Monday, April 30, 2018

What is Therapy?

What is therapy?

It's the question I've been asking for the last year that I've served at my clinical internship.
It's the thing I always want to talk about and the thing I have yet to get a satisfactory answer for.
It's the question I've asked of therapists over a dozen times, and the answer I've received--often in unison--is: "When you find out, will you let me know?"

What is therapy?

It's this profound and meaningful thing that's difficult to pin down.
It's the experience of sitting with another person and talking about what matters.
The stuff of life.
What it means to be alive.
How to be alive.
It's this setting where two complete strangers often become close pretty quickly.
It's the process of alleviating some emotional struggles the client may be having.
It's the skill of just being with.
Sitting with.
Feeling with.
Holding space.

Usually, our family and friends really want to fix stuff. They want our problems to go away. These relationships carry weight and expectation. It's a give-and-take, as it should be. And we have opinions about how long it "should" take a person to "get over" their drinking problem or what is a "reasonable" amount of anxiety to have before we grow weary and struggle to be in relationship with a person who only wants to talk about their struggles. It's shitty, but it's true.

We have expectations of the people in our lives based on what we think they are or the role we assume they have committed to playing. I think people come to therapy for an objective perspective from someone who knows them without expectation. They don't know that people expect the client to be perfect or gender-conforming or religious-at-least-in-appearance or happy all the time. It can be liberating to sort out your thoughts and behaviors with someone who will repeatedly say,
"Yeah, that's hard" or
"Yeah, you're completely normal for feeling that way."

A therapist can be the one safe place that a person has.
Who can listen without the expectation of friendship or reciprocity.
Who doesn't need the client for any reason whatsoever.
Who doesn't use the client for friendship or as a way to meet their own emotional needs.
Who picks up on habit and tendency and idiosyncrasy.
And gets to bring them into the room and say, "You're doing that thing again.
What's that about?"
A therapist is someone who pays attention.

Patient supervisors--in response to my long-suffering quest for existential understanding--have asked me numerous times during this past year:
"Well, you yourself have benefitted from therapy. What did you find useful?"

And here's what I can tell you:
-I knew I had an hour a week with someone who was going to give me their
 undivided attention.
-I knew that person wouldn't go tell my friends and family that I was barely
 keeping it together.
-I knew that they'd had education in psychology and the human condition.
-I knew they'd be nice and respectful toward me even when I was a complete mess.

So, by my definition, therapy is:
1. careful listening,
2. objectivity,
3. psychological knowledge,
4. and kindness.

And still, it sounds simple, but I think my therapists set a high bar for good therapy. They never had magic words or "10 simple tips and tricks" that fixed a damn thing, but they taught me to have a tolerance for and a comfortability with not having all the answers and being kind and gentle with myself anyway.

That's life changing stuff. Those slow, steady, and incremental changes helped me understand myself just by being in relationship with them. And if slow/incremental isn't enough to count for just about everything, than I'm outta here. Because it's only small and gradual changes that have ever made a difference to me.

This past year, since September, I have had the pleasure of sitting with seven adult clients who, for an hour a week shared their stories, amounting to 128 hours of "sitting with" and that is such a tremendous honor. I feel like being a therapist is like getting a front row seat to the human experience. We encounter most people from behind a filter or a persona of their choosing. But in therapy, I get to witness some of our most frustrating habits and difficult conversations, but also heartwarming reconciliations and high-five-worthy victories. It's like getting the director's cut of the movie. It's like the behind-the-scenes play-by-play. It's getting to ask, "And then what happened?" and "What were you thinking in that moment?" And watching time and time again how humanity has an undeniable tendency toward growth and healing, even if we get sidetracked in dysfunction along the way.

Even still.
And it's a fascinating thing to watch.

I cannot explain to you what psychotherapy is or why it works.
But I know that it works.

I know this because my clients keep coming back.
They keep showing up and doing the hard work.
And so I've tried to be a little more like them.
I've tried to believe that somehow, someway our mutual showing-up matters.
And it makes a difference.
Because it has to.
Because--as Brene Brown says:
we are usually wounded in relationship and so we must be healed in relationship. 

Obviously, my "being with" is more important to them than my "knowing-it-all."
And thank goodness, because I know very little that would look good on paper.
I'm just really good at loving people.

These clients have been a gift that have grounded me week-to-week.
In my tumultuous, self-inflicted quest for an understanding that might not even exist, my clients reminded me to just sit with them and let that be enough.

In two weeks, I will say "goodbye" to people I have come to know well.
We will leave each other knowing that we are a little better just for having known the other.

And whatever that's called, it's quite beautiful.


Unknown said...

I'm getting ready for my second session of therapy this morning and found myself worrying about what it's supposed to look like or trying to prep what I'm going to talk about... expectations.. So thanks for reminding me of these things. That maybe I don't need to stress about it today. And just be.