Knowing What You’re Missing

Therapy is where you learn what life could be.

Posted May 17, 2019

I used to drink bad coffee. Growing up with canned Maxwell House, how would I have known any better? Coffee shops at college served percolated coffee, which wasn’t any better. The paper filter and easy access to whole roasted beans changed things. I didn’t really want to taste the difference, because I thought the procedure of grinding and pour-overs was snooty, but in fact the flavor (which I now recognize as “coffee”) set a new standard of expectations. It wasn’t only that I knew from then on that there was something I had been missing; it was also that I knew not to be satisfied with less. I suppose I might move to an even higher standard someday, if exposed to something even more delicious and not too expensive.

One thing all kinds of therapy have in common is that they produce and consolidate certain feelings and psychological states that clients are not used to experiencing. For example, a depressed client might have a moment of joy, or an anxious client may feel serene. Technique aside, if the therapy dyad or the couple or the family can appreciate the moment, a number of positive consequences may follow. The client might have proof that she is capable of serenity, for example, or a couple may recognize that they are capable of making each other laugh, or a family may see that a disruptive child is capable of cooperation. The focus then turns from whether the client is capable of positive behavior to when, under what circumstances, this occurs, and how to reproduce it.

Once a desirable feeling or psychological state occurs, clients can see what they are missing and begin to insist on it. The depressed person becomes motivated to change not by a promise of paradise but by a taste of honey. Parents relinquish the self-protection of “nothing works,” and they try to reproduce the cooperation they experienced firsthand. Just as I never knew what good coffee tasted like, some people go on dates and don’t know what curious attention feels like. They don’t then insist on it (by not continuing to date someone who doesn’t provide it). They also drive away people who do provide it, since their prospective partner’s curious attention falls on deaf ears, and the partner feels the way talented baristas feel when they prepare a delicious cup and the customer gulps it down without tasting it.

Virtually every client can be construed as wrestling with aspects of themselves that don’t fit the narrative they are promoting, internally and externally, about who they are.  In whatever manner those ignored aspects of the self eventually get integrated into the total self, it goes more smoothly if they are seen as natural and welcome facets of the human condition. Thus, the feeling of being understood is central to therapeutic growth. Once the marginalized aspects of the self learn what this feels like, they can insist on it. (I’m talking about feeling understood, which is different from being catered to.) Clients are then likely to stop doing things that defensively drive away other people, because the feeling of being understood undermines a sense of being repulsive or unacceptable. Clients who feel understood are likely to seek opportunities to feel it again, and collaborative, mutual relationships follow.

Therapists are people, too. No therapist can provide a collaborative mutual relationship if they don’t know what it feels like, and no therapist can provide it in therapy if they know only how to provide it in romance or friendship. You don’t necessarily need to have felt truly understood in your own therapy to become a good therapist, but it helps, just as drinking great coffee is a good foundation for becoming a master roaster. Therapists can also feel understood in supervision or peer consultation groups, where showing mistakes plays a role similar to revealing marginalized aspects of the self in therapy. My own mentors (and certain “lovers and friends I still can recall”) have played a much larger role in my discovery of what relationships can be like than my therapist did. When I operate under their imagined gaze, I am joy-seeking rather than fear-based, and I can tell when something is missing. (I’m still not very good at mourning its absence and often pursue what’s missing when it’s not available.)

This post is based on an article that first appeared on