How therapy works

Therapy works at many levels and there isn’t one way of doing it, or one solution that will provide a way through an emotional or relational difficulty. People have different personalities and different needs when they come into therapy and what works at one stage in the process may be inappropriate later on. But certain elements play an important role in most talking therapies.

Telling and sharing
If you have reached the stage when you are thinking about finding a therapist you will probably have talked to a good friend or a partner, or certainly thought about what is troubling you. There may also be a feeling of shame involved in what you are going through and the sense that you have talked about ‘it’, but it keeps happening. And you may have got to the point where you can’t keep talking about the same things and so have kept it to yourself, or talked about it in part, but kept hidden some part of what you are thinking.

Simply getting something out in the open rather than you having to hold it in, in a situation where you are not obligated in some way to the other person, can free the blocked emotions and allow the telling to come forward. And it is this first step of expressing what’s inside and unshared, and allowing it to come out into a shared space which can feel like a release - that something which you kept hidden can at last come out into the open.

Being heard and accepted
But what is told needs to be heard and recognised. Much of the training of the therapist is about accepting and not being judgemental about what you are saying. And this isn’t about not being judgemental in the obvious sense, that you have done something ‘wrong’, but also accepting it as you experience it - your ‘story’ so to speak, and what it is that is upsetting you. This in turn allows you to hear what you are saying and to accept what you may well have experienced as unacceptable.

Expression of feelings
Sharing and being heard allows a more full expression of experiences that were seen as too painful, and releases into a shared space emotions that been held down and locked away. This is akin to a catharsis and can feel like a weight has been lifted off your shoulders. But an important part of this process of expressing your feelings and sharing it with another person who accepts your experience, is that you begin to see that what was experienced as simply happening to you and you had no control over is something that you play a part in. You may be 'acting' in a way that is not in your own best interests, but you are participating in this ‘drama’ that troubles you.

Once there is a release of emotional energy and the realisation that you do have agency, that you do play a part in what is going on, memories can come back and it becomes possible to understand that your problems are not simply just there, or because you’re at fault, but are part of larger picture – of a world that you grew up in for example, and of things that have happened and you have been a part of. It then becomes possible to see things in perspective and why you have sometimes ended up doing things that didn’t make sense rationally, but from an emotional perspective you found hard to stop. For example a young child faced with the parents separating and having to face the anxiety of this separation, and feeling that they are to blame, may deal with it by trying to be very ‘good’. If this becomes a part of how they relate to the world around them, it may well affect how they relate to people in adult life. Being ‘good’ may not be the appropriate behaviour with a partner or at work when what is required is a sense of confidence and an ability to assert yourself.

The transformation of meaning
Getting in touch with emotions and memories and beginning to see the context in which things happened, can help you change the way you have looked at yourself and the world around you. To take an obvious example, a child who was abused will often carry with them into adult life the feeling that they are at fault for what happened, when in reality there is no basis to this. Sharing these experiences, understanding what happened and how you responded to this abuse, can transform not only how you see the past and how you view yourself, but also how you relate to the world around you.

Recapitulation and working through
Just as you can return to negative and destructive ways of relating, both to yourself and others, so the therapeutic space allows you to go back over painful experiences in your own time and in a setting that you have chosen. But this time in a shared space where the person you are relating to, remains with you on this journey, and you can go back over the troubling experiences, as often as the need is there and work them through.

The therapeutic relationship
Much of our suffering comes about on account of relationships and it is a truism that it is also through relationships we can find ourselves and start to make sense of our lifes again. The therapeutic space offers the chance to engage in an emotionally charged and meaningful relationship with someone who is not judgemental and is accepting of the different experiences or ‘selves that you want to explore in therapy. In many ways it is not the words that are said which is important, but the relationship itself which holds the experiences and allows this exploration to go forward.

A holding safe environment
Often when someone comes into therapy it can feel like certain aspects of their life – work, relationships, their emotions - are in some way out of control. Therapy provides a regular space, time and boundaries, that though it is only for a short time every week, provides a reliable environment that is there, whatever else might be going on in your life. This plays an important part in building a sense of trust in the therapeutic relationship and in creating a space where you begin to feel it’s safe to explore what is going on in your life.

Making changes
In many ways therapy is about the exploration of your experiences in a containing and supportive relationship with another person. But it is in the ‘real’ world outside that you live, and it is here that you put into affect your new understandings and the desire to make changes; and just as it takes effort and courage to explore your inner world, so it is the same when it comes to making changes outside. At first there will be a lot of anxiety attached to doing things differently as a lot of energy and time has been spent in doing things in a certain way that has had a ‘negative’ outcome. It’s almost as if you have to push against this door – a way out - that has always been there, but you couldn’t allow yourself to see it.

No guarantees
If you decide to see a therapist, there is no one thing that will bring about a positive change in your life. Personality plays a part, and what’s happened in the past is important. But perhaps the most important thing is your desire to bring about a change and if you can bring that to the relationship, it can act as a catalyst. But it takes courage to trust another person when exploring painful experiences and especially when there are no guarantees. But given the nature of relationships it would be neither true to life or to the therapeutic relationship to offer some sort of guarantee as to the outcome. This doesn’t mean, as the therapist, you can’t fully engage with the person and support them on their journey, but in the end it means little if they don’t make the changes themselves.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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