Books, podcasts, exercise, music, meditation, talking to friends, journaling, self-reflection are all great resources to help us better understand ourselves, make changes, and feel better.
And, there is no substitute for a trained, licensed therapist.
Most licensed therapists have a graduate degree (either Masters or Doctorate) and at least 2,000 hours of counseling experience (in California, therapists need 3,000 hours) before they are officially licensed.
5 things that therapists, at least psychodynamic oriented therapists, are thinking and doing in session that is different from reading self help books and talking to friends:
1. The therapist helps you understand how your past affects your present.
Our early experiences with primary caregivers within our social, cultural, and historical context leaves a lasting imprint on how we see ourselves, how we relate to others, and what we prioritize. And, this imprint might be causing us difficulties.
So, we will talk about your mother! And, your father and grandmother! But the goal is not to judge them or you or your relationship with them; the goal is to better understand and shift / change the imprint, if needed.
2. The therapist helps you explore, understand, and express nuanced emotional experiences.
Many of us do not have the experience of paying attention to our emotions nor do we have the vocabulary to describe them. We might only know that we feel good or bad or ok. Our feelings might also be contradictory, sad, or scary to fully explore.
Developing emotional language is beneficial because it helps us name, accept, and make choices around our feelings.
Also, while it’s not uncommon to have intellectual insights on our own, it’s hard to have an emotional insight without the support of a trained therapist. For change to take place, we need both intellectual and emotional insight.
3. The therapist helps you identify recurring patterns in your life and change them.
You might be fully aware of your patters or not aware of them at all, but the issue is that you can’t seem to break them.
You keep repeating relationships and / or situations over and over again.
You sabotage new opportunities, you can’t seem to get ahead financially, you lose friends after small disagreements, you choose emotionally unavailable partners…
These patterns exist not because you lack will power but because there are deeper, often unconscious issues that you are trying to work out.
The therapist can help you identify what the issues are and by shining light on them, it is easier to change the root causes of the patterns.
4. The therapist supports you in addressing issues that might be hard to face alone.
We are all very adept at avoiding topics and feelings that are difficult. With a friend, when a difficult subject comes up, we might start telling a joke or change the subject or ask them a question.
In therapy, the therapist is paying attention to not only what you talk about but also what you avoid talking about. The therapist will never force you to talk about things you don’t want to talk about or that you are not ready to discuss. However, they will bring it up and inquire about it. Why aren’t we talking about ___? What’s hard about talking about___?
5. The therapist will use what happens between them and you as valuable information in service of your goals.
As clients, we bring our patterns of relating into the therapy room and show our therapist what’s like to be in relationship with us. The therapy room is a microcosm of our experience and others' experience of us in the world.
With your therapist, you have an opportunity to work on these relational patterns that might be causing difficulties and experience a different way of doing, relating, and being.
A private practice of Yin J. Li MA LMFT
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