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    "The greatest achievements were at first and for a time dreams. The oak sleeps in the acorn."
    James Allen, posted by desiderata


Jul 19, 2005
What is Psychotherapy?

When we go for a psychotherapy session we go into a room with our therapist, we sit or lie down, and we talk. The therapist listens and makes occasional comments. When the allotted time is up, we leave. How can something apparently so ordinary be so unlike anything else we have experienced, and have the power not only to heal us of emotional problems but also to bring about profound changes in our whole way of being?

Psychotherapy is referred to as a 'talking cure', and talking is all that happens, but by ordinary standards the conversation which takes place is very odd. We are encouraged to talk a great deal, while the therapist may say very little, and while we are expected to say anything and everything which comes into our minds, the therapist's comments will be carefully controlled.

All verbal communication takes place on two levels, and this becomes particularly apparent in psychotherapy. On one level language communicates meaning, and on the other it is a way of 'doing something' to the person who is listening - a way of establishing or modifying our relationship with that person. Both levels are important in psychotherapy, on the first level we will gain insight into how our minds work, but the second level, sometimes called the 'metacommunication' [Modell 1990], is the level to which most of our attention will be given. What we say to the therapist will be seen largely in terms of what we are 'doing to him' by saying it, and what the therapist says to us is largely aimed at showing us what it is that we are doing.

The normal rules of social interaction do not apply in therapy. We can say anything we like no matter how unacceptable it would be in any other context. This gives us an unprecedented degree of freedom, and it is this freedom which enables the mind's self-healing capacity to work. By keeping himself in the background the therapist will make the sessions as much as possible like a blank screen, a screen onto which we will project the areas of our lives in which our problems are rooted. This will happen automatically, and when it does we are said to have established a 'transference relationship' with the therapist. In the context of this relationship that we can work through our problems, and become free of them.

We can expect the therapist to understand our problems and to empathise with us, but we will be disappointed if we go to him looking for sympathy. Sympathy will not resolve our problems, in fact it can create a barrier to their resolution in that we might cling to our problems in order to cling to the sympathy too. The therapist, ideally, will be a warm and understanding person, but he will know that ultimately he can only help us get better by helping us to confront ourselves.

If it sounds daunting it must be emphasised that our relationship with the therapist should quickly become one of warmth, openness, and trust, and that we will only go into the more difficult areas gradually and when we are ready. In fact at all stages we, or rather our unconscious, will determine how far and how fast we go, and we always have the security of the relationship with the therapist to support us.

Once we become accustomed to the process we find it is a much more normal and natural way to behave than may be apparent at first. Psychotherapy does not impose anything on the mind, but creates a situation in which whatever aspects of ourselves need to be explored can be explored.

So to answer the question 'what is psychotherapy?' I would say it is a human interaction designed to heal the emotional problems of the patient. It works largely by engaging the mind's innate capacity to resolve its own difficulties, and it takes place as a two-tier process. On the surface it is a chance to discuss and share our problems with someone who has the insight, and experience to understand the inner mechanisms which are causing them, and at the deeper level it becomes a multi-layered relationship with someone who will stay with us and guide us while we do whatever we need to do to dislodge the problems.

How deep we need to go in psychotherapy depends on the severity of our problems. Someone with problems towards the mild end of the scale will progress quite rapidly, but for someone with more serious problems every step of the way can be difficult and drawn out.

Ultimately a psychotherapist cannot 'cure us' any more than he can climb a mountain for us or fall in love for us, but he can provide circumstances in which we can cure ourselves.

Posted by J N at 9:07 AM

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