Why See A Shrink?
WHY BOTHER TO see a therapist? As many people will be quick to point out, you can talk to friends and family about your troubles, and they won’t charge you a cent. You could also approach a trusted elder such as a teacher, coach, spiritual leader, or family friend. Or, better yet, tell your pet all about your problems. Dogs and cats are some of the best listeners—very patient, with a completely nonjudgmental attitude. Chances are, you could find any of these folks to be wise and caring listeners. There is no doubt that you can get emotional support and helpful advice from someone you already know and trust.
But while all of this is true, it’s likely that you have run into the limitations of using existing relationships to help you through life’s thorniest problems.
How often have you approached a loved one with a problem because you just wanted someone to listen, but instead, they jumped into problem-solving mode, giving you unwanted advice? Or perhaps, after pouring your heart out, they responded with a similar story from their life, taking the focus off of you and your concerns. Let’s face it, we’ve all experienced these failures of empathy as we have tried to lay down our burdens upon friends and family, which is probably why you picked up this book.
There is something uniquely positive—and, in the best of cases, transformational—about what happens between therapist and client. And while there may be some mystery and magic to the therapy process, there are some clearly definable elements that work together to make therapy effective. The core elements of psychotherapy are objectivity, empathy, psychological insight, skills development, and the potential for a corrective emotional experience.
Unlike friends or family, a professional therapist is able to bring an objective point of view to your situation. This alone can be reason enough to talk to a professional. It can be incredibly helpful to vent about stress, process interpersonal conflicts, explore difficult family dynamics, and discuss other such concerns with someone who is removed from the issues at hand.
Having this kind of private, secure, and nonjudgmental interaction can allow you to speak and think more freely. Furthermore, an objective point of view can help you to arrive at important decisions more quickly and with greater clarity. Like a photographer with a wide array of lenses, a therapist can help you to view your situation from many different angles, providing focus, clarity, and perspective.
An effective therapist is able to tune into your emotional state; they know how to express care and understanding in a way that connects directly with your experience. Combining objectivity with a warm, empathic attitude offers you both validation and support. Like a warm blanket on a cold winter’s night, empathy provides comfort during the harsh storms life can dish out. Empathy alone is not sufficient to solve all problems, but it has consistently been shown to be a necessary ingredient for a successful therapy outcome.
When you choose to work with a mental health professional, you gain access to someone who has dedicated their life to studying the human condition. A therapist’s knowledge and experience allows them to provide you with insightful solutions that can accelerate change. Developing a relationship with someone who has a deep understanding of psychological principles—including personality structure, motivation, human behavior, and the nature of the unconscious mind—can be quite helpful during times of confusion and difficulty. In this way, a therapist is like an expert backcountry guide, helping you navigate challenging and unfamiliar terrain.
Therapy frequently involves the development of new emotional skills. A therapist can share with you their toolbox of techniques for self-care and for coping with difficulties, resolving conflict, and developing healthy relationships. From cognitive behavioral exercises to mindfulness training, there are literally hundreds of practices and interventions that a therapist can offer for your benefit.
In addition to skills you can utilize to improve your mental health, a therapist also has a wealth of practical tips for developing healthy interpersonal relationships. I have spent many sessions in the role of relationship coach, helping my clients address relationship issues and practice difficult conversations. You can think of your therapist as a personal trainer for the mind, helping you to develop new strength while keeping you accountable to your goals.
CORRECTIVE EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE
Finally—and perhaps most importantly—psychotherapy offers the potential for a corrective emotional experience. What, you may ask, is a corrective relationship experience? Quite simply, it is an experience of healing that occurs through the relationship between counselor and client.
We have all felt various degrees of pain and disappointment in our relationships with others. Such emotional injuries fall on a spectrum that ranges from minor conflicts and misunderstandings to profound abuse and neglect. A successful client-therapist relationship has the potential to provide profound emotional healing through the therapeutic relationship. While a corrective relationship experience cannot replace a troubled childhood, it can offer you the emotional validation vital to healing and moving forward.
As you can see, working with a well-trained therapist offers a host of unique and powerful benefits. That being said, the decision to get help requires a significant degree of trust. In order for therapy to be successful, you will need to be emotionally honest and vulnerable. Venturing into vulnerable spaces requires a combination of both courage and trust—and that means both trust in your therapist as well as trust in the journey itself.
It may give you comfort to know that professional therapists are licensed by a state board of examiners only after completing an advanced degree and receiving years of clinical supervision. Once fully licensed, therapists are required to complete many hours of continuing education each year. Furthermore, therapists are legally and ethically bound to do no harm. This includes maintaining strict confidentiality, among many other principles of ethical practice.
While licensure and training are important, in order for the alchemy of therapy to work, you must find someone who is a good match for you. Effective therapy depends upon a balanced working relationship between counselor and client. This is achieved through a combination of rapport and respect. In the next chapter, I explore how to find a therapist who is the right match for you.