“It is never too late to become what you might have been.” ~George Elliot
Therapy is a highly personal experience. And the therapeutic relationship is unique in many ways. Therapy is structured (the structure is called the frame of therapy) so that you and your needs are consistently the central focus.
One of the tasks at hand for your counselor or therapist is to create a safe space for you to explore your experiences.
For this to occur, the therapy environment must be a judgment-free zone; a supportive space where you can let go of self-consciousness (and the inhibitions self-consciousness breeds) and trust that you’ll be fully accepted as you share your struggles.
In other words, the therapeutic environment offers an invitation to let down your guard and step out of the different roles you inhabit in your daily life. In therapy there is a freedom to explore and express yourself in ways that may not exist in other areas of your life.
The Therapy Process
✓ What goals would you like to work on in therapy?
✓ If our work together is helpful, what would be different about your life?
✓ What kind of change would feel meaningful to you?
These questions (or some variation of them) can set the stage for the therapy work. In the beginning of therapy you’ll be asked to think about what you would like to accomplish in working with your therapist. Your goals might be clear to you at the outset. Or you may feel adrift in your life and want to use therapy as a tool that helps you clarify your life goals. And what you’d like to accomplish in therapy may change as the therapy proceeds and you delve deeper into your experiences.
Your therapist will work with you to clarify your goals and explore how they fit into the larger context of your life.
Collaboration is an important part of the therapy process. While you may feel challenged at times by the therapy process (doesn’t all growth rest upon us stepping beyond our comfort zone?), your therapist is there to act as a guide, someone who will hold up a metaphoric mirror so that you can explore your experiences more fully.
Your feedback about the therapy process (about the therapy tasks designed to help you reach your goals) is an important part of this collaborative process. You are the expert of your experience, and your therapist won’t know what is working and what isn’t unless this is directly communicated.
The therapeutic relationship: Is this therapist right for me?
Anyone who has worked with more than one therapist knows that therapists vary in style and approach. We are influenced by our theoretical perspectives (for instance, one therapist might believe that monitoring and challenging certain thought patterns is the way to go; while another therapist may advocate for greater connection to and expression of your underlying emotions).
And just as importantly, therapists differ in their style of working because they are different people. Our personalities, communication styles, emotional-energetic rhythms, and general ways of relating all shape how we work. And this, ultimately, will shape your experience of the therapy.
What this means is that you can work with ten different therapists (therapists who may have similar views about therapy and comparable years of experience) and yet your experience of each therapist can feel very different.
Therefore, there is no way to know whether a therapist is right for you until you have one or more sessions with her/him. During these initial exploratory sessions, I’d encourage you to assess if this therapist feels right for you.
Here are a few questions to consider when starting with a new therapist/counselor:
- Do I feel listened to? Understood?
- Does the therapist explain things in language that is clear and makes sense to me?
- Do I feel challenged (in a good way) while also feeling supported and respected?
- Does her/his approach (and style of relating) feel like a good fit for what I’m needing?
- Does something feel “off” or not quite right for some reason?
Some therapists are more directive and structured in their approach to working with clients while others prefer to allow the therapy session to unfold by giving clients more space to explore what they are thinking/feeling/needing.
It can be helpful to give your therapist feedback if you desire more or less structure to the sessions and if you prefer him/her to be more or less active/directive. By doing so, you will be shaping the therapy to better meet your needs.
Understanding your reaction to your therapist (and to therapy)
In the above section I discussed the important issue of deciding whether the fit between you and your therapist is a good one. Here I want to go a step further and make a distinction between the issue of a good fit (between you and your therapist) and the possibility that your reaction to your therapist is telling you something important about yourself.
This isn’t always an easy differentiation to make, so don’t be hard on yourself if you suspect that perhaps your reaction to the therapist is indeed giving you self-information, but you don’t necessarily see what that information is. If this feels relevant to the goals you’d like to achieve in therapy, you and your therapist can explore this possibility together.
Here are a few questions to reflect upon:
- Are you having a particular reaction to your therapist that can be helpful to examine?
- Can understanding and working through what you are feeling lead to greater self-understanding and to you reaching your therapy goals?
- Is the reaction you’re having familiar to you? Something that you’ve felt in other relationships in your life? (For example, you feel alone in the world, as if no one truly gets you, and you are starting to feel this way in the therapy, like your therapist doesn’t really understand your struggles.)
Therapy is a journey toward greater self-awareness
The therapy frame is designed to increase your self-focus by redirecting your attention to your inner experiences/reactions — experiences that exist and impact you even when you are not fully aware of them.
“What are you thinking and feeling right now?”; “Notice what happens to your body as you recount what happened” are examples of questions you might be asked by your therapist, questions that are intended to bring you into more direct contact with yourself.
In this regard, therapy will strengthen self-awareness through the process of self-reflection.
Self-reflection is essential to the therapy process.
There are several ways your therapist will facilitate this process:
- By asking you questions about your life and the events that shaped you;
- By having you attend to the different experiences that arise in therapy;
- By having you tune into the different sensory components of your experiences;
- By pointing out certain patterns that are playing out in your life that seem to keep you stuck;
- By encouraging you to track certain reactions/experiences between therapy sessions.
“The most fundamental aim of dynamic psychotherapy is the enlargement of self-awareness, and in particular the enlargement of the patient’s experience of personal agency. This means an increased clarity of his feelings and intentions…” ~ David Shapiro, PhD, Dynamics of Character
Therapy as a way to reclaim ourselves
When we remain estranged from ourselves (cut off from our feelings, longings, and needs), there is an emotional cost. Vitality is lost, and our capacity to engage fully in life and with others is compromised.
When we connect (reconnect) to the full range of our self-experiences (including the contradictions that exist within us), healing becomes possible. Discovering what stands in the way of our inner capacity for emotional wholeness is at the heart of the therapy enterprise.
While nothing can take the place of the “lived” experience with a therapist in determining whether a particular mental health professional is right for you, I hope you found this brief introduction helpful.
If you’d like to set up an appointment, feel free to email or call Dr. Nicastro at (512) 931-9128.
Dr. Rich Nicastro