeutic relationship, or at least it shouldn’t be.
Since psychotherapy often involves working with unmet attachment needs, it inevitably stimulates dependency. This is important to the work, and even points to how a person gets stuck, and what stands in the way of growth. Yet feelings of dependency can also cause a client to postpone the necessary leap of faith back into the tribe, and life without therapy. Therapy can also inadvertently contribute to treating relationships, and other people in general, as sources for meeting dependency needs and not as opportunities for interdependency and relatedness.
Growing into ourselves invariably involves loss and breaking with the past. Perhaps the modern world’s failure to provide meaningful rituals that demarcate the end of childhood from the beginning of adult life has hampered our collective and personal capacities for letting go and accepting irrevocable change. And yet it is our ability (or inability) for dealing with loss that often determines how we get stuck and for how long, as well as our courage to take leaps of faith when the time is right.
As we learn to take leaps of faith into our most authentic selves, and fully commit to the people who share our dreams and our lives, we also let go of what is no longer part of who we are becoming, which can include letting go of a cherished and supportive therapist. At such times, it’s good to remember that just because something is painful doesn’t mean it’s unnatural or should be avoided (which is probably why birthing metaphors have a way of popping up during transition points like the end of therapy).
More than the stuff that dreams are made of, we are the stuff our relationships make of us. Really good therapy brings our attention to this reality, and teaches us how to feel safe both alone and with others. But growth also requires creative solitude and the willingness to risk individuation, including flying solo. And when you risk loving yourself this much, you will soar, and bring an equally freeing love to the world.
Laura K. Kerr, PhD, IMFT is a mental health scholar and registered marriage & family therapist intern in the San Francisco Bay Area. For more information, visit her website.