How is Therapy Transformative
So many times people come into therapy wanting to know what happens, how does it work? What are we doing in therapy?;
I think one of the important things we are doing is encouraging people to have a more intimate relationship with themselves. Without that relationship it is very difficult to:
- make decisions,
- create the life we want,
- share ourselves and to love others.
This relationship involves our whole body. We experience life by what flows through our body. It is not just an intellectual knowing, thinking about I am this or that, but taking in the whole of who we are. We self-reveal when we are aware of a flow of emotions, and sensation without being overwhelmed. We can then feel alive with the richness and complexity of our life. We can notice the nuances of our experience and discover the meaning
When people come in to see me it is often a result of a crisis where their life is not working in some way and they are in pain, and they want some way of stopping the pain. Understandable, who wants to feel pain? Ironically it is often pain that prevents us from focusing on our experience because we are trying to get away from it. The more we try to distract from emotional pain the less we know about ourselves. A vicious cycle – the less we know about ourselves, the less we can tolerate, the more we distract, the less we know.;
So in therapy we are building that relationship to ourselves and we begin to discover we can recover from anything that life throws at us whether that is rejection, betrayal, loss, humiliation etc. We learn that we have the strength and resilience within us. If we remain constricted and try to defend against pain we will remain powerless and fearful of life, given that life is painful at times. So our relationship with ourselves is really crucial to embracing life and becoming more alive. Constriction or expansion, that is the difference between developing a more intimate relationship with ourselves or not.
How is the relationship with the therapist important in this process? After all you could just meditate and develop this relationship to yourself. There are two aspects to it. One is that therapy is about revealing oneself to another. We can't do that in meditation, it is a private affair. Therapy is about trusting others and dealing with the shame that arises as we become known by another. Facing the shame and vulnerability is what is truly transformative. We can learn through meditation to observe our process and not get caught up in it and this aids our self awareness. Shame, and powerlessness are in particular relational experiences that we experience when relating to others. We can not transform this energy without a transformative relational experience.
The second aspect which relates to this is that our deepest hurts and emotional pain has come from those relationships with significant others, and their failure to recognize who we are. In other words our feelings, desires, perspective etc was not important to those around us and we have had to adapt ourselves to deal with this. This adaptation has developed into ‘symptoms’ such as depression, anxiety, relationship difficulties, low self esteem. So in the relationship with the therapist you will examine these processes as they come up in the therapeutic relationship.
One of the biggest differences in therapy vs other relationships is that the therapist’s focus and attention is on the client. My personal struggles are taken care of elsewhere and do not intrude on or distract me from being present to my clients. This is the basic contract. What this does is give the message that your experience matters and I am going to take that seriously. When this is mirrored back a space is created where the person can relax into their experience and take themselves seriously. In this way the person is encouraged to develop their relationship with themselves and transform the adaptation they have made that keeps them afraid of life. Most struggles people have are a result of not being taken seriously.
Now that doesn’t mean it is easy for people, for a lot of people have great difficulty focusing on their experience and for good reason. The experiences that have caused this constriction are painful and contain fear, as we said before, so as they begin to focus on their internal, physical, emotional self – these experiences are going to get stirred up. Another aspect of the relationship with the therapist is creating safety to explore your experience in a way that is manageable. If we are overwhelmed we will just constrict further, and that is not going to be helpful.
We need safety to develop this relationship to ourselves. A way to think about safety is through the experience of an infant as they begin to crawl and walk. This is how we begin our exploration into self by exploring the world and how it feels to us. What is the mother doing ? – well (hopefully) she is paying attention to make sure the child doesn’t go too far and hurt themselves. And she is also not intruding on the child’s experience to prevent the child exploring, because of her own fear. So the creation of safety in therapy is similar by creating a space where you are not going too fast that you become overwhelmed, and not going too slow that nothing happens. Both of which reinforce a fear of life and living. Overprotective mothers are not helping their children. They prevent the child from developing an experience of themselves, and give the message that the child’s desires are not ok and that the world is a very dangerous place.
One of the most important skills a therapist has in this process is the ability to be really tuned in to what is needed at any given time – and this is more than empathy or listening. It is about sensing into, and being with the other that facilitates a two way communication where the client feels the therapist’s presence and experiences their attention to what is needed. As the therapist is attuned to her clients then adjustments are made to create this container. Perhaps there is a need for more space around an experience, or a little push to move out of too much comfort and protection. If there is a sense of being overwhelmed then it is important to take a moment slow it down and put our feet on the ground so we can feel supported before proceeding. So as this is communicated and processed the person can relax one step at a time into their experience at that moment. Through this they gain confidence to experience life, and deal with what comes their way. We don’t have to restrict our experience in order to survive.
We are hard wired to feel safe by our connection to others. Relationships are crucial to our ability to feel safe and recover from trauma. When our ability to form relationships and trust others has been compromised, it is difficult to create an experience of feeling safe in the world. The relationship with the therapist is a unique and profound experience that can transform our emotional pain.
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