In my experience as a therapist and a client, people turn to psychotherapy because they feel “stuck” – stuck in patterns of behavior and feelings that are causing them to suffer and that they feel unable to change or deal with.
They feel powerless or helpless in the face of this “stuckness”. “Why do I keep behaving and/or feeling this way?” The hope is that the therapist will help to free them from these stuck patterns of behavior and feelings.
For lasting change to happen the understanding of what is happening needs to happen on an experiential level. This needs to happen so that our relationship to the issues and feelings contained in them can be transformed. On a fundamental level, the way we are relating to what is going on and the emotions contained in it, is what is keeping us stuck. I believe that what good therapy does, is to offer us a relationship with a therapist in which we are supported to explore our own unhelpful ways of relating to our inner and outer worlds and the difficulty we are experiencing in them.
Why would I struggle to see and understand what is really going on for me? Why is the way I am relating to my inner and outer worlds a problem?
This struggle to see what is really going on is really about a deep sense of needing to protect ourselves from the way we feel. We do this because we at some stage in our lives, have experienced being unsupported by those around us and therefore being unable to cope with the emotional impact of difficult events. As we are far more vulnerable the younger we are, events that happen when we are young, tend to have more of an impact on us and can leave struggling to deal with the emotional impact they have.
Quite simply put, we then find ways of relating with these emotions that are designed to protect us from having to consciously feel them – we find ways of literally hiding them from ourselves or distancing ourselves from them. It is often these early attempts to cope with overwhelming feelings that are still with us and are secretly running the show. The patterns for relating with how we are impacted by the world are set in early life and become the “operating system” that we use to “manage “our feelings. The thing is that the operating system is so habitual and fundamental that we cannot see it – it becomes a lot of who we are and runs undetected in the background, much like the operating system of a computer. We are aware of the software doing it’s thing but not the operating system that it runs off.
These early attempts to cope with overwhelming situations by managing the feelings they bring become the problem themselves in that they run automatically and in a rigid fashion that is not actually in touch with the reality of current events in one’s life. This is a bit like having a computer with an old operating system trying to cope with modern software – it simply is not designed to cope with new software, so it tends to crash or get stuck a lot.
How does seeing or understanding the way I relate to emotions lead to changes in my life?
A therapist is there to help you become aware of the old operating system that is running things and the way it tries to help you cope with emotion. The process of therapy is also about building enough trust to relate more directly with the emotions that the operating system was designed to protect you from. It stands to reason that if you are able to relate with emotion in a direct way then you know, on an experiential level, that you no longer need to choose to keep running the old unhelpful operating system to help you cope with it. The process is also about really being able to directly experience the negative consequences (emotional and practical) of continuing to choose to keep running the old operating system.
My experience is that when you are able to become directly aware of how the operating system works and impacts you, it becomes much more difficult to choose to keep running it. Direct experience leads to awareness, which leads to choice. It may sound corny but the truth of the matter is that as human beings the real power within us lies in our ability to make internal choices. Quite simply put: No awareness = no choice=no real power.
Why do I need a relationship with a therapist to help me explore and understand how I am relating to the difficulties in my inner and outer worlds? Why can’t I just do some reading or self- help research about what’s wrong with me?
A relationship with a therapist – as I see it - offers you support of a particular kind. A therapist is someone whose intention is to relate with you with compassion and wisdom. The compassion gives you that sense that here is someone who wants to get – on an emotional and intellectual level – how it is to be “me “in my world. This is vital as it helps you to relax and feel safe enough to become more interested in what exactly is going on for you. The wisdom gives you someone who is skilled – through their training and own experience of therapy – at understanding the ways of relating people tend to use and the strength and trust in themselves to be able to notice your particular ways of relating without getting caught up in them or colluding with them. This is also vital as it helps you to trust that there is someone else in the room with you that sees things as they are and will stay centered enough to help you to see and feel what is really going on in yourself.
The problem is that we tend to be so immersed in our ways of relating that it is really difficult to see and change them. It usually takes someone with a sense of perspective – someone outside of us and our problems – but connected enough to help us feel understood, to gently point out what is going on. While reading about what is going on for us can be useful, it will not tend to penetrate into the darker corners of ourselves, where how we really operate and relate is hidden away from view and is running us from behind the scenes.