How Does Psychotherapy Work? (5 Ways Psychotherapy Can Help You Grow)
I get this question a lot in my practice. Questions like: “Does this actually work?” “How can you help me?” “How long will I need to wait before I start to see results?” are common, too. These are all important questions to address before the start of therapy because if you ask ten different therapists these same questions you might find that you get ten different answers. This is because there are countless different schools and theories of psychotherapy, each with their own understandings of how humans develop and how change can happen. Here I will outline my understanding of the 5 most important ways psychotherapy can affect change in our lives.
1. Psychotherapy allows you to devote 50 minutes a week to focus on yourself.
Often in this fast paced culture we live in it can be difficult to find time for self-care. So often I hear of clients who are struggling to keep up with all the expectations people have of them in their lives. Many work stressful jobs where they focus on the needs of their boss and coworkers, are in relationships where they are constantly thinking of their partner’s needs, and navigating all the expectations that life throws at us in life around finances, relationships, family, and on and on. With all this focus outside of ourselves, when do we take the time to focus internally on the state of our emotions, thoughts, desires, and needs?
Many people only become aware of their emotional states when something is wrong, when some symptom erupts into consciousness to the point where it can’t be ignored. Underneath the most obvious signals from our inner states, there is a world of internal motivations, conscious and unconscious thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and dreams. If we take the time to become intimately connected with our internal states, then we can navigate much easier in the stressors of our day to day lives. Psychotherapy is a commitment to spending 50 minutes once a week to check in on our internal states. With a compassionate guide at your side, taking the time to focus on yourself, even for just under an hour a week can be extremely beneficial.
2. Psychotherapy creates the space within which you can heal.
Psychotherapy is the safe container where healing can happen. Why do you put a band-aid on your finger after you cut yourself? The band-aid does not heal the cut itself, instead, we clean and dress the wound so that the right conditions are created for the body to heal itself. The blood will clot on its own and the tissue will re-grow and repair itself only when the right conditions are created for the body to do what it knows how to do best. The same is true of mental health and healing - your psyche knows how to grow and how to heal itself, but it just needs the right conditions within which it can do its work.
In psychotherapy we create a safe, compassionate, curious, and grounded space, which is carefully tuned to provide the conditions which best allow you to heal and grow. Just as a cut finger knows how to heal but just needs the right protection and conditions in order to regrow the damaged tissue, you already have the internal capacity and tendency towards healing, you just need the right conditions within which you can thrive. In psychotherapy we reconnect with your inherent wisdom and knowledge of how best to heal, and we create the space to allow you to heal and grow in the direction you wish.
3. Psychotherapy allows us to uncover how past experiences affect the present.
The past lives in the present. Our minds, bodies and psyches are deeply affected by the past processes they have undergone, and our past experiences shape our awareness and understanding of our present lives. For some this means that past hurts keep showing up in unexpected ways. It can be frustrating to think we are over something just to encounter its hurt again and again. Psychotherapy can help us ask questions about our past in a new way, helping us uncover subtle or obvious influences from the past that might still color our perception of reality.
Especially in the realm of relationship, but also in all aspects of life, we find that past experience leads us to expect certain results, and we are often bracing against or yearning towards some experience in our past that we expect to recreate in the present. Further, past experiences of trauma live quite literally in our bodies, in the form of physiological and neurological tension and distress. Uncovering the lessons of the past and their influence on our lives is vital to gain a clear picture of the present.
4. Psychotherapy allows you to speak your mind.
This may seem like a simple fact, but many times I have experienced how just taking a thought pattern that has been circling around the mind and speaking it out loud to another person can drastically change how we feel about something. Often times our minds are full of chatter, anxiety, and circling thoughts, and just by being able to speak them out loud allows us to gain new perspectives. Many clients report that the most helpful part of therapy is just being able to speak their mind to a neutral third party to gain new understandings, perspectives, and feelings about their internal worlds. It can sometimes feel freeing, too, to allow something to be spoken out loud that has been bottled up in the mind. Other times, however, the things we have to say are vulnerable and scary, but giving voice to our trauma and pain is the first step towards healing.
5. Psychotherapy is a space where we can feel our emotions.
So much of our lives are spent avoiding feeling what is really present for us. If you are feeling an overwhelming emotion like grief, anxiety, or depression, you may find that you are filling your life with distractions which allow you to numb the overwhelming emotion and not to really feel it. This is why so many of us are addicted to our phones, sugar, caffeine, sex, alcohol and drugs, movies, even exercise - they can all be ways of pulling ourselves out of our present experience and getting numbed out, high, or distracted. What we find is emotions unfelt will intensify and resurface at the most inconvenient times. What is actually called for is just to be present with our experience and feel fully what we are feeling. This often allows the emotion to run through our system and be released.
By creating the time and setting the container where emotions are welcome to be felt, and providing the support and sometimes gentle prodding to look at our emotional state rather than run from it, we can gain intimacy with our internal state. Difficult emotions are often overwhelming and we would prefer they disappear, but what I have found is that the best way through a difficult emotions is to feel it as fully as we can. In psychotherapy, we look for unfelt emotions and encourage them to be felt fully by giving our emotional state our full attention.
Often times our emotions may be difficult to feel. After all, who wants to feel sad/angry/hurt/anxious? However, what is usually even more difficult than the feeling itself is the judgement we put on the feeling. Pain is the inevitable experience of difficult emotion in life, but suffering is the optional dance we often go through to deny or judge or dismiss our emotions as they emerge. By being with our emotions and allowing them to be felt we can eliminate a whole great deal of suffering in our lives.
Overall, psychotherapy is a commitment to ourselves to try our hardest to heal, grow, and thrive in our lives. The psychotherapist is the one who holds us to that commitment, holds the hope when things look dire, and holds the safe and consistent container within which healing can occur. This is not something that we have many models for in our contemporary culture. The required patience, sometimes open-endedness, and discomfort inherent in the psychotherapy process can be unsettling to some, and some have judgements or stigmas surrounding the concept of therapy. Ultimately only you can make the decision of whether to embark on the healing journey of psychotherapy, and only you can determine whether psychotherapy is helpful towards you reaching your goals in life. I have found and often seen that the patience, hard work, and perseverance of a psychotherapy process is deeply rewarding beyond our expectations. While psychotherapy may appear to work in mysterious ways, if we look closely, we see that there are actually straightforward and understandable reasons why it helps us navigate our lives and emotions with more ease.