Shirah Vollmer, MD

Shirah Vollmer MD

Learning to Play

Psychotherapy: How Does It Work?

Can psychotherapy help?

Posted Dec 28, 2009


What is psychotherapy? How does it work? Why would someone go? The simple answer is that life gives us pain. We seek relief. Therapy gives us hope that we can feel better. The complicated answer is that a professional therapist in a room with someone seeking help can lead to transformation, both in the therapist and the client. This transformation can be in the form of increased energy, more creativity, better judgments about relationships, and/or a greater sense of vitality.

Many experts debate the key ingredients which lead to therapeutic action. In my twenty years of private practice, I have come to see that the curative elements of psychotherapy are deeply mysterious. Each dyad, that is each clinician-patient relationship, has a unique narrative. Healing occurs as this unique narrative unfolds. The individuality of the experience is the hallmark of psychotherapy.

Yes, there are therapeutic principles which are very useful. For example, creating a frame, that is a consistent and reliable relationship provides a calming experience. Being deeply curious about how the mind works helps individuals understand themselves and others. Reading great thinkers about human motivation stimulates the building of this narrative since as with all types of education, an enrichment takes place.

Yet, psychotherapy is a humbling experience. Clinicians want to help people. The patient wants help. The clinician and patient create a path which unfolds, sometimes it is treacherous, sometimes it is a straight. The inability to predict what that path will look like is both uncertain and exciting. Accordingly, the willingness of both the therapist and the client to try is inspiring.

Each side of the street brings hope. This hope leads to the momentum to develop a relationship. Relationships, in turn, provide hope for personal growth and creativity. Exactly how relationships do this is not clear. As a clinician I must embrace this complexity and uncertainty. I have to do this for myself and I have to help others do that too. The uncertainty of psychotherapy parallels the uncertainty of life. The hope in psychotherapy parallels the hope in life.


About the Author

Shirah Vollmer, MD

Shirah Vollmer, MD, is an Associate Clinical Professor of Family Medicine and Psychiatry at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

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