The Value of the Therapeutic Relationship- Part Three
Why Therapists and Therapy Can Be Helpful
Posted August 6, 2015
In the last two installments of this series, we began exploring some of the reasons why seeking out the support and guidance of a well trained and compassionate mental health provider can be valuable. Here are a few more reasons to consider:
A therapist can invite you to attach new meaning to your experiences.
If you are like a lot of people, you may get “ tunnel vision” about the painful things you’ve been through. This means you have a limited view of yourself, what has happened to you, how it’s affected you, and the ways in which you have attempted to cope. Sometimes, the meaning you attach to your experiences is almost more important than the experience itself, because the way you think about things profoundly influences how you feel and the subsequent behavioral choices you make. It’s easy to get stuck in a narrow, negative view of yourself and your life, and when you attach certain meanings to your experiences you can actually add another layer of trauma. This is particularly true when you blame yourself for past events that were outside of your control or assume that something bad happened to you because you “deserved it” or see your trauma as a “punishment.” A therapist can help you “stand back” from your experience and view it with greater insight and compassion.
Working with a therapist gives you a witness for your painful experiences.
I believe that it’s human nature and perfectly normal to want a witness for personal pain. Even when you have been forced to keep things a secret, there’s a natural desire to share your experiences with people who are safe and non-judgmental. And yet, it's often really difficult to explain, in words, what trauma feels like or the impact that it’s had on your life and your sense of self. When words are not forthcoming, many people often suffer in silence or use destructive behaviors to creatively “show” what they are unable to talk about. Unfortunately, those destructive or provocative behaviors can be frightening and are often misunderstood by loved ones. They focus on the scary behaviors and not the message underneath. A well-qualified therapist can help “translate” these behaviors and de-code this form of communication so the trauma narrative is finally heard, understood, and supported. When you work with a therapist who “gets it,” and can non-judgmentally bear witness to your experiences, the need to act them out by hurting yourself will dramatically decrease for you. A trained therapist can also give you safer, alternative ways to “tell” your story, so others can bear witness as well.
Therapy can offer you creative new ways to think about and work with your symptoms.
If you are like many people who struggle with self-destructive behaviors or overwhelming symptoms, the diagnosis you may have given yourself is “weird,” “sick,” or “hopeless.” A well-trained therapist can give you a whole new way to think about your actions and your symptoms. They can be connected to your family-of-origin, the possibility of prior abuse, neglect, or trauma, the challenges of adolescence or another developmental milestone or life stressor you may have experienced, or a medical or mental health diagnosis you didn’t know about. A therapist can move you away from the hopelessness of a diagnosis like “borderline” and help you to re-frame your symptoms as the inevitable by-products of trauma or pain. This restores a sense of hope into the work and takes the glass ceiling off of your progress! It’s important to seek out a therapist who can keep an open mind about treatment options, and who recognizes the value of focusing on your strengths, resiliency, and creativity. If you are considering going to a therapist don't be afraid to ask them how they intend to work with your symptoms and what they have found most useful.
Even if you choose not to use a therapist at this point in time, if you are currently struggling think about reaching out to a relative, friend, teacher, 12 step sponsor, a safe and supportive chat room, or member of the clergy. Without sharing personal details, let them know you are working on important, difficult issues and you may need an extra hug, more time to just be in their company, a listening ear, or a friend to do something fun. If it still feels too scary to connect with another person consider using a 24-hour hotline. It’s a way to feel supported while keeping your identity and feelings private. Most hotline workers are well trained and non-judgmental. They can help to re-ground you or comfort you, even in the middle of the night! And most importantly, if you have had a negative therapy experience in the past don't let it keep you from reaching out again. Although it takes a lot of courage and a big leap of faith, your experience the next time around might give you exactly what you need to move forward with your life, reconcile your pain, and truly heal.
Segments of this article were taken from "Letting Go of Self-Destructive Behaviors: A Workbook of Hope and Healing" by Lisa Ferentz.