A Headshrinker's Guide to the Galaxy

Psychoanalytic wisdom for everyday life

Is Your Glass Half Empty or Half Full?

How therapy helps us change perspective.

Buddha remarked on the enormous impact of perspective on human psychology when he said, "life is a creation of the mind." Shakespeare put it this way when he said "there is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so." And Flip Wilson's character, Geraldine, brought this idea to life with a laugh when he said "what you see is what you get." A big part of therapy is working to understand that what we see in our lives has a lot to do with how we see it.

Perspective influences everything. We do not see our lives in purely objective terms. We are subjective creatures. We see through a filter. We have biases. As I like to say, everyone has a personality. And that personality alters our perceptions. Introverts see life differently than do extraverts. Pessimists have a different take on life than optimists or even realists. If you have a leaning toward depression, your sense of life takes on that gray sheen. If you are somewhat anxious, everything revs at a slightly higher speed.

I think that these filters are relatively fixed aspects of our personalities. Some of you might feel relieved to hear that. I know a lot of folks get worried that a therapist is going to try to turn them into a completely different person! Let me be the first to reassure you that cannot happen. What therapists seek to do is to help you shift perspective so that you can see the world more accurately and therefore live your life more effectively. That's what I mean by filters being relatively fixed. There is room for tweaking.

The good news is that when relative changes can be made in one‘s basic approach to life, it makes a big difference. A modest change in your filter doesn't change who you are at the fiber of your being. It helps you become a better version of yourself.

Think about it this way. A cognitive behavioral therapy corrects distortions and misperceptions. If you have a basic distortion like "nothing ever works out for me," you inevitably won't invest in your life with much confidence or effort. If you can come to see that, in fact, sometimes things work out and sometimes they don't, you are likely to try harder and with a more hopeful attitude. Just that shift can change a lot.

Or think about it in another way. Since Carl Rogers, most therapists have a basic approach to clients of empathy, understanding, and positive regard. It sounds like such a simple approach but it really can be transformational. Sadly, many people have never had someone listen to them with great interest, understand both their troubles and their talents, and affirm their best qualities and efforts. Just having someone understand and believe in you can change the filter you have about yourself and about other people—which can make life seem more worth living and living well.

One of the unique aspects of the psychoanalytic approach is that the client's perspective on his or her relationship with the therapist—what we call transference—is the focus of attention. The therapist allows himself to become a guinea pig in the client's psychological world, considering and exploring the perceptions and misperceptions that the client has of him. The therapeutic relationship becomes a laboratory in which the client can live out these biases in the relationship with the therapist in a way that is more vivid and emotionally alive. This experience paves the way for deeper understanding and those "aha!" moments in which the client can see how he or she is distorting reality in real time. That can lead to transformation of perspective in the root of the client's personality. And that is why the changes that people make in psychoanalysis tend to stick.

It's challenging to take the risk to get into therapy or to keep at it once you're in. But if the experience could help you shift perspective so that you could see your life as half full and live accordingly, wouldn‘t it be worth it?

Copyright 2012 Jennifer L. Kunst, Ph.D.

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Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst, working with adults and couples in her private practice in Pasadena, CA.

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