Five Counterintuitive Ways to Benefit From Psychotherapy

New research helps explain why unfocus can help you in therapy.

Posted May 07, 2017

Source: andrewgenn/iStock

Most people request psychotherapy for a reason. Either they are overwhelmed by their own emotions or thoughts, or they have mental roadblocks that they have to navigate. Relationship frustrations, financial stuckness, confusion over career choices, and needing to connect with a sense of purpose are all challenges that usually enter the therapeutic hour. Often, people come in expecting that they will focus on their goals. But much of the value of psychotherapy actually lies in unfocusing as you will see below.

Lesson #1: Don’t be fooled or fueled by your goals. “Goals” are far less obvious than they seem. Studies show that our brains may actually come up with goals before we even think of them. When we say we have a goal, we may simply be reporting what our brains have already decided. Deeper thought may reveal that this is not what we truly want. The real goal may be obscure, so you may want to question and examine your actual goals from time to time.

Also, our brains are wired so that they can sometimes hold two contradictory goals at the same time. This may keep us stuck, such that focusing on one goal makes us ignore the important other goals that are holding us back.

Most importantly, becoming obsessed about actions connected to goals may limit us. As a result, we may stop exploring our minds and lose out on valuable insights.

To get to a goal, you often need a certain kind of drive and motivation. Shallow actions will only get you so far. Recent studies have shown that you feel “driven” when you connect with long-lost ideas about yourself, and not simply by carrying out an action that is goal-directed.

So even if you have a goal, unfocus. Look for what has mattered to you in the past. Contrast this with what matters now. Let go of the goal for the entire duration of the session. As frightening as that sounds, you will be surprised by how much more you will glean, and how much more driven you will feel. You can always revisit the goal from time to time.

Lesson #2: Don’t be compelled to be logical. When you are logical, you may succumb to habit pathways in the brain. This will not help you get unstuck. Logic keeps you stuck on that track. In fact, with psychotherapy, you want to form new habits, but that requires getting off your current track of thinking and feeling.

One way to overcome this is to allow your mind to wander. This kind of unfocusing will turn on more “self” representations in the brain. You feel more self-connected. It also helps to form new associations. As a result, you will be more likely to find creative solutions to your problems.

For many, being tangential provokes anxiety and unhappiness. They feel like they are not staying on point. But there’s a time and place to always be on point, and psychotherapy does not always have to be one of those places.

Lesson #3: Your problems can be worked out in the space between you and the therapist. Your brain is a little like a telephone. It can receive incoming calls and place outgoing calls. And both your “voice” and the “voices” of others will be mapped in overlapping circuits in your brain. Sometimes you may be in sync with your therapist; at other times, not. Either way, it’s helpful to look at those feelings in the interaction and not just what comes from you.

Many people do not make use of the dynamics between themselves and the therapist. They think that this is irrelevant. As a result, they lose opportunities to advance their lives by not examining their countertransference—their unconscious feelings toward the therapist—or the therapist’s transference—their unconscious feelings toward the person in therapy. In this interaction, you can learn much about the default responses you cause in others, and what you can do about this.

Lesson #4: Being practical is not always the best thing. Sometimes therapy can be annoyingly abstract, and you will want to succumb to the temptation of being prematurely practical. Called “need for cognitive closure” (NCC), this has consequences. For example, if the therapist encourages more exploration and you just want to get to the action item, this could frustrate and even deplete you. Also, becoming intolerant of ambiguity and uncertainty could rob you of the power of your paradoxes, sterilizing you and removing the motivation that authenticity can bring when you are holding contradictory feelings.

Often, concreteness symbolizes your fear of falling apart. It stiffens your mind, and prevents the discovery of novel ideas that may be floating about your own brain.

Lesson #5: If the therapist is rambling, join him or her. When therapists are reflective out loud, detailing even minutiae, it may seem that they are off track. You may want to stop them and ask, “What does this have to do with me?” But it often has a lot to do with you. They wouldn’t be remembering their story if you had not contributed to it.  Called reverie, this could be something to explore instead of reject or ignore.

Often, as you listen in this state, you might notice body changes— a stomach grumble, a sudden twitch. Pay attention to this, and even talk about it.  The mind and the body are both sources of information in therapy. When you join the therapist’s unfocused rambling, you will notice body signals that may be more important than you think.

In all of these suggestions, unfocus is key. Unfocusing from your goals, releasing the hold of logic, looking outside yourself, avoiding NCC and opening your mind to the therapist’s rambling are all things you might want to try out. If you do, please do share what happens in the session and what you might have learned.


Pillay, S. (2017) "Tinker, Dabble. Doodle, Try: Unlock the Power of the Unfocused Mind." New York, NY. Ballantine Books.

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