Exposing the Myth of Therapy
What is therapy? Therapy is not a climb to the top of the mountain to seek advice from the sage. Therapy is always an experience and those who don't know this, (whether it is the client or the practitioner) often engage in the exchange of information without addressing the core issues. Therapy is a container. And by container we are not talking about the office or the physical setting. The container is the mind of the therapist. It is a place one can go to—to be received without judgment. The judgment I am talking about doesn't necessarily come in the form of moral disdain or overt rejection. Rather the judgment I am talking about is often cloaked behind a Ph.D. or training with thousand dollar words like “borderline,” or “narcissism,” or “depression.” With parents the judgment comes in the form of their worry, anxiety, frustration, disappointment or anger. These feelings are interpreted by the child as “I am a problem—I must be—otherwise my parent would not be so upset.”
I had a colleague, a therapist by training, who refused to enter her own therapy even though she was constantly leaking this need and asking me for it in our supervision meetings. She would reject my suggestions during our clinical supervision sessions, by saying, “I know my issues. I could write a book about them. What could a therapist tell me that I don't already know or that you couldn't tell me?”
She was missing the entire enterprise of therapy. Therapy is a place we go to—to receive a different response than the one we received in our earlier contexts—the home of our childhood. Therapy is a place we go to—to be received. We go to be received completely, entirely. An adequate therapist responds to our warts, our wounds, and our symptoms with calmness, understanding, patience and curiosity. This therapist is not anxious or eager to fix or heal us, but rather is passionate about finding us. And when we are found, seen and heard without the anxiety, anger, frustration or disappointment we experienced in our earlier contexts, we come to believe that we are okay. We come to be able to look deeply into ourselves, beyond the judgments of our symptoms or diagnoses. We look into our wounds and our traumas with compassion and understanding. And in this we heal.
Hatred cannot chase away hatred; only love can chase away hatred. Similarly, disdain cannot chase away mental health and addiction problems. Disdain, in any form, if aimed at mental health problems and addiction, will cause them to go into hiding. Temporarily those symptoms may subside, but they will inevitably reappear in the garden of our psyche somewhere else, at some other time.
We come to experience the adequate therapy container as grace. And this grace is the transformative ingredient in the experience of therapy. Carl Roger’s idea of providing unconditional regard for his clients wasn't in the technique. It was in the magical experience of providing a place for the whole client without advice or solutions born from the therapist’s notion that something was off course. This grace is what the alcoholic experiences when he shows up an AA meeting and confesses himself to others and they respond with, “You are welcome here. You are in the right place.”
I was telling a group of parents recently during a lecture on containing, that I don't see their children’s symptoms the same way they do. I don't see their cutting, their school refusal, their substance abuse though a lens of fear or anxiety. I see those behaviors or symptoms as evidence of some unexpressed trauma or wound. I see those symptoms as the child reaching out to the world and asking to be taken care-of. And I have one advantage over the parents I work with—their children are not my children. I don't need their children to think I am good. I don't need them to be good for me to feel good about the job I have done. Their successes and failures are not mine nor are they evidence of anything I have done. This is one of the reasons why I can provide a healing experience for the child in therapy. This is the same reason why I struggle in my own family with my own children—because I suffer the sort of undifferentiation described here—it comes from my shame and my childhood.
The problem with moralities and the land of “right and wrong doing” is that it regards our symptoms and the associated wounds with repulsion. It scares away the kind of sensibility we need to look upon our wounds and our way of coping. Our compassion is not complete if it doesn't include ourselves. We must have compassion with ourselves in order to address our wounds and truly heal them rather than simply shame ourselves into compliant and “good” behavior. As my therapist put it once, “If you came in here and told me you were in love with a chicken, I would assume you have a good reason and I would want to understand.” That kind of container is more healing than all the lessons and lectures and commandments the world has ever offered. In that container one is able to unpack their issues, look at them, and rearrange his relationship to them.
What should I look for in a therapist? The simplest way to answer that question is to look for a therapist who looks for you. A therapist who can tolerate us by listening and understanding us is one who has gone ahead of us on this journey. They have looked into themselves. The have seen their own darkness and thus are capable of looking at ours. Jung said, ““Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darkness of others.”
If your therapist is anxious in his efforts towards trying to fix you, then he is re-traumatizing you—inflicting the same wound that your anxious parents inadvertently exposed you to. Therapists who seek to fix the client out of a need to be a good therapist communicates to the client that they (the client) are broken. The therapist who sees themselves as the expert on life suggests to the client they don't have the resources and wisdom inherent to thrive.
I think the misunderstanding of the art of therapy is manifested in what I hear people say about analytic therapy. I often hear people, even therapists, who don't understand analysis, and refer to analysts as cold and intellectual. How can that be? Imagine what it would take to listen to someone three to four times a week, for several years in a row, offering nothing but mirroring and observations. One would have to have a great capacity for patience and positive regard for the other. One would have to have great feelings and confidence in the patient and in her inherent ability to heal herself and discover the wisdom hidden beneath her shame, anxieties and neuroses.
Advice is not the healing ingredient in therapy. The adequate analyst or therapist provides observations and interpretations, but these are evidence of their “seeing” the client. In providing the interpretations, the therapist is demonstrating her ability to see deeply into the client. This capacity is helped by her training, but it is really evidence of the therapist’s capacity to regard the truth about themselves and others by virtue of their own therapeutic work. Techniques don't solve or cure problems of the psyche. The adequate therapist must be a Black Hole capable of absorbing all that the client offers, conscious and unconscious. The adequate therapist heals by creating a new context, and container, where the client is fully accepted. This is the reparative element of therapy.
While the large part of my work is in experiential wilderness therapy, I try to always remember that any of the work I do with clients is experiential. In the wilderness, in an office, or on the phone, I am providing the client with the experience of being held. What I think about them is communicated in an infinite number of ways. When a client shows up in therapy, even talk therapy in an office, she is taking the risk of exposing herself. And if I, as the therapist, can provide warmth and nurturing, she experiences herself as okay and acceptable.
The therapist you are looking for is not one who will be an expert on your life. They will be an expert at creating a process. They will be an expert at creating a safe container—one where you will feel secure enough to expose yourself and in so doing access the wisdom and treasure that is hidden within you. They will help you “follow the trail” of crumbs your symptoms provide so you can address and heal your pain and wounded-ness. And it is a great gift and honor for me, as a therapist, to sit in the presence of people willing to take heroic journeys in order to heal their pain and I will keep trying to not get in the way.