WHAT EXACTLY IS PSYCHOTHERAPY?
...Let's take the "psycho" out of psychotherapy.
There are two prominent myths about psychotherapy that cause people (who would benefit from counseling) to fear it and shun it.
The other is,
Regarding the first misconception, "therapy is for crazy people," it is true that therapists do indeed sometimes work with psychotics. But about 98 percent of people in therapy are simply unhappy about some aspect of life. They are disappointed and frustrated because life isn't going the way they would like, but they can't figure out by themselves what to do about it. So they seek help.
Very often these disappointed, frustrated, unhappy people discover that talking to someone who is non-judgmental, accepting -- oh yes, and trained in how to explore issues that trouble people -- proves helpful in a variety of ways:
Therapists are specialists in guiding people through precisely these kinds of issues and concerns.
As for the second misconception, "therapy messes with your head," therapy aims at helping people get a clearer understanding of who they are, how they engage with other people, and how they can use their potential more effectively. In it's simplest terms, therapy helps people cope better with life's problems.
That's why a clarification of what therapy is about could be useful to you. Clarification will enable you to decide for yourself whether you might benefit from therapy. And what kinds of benefits to expect. Those possibilities make it worthwhile to know what therapy is and what it does.
Can You Be Your Own Therapist?
Everything we learn, we learn on our own. We may have books, films, videotapes, teachers, and fellow students to help us. But what we get from them is no more and no less than what we absorb.
Therapists know it can be extremely difficult for an individual to see through his or her own defenses. When we rationalize, for instance, it is helpful to have someone we trust point out that our view of the situation is skewed, meaning it does not reflect reality. The same applies to other defense mechanisms.
Whatever the process -- with or without a therapist as a guide -- in order for a person to alter his or her responses, that individual has to learn through one means or another to see things in a different light. In this regard, therapists can be extremely helpful in getting a person to see a different point of view. But that is not the same as saying a therapist is essential.
Again, Can You Do It For Yourself?
Probably a lot of therapists would quickly disagree with me, but I certainly think it is possible. The problem is that most of the things you need to learn about yourself are counterintuitive.
What does that mean? It means you have to make and examine inferences in order to make progress. Fortunately, our heads contain marvelous inference engines. Our brains churn out inferences day in and day out. And inferences provide the mechanism by which we make counterintuitive stuff believable and acceptable.
Let me point out some things we accept every day that are counterintuitive. The idea that the world is round (which we all now know to be true because we've seen pictures from space) is not in keeping with our senses. The earth looks flat! Before the space age, the knowledge that the earth was flat depended completely upon inferences. Some by sailors and navigators, some by astro-physicists, some by mathematicians. But no matter who made the inferences, and no matter what they used as supportive observations, the idea that the earth is round rested on inferences that made counterintuitive ideas believable.
There are many counterintuitive ideas we accept. The idea that major diseases and even death can be caused by teeny tiny microscopic bacteria organisms and submicroscopic viruses is counterintuitive. We accept the power of these unseen forces because we've learned about germs and viruses. Or again, the idea that a light switch on the wall can control a light fixture in the middle of a room is counterintuitive. To accept the power of the switch we don't need to learn about electricity because using the switch to control the light is a part of our everyday experience.
(It is interesting that primitive people have more difficulty with the light switch than with the germ theory of disease. They live in a world rich in unseen magical forces where incantations, and totems are believed to be controllers of power. Whereas a light switch is a dumb-looking object, with no symbolic meaning, but it is an object which seems nonetheless to possess remarkable powers.)
The upshot of this discussion is simple. Having to make inferences is not an insurmountable barrier to exploring therapy on one's own. Neither is having to examine ideas that are counterintuitive. If you are able to explore ideas that seem strange at first, you may very well be able to help yourself greatly through learning about psychological concepts. On the other hand, if you want faster results, or if you want to have someone skilled in therapy methods available to help you puzzle through your issues, or if you want a support base while trying new behaviors, then it will probably be in your best interests to work with a professional therapist. It is your choice.
Most people who manage to get their heads straight, get help from a therapist, but they also do the difficult part of the work themselves.
So let's have a quick look at what therapy is all about.
Therapy techniques in use today address many issues, including:
There are Many Types of Therapy
There is a dizzying array of different approaches to therapy today. There are more than 250 "brand" names. Here is a short list of some schools of therapy:
(I warned you it was a lengthy list...and this just scratches the surface.)
Many Types, but One Objective
Despite the bewildering number of therapy types, you can view them all as methods of helping people cope better with life's problems. (Many therapists use more than one approach.) The important thing to remember is that every type of therapy, regardless of its theoretical base, aims at helping people bring about changes through the use of one or more of three basic methods:
Insight therapy -- also called psychodynamic or intrapsychic therapy -- focuses on the inner hang-ups and foibles of an individual. As a rule, the inner turmoil is believed to be due to a person's upbringing. (This is not necessarily a "bash mom" approach. Your parents may have had good intentions, but little understanding of your developmental needs.)
Several types of insight therapy are in use. At their best, they help an individual understand exactly who he or she is, how they came to be the way they are, why it is OK to be who they are, and what kinds of change would prove helpful.
Cognitive therapy focuses on the observation that the way we feel and the way we respond to situations depends on how we interpret them. Cognitive therapy involves interactive exchanges aimed at helping the client open up and explore different lines of thought.
Experiential therapy notes that the sum total of our experience determines how we think, feel, and behave. This approach serves to provide each client with new experiences. Because these new experiences contribute to the individual's total history, they can bring changes in the way the client thinks and behaves.
This is not a fourth method. It simply means the therapist uses whatever approach to therapy he or she feels is appropriate to a specific client's problems. A great many therapists today recognize that no one approach works for everybody in all situations, so they strive to match the approach they use to the individual and to that individual's particular problems.
Many of the ideas offered here are clearly debatable. They are not presented to stimulate debate. They are here for you to use or not, as you see fit. It is up to you to determine whether they appeal to you and whether you think they make sense.
If their presentation here is helpful, I'm pleased.
Where to from here?
Copyright 1996-2006 William W. Snow