Counseling 101- What is Therapy and How Can it Help Me? (Part 2)

In the previous post I started a two- part post about setting expectations for therapy. My intention for writing this post was to set you up for success if you are currently in the process of researching counseling options, choosing a therapist or initiating a counseling relationship- especially if you might be entering this territory for the first time. Because mental health is a too often ignored topic (and most people don't have casual dinner topic conversation about what their therapy sessions are like... but if you do, I applaud your courage and vulnerability!), I find that it helps everyone (professional helpers and clients) to not take for granted what this relationship is all about.

Last week's post covered things that therapists can't do. You might have been left wondering what these supposedly well-trained, empathic professionals are good for? Never fear. See below.

Things therapists can (and will) do:

  • Your therapist CAN and WILL: Point out connections between things you say, especially over time (“that reminds me of the way you felt several weeks ago, when this other thing happened…”).  I once worked with a client struggling with panic attacks who had a variety of challenges in her current life that often seemed very different and separate from one another. But after spending several weeks looking at examples of times when she felt the most anxious, we were able to discover that a recurring theme for her was having the thought "I shouldn't be feeling like this... I must be crazy". By bringing these situations out into the open we noticed together that despite the seeming differences in context, this thought pervaded her anxiety. These types of connections can help you to identify patterns, or even to remember things that you might have forgotten in order to shed light on new options for responding to stressful situations. 

  • Your therapist CAN and WILL: Help you articulate things in a thematic way that you might not have identified yourself. For example, when past experience has colored the way you might be interpreting the actions of others. 

  • Your therapist CAN and WILL: Reserve a quiet, uninterrupted time and space for you, and make their best effort to give you their undivided attention for that time. I think this is one of the most important benefits of therapy in our day and age, and its necessity cannot be understated. When in your daily life do you sit still, think back on your week, ignore your phone and tablet, focus inwardly? When do you take the time and space to listen to your heart and your body, to notice the themes in your personal narrative that have been emerging, or to notice on a deeper level what is causing you stress? Most of us have so little time for this and need to practice. As a clinician it delights me to offer this gift to others, in the hopes that making this type of self reflection a priority will spill over into "normal life" as well.

  • Your therapist CAN and WILL: Offer suggestions for making changes toward your goals. Do you ever lose the forest for the trees? Maybe you get so lost in getting by day-to-day that you forget your larger goals for life and your dreams fade into the background. Or maybe you relate more to the experience of losing the trees for the forest- you have big, hairy audacious goals but not enough foothold for making them happen. Sometimes practical change is right in front of our faces but our frustration or strong emotions get in the way of seeing the simple yet potentially revolutionary changes available to us. Your therapist will pick up on your values and your vision for the future and gently prod you forward.

  • Your therapist CAN and WILL: Point you toward resources that might helpful/relevant to your particular challenges. Yes, everything can be Googled. We are absolutely overloaded with information about anything we want to know. But we all have experience googling the heck out of some physical symptom and coming to the conclusion that we have cancer. Similarly, it can be difficult to navigate through mental health and self-help resources without a good grasp on an accurate diagnosis, or a handle on what is really getting in your way. Therapists can bring these two bodies of knowledge together and point you toward resources for further learning about your particular challenges. Personally, I absolutely love it when clients want to read more on a topic we are tackling and discuss in sessions. So if you work with me, you will get a lot of "have you heard of so-and-so?". Exploring topics outside of session is a great way to take ownership over your own growth and collaborate with your therapist.

  • Your therapist CAN and WILL: Gently challenge behavior that might be self-defeating or in conflict with your stated values and goals (see donuts or salad dilemma in previous post). Cognitive dissonance is a term that we psychology junkies love to use. It simply means having thoughts, beliefs or attitudes that are on conflict with one another. To be human is to hold some thoughts and beliefs in tension (for example, I both love Chicago and hate winter). But sometimes we get so fused to a certain habit or behavior that we become oblivious to how our choices and our thoughts/beliefs are working against each other. A therapist can help you identify these areas and find ways of either reconciling your values or changing your behavior.

  • Your therapist CAN and WILL: Hold you accountable for changes that you have identified as wanting to make. Once you have identified some changes to make, having external accountability can be invaluable in making progress. Sure, there are tons of apps out there designed for such purposes. But an app is limited in its ability to remind you of the big picture- to help you assess your progress, to problem solve what gets in the way, to express understanding of how hard it often is to change, to remind you of what you're capable of. Enter therapist.

  • Your therapist CAN and WILL: Offer a human connection with empathy and experience, but who isn’t personally wrapped up in anything you might be going through. This last one is another that should not be under-emphasized. Think about it- probably everyone in your life has something at stake in your decisions in everyday life. Even the most supportive spouse could be sent into a personal tailspin at your considerations for taking a lower-paying job, because of how that might affect them. You might be feeling like you need to ask for more support at work but wondering how that will make you appear to your boss. None of this is meant to minimize the importance of open communication with those we are close to, but a therapist's job is defined by staying out of any other role in your life and having nothing personally at stake in your individual journey. At the same time, they will regard you with the care and concern that only an authentic human relationship can provide. Don't we all need space for that kind of listening care in our lives?

What about you? As you embark on your therapy journey, what do you need? How can you reflect on this and communicate with your therapist so that s/he has the best opportunity to serve you?