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Therapy Terms Everyone Needs to Know

Ten concepts that can help you improve the quality of your life.

Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock
Source: Olena Yakobchuk/Shutterstock

I distinctly remember the biggest lesson I learned in my first counseling course. Truthfully, my memory isn’t really that sharp. My recollection is likely because it resounds with me today...

We all need these lessons.

It was in that course that I slowly started to transition from the stigmatized view of mental illness to the strengths-based perspective of mental health. If we all have mental health, shouldn’t we all learn about it?

Like many others, by this time I had learned about Freud and all sorts of influential leaders within the field of psychology. I’m not saying that these various theories and models were unimportant, but the practical notions to promote personal mental health could have been helpful, too. Fast forward to my present-day private practice, and now I hear this sentiment echoed by client after client.

That makes perfect sense; I just wish I'd known it sooner.

I wish I learned this instead of the Pythagorean theorem.

We should all be learning this!

It’s amazing to see these practical concepts applied quite quickly, and the effect such changes have on mental health, as well as overall wellness. Diagnosis aside, these counseling concepts could have universal benefits. Regardless of whether or not you are actively experiencing a mental health concern, learning a few terms from Counseling 101 can empower you to reflect and make tangible changes that can improve your well-being.

1. Active Listening

How do you know when you are truly listening to someone? Is it while you fiddle on your phone, but can still audibly make out the words they are saying? Even when you’re face-to-face with someone, have you caught yourself thinking, “Uh-oh, I know they’re talking, but I have certainly lost track of what they’re saying"? These are types of listening, but certainly not active listening. The difference is that active listening is an immersive experience in which you are focused on the individual and are present merely in your responsibility to listen. You are not distracted by the urge to check your device or the thought of what you are going to say next. Even without saying a word, the speaker has no doubt you are listening from your eye contact, body language, and how you eventually respond. The lack of active listening is often the cause of miscommunication, and to make a small change in attentiveness could help to resolve that issue.

To apply this, the next time you are in a situation that warrants intentional listening, remember the goal of presence. Scan your body to check for ways you can set aside distractions and foster your focus. Gently release those distractions, and keep your intention set more on truly hearing the person in the present moment, rather than the thought of what has happened or what will happen. According to Carl Rogers, a helpful way to test your active listening would be to rephrase what you heard back to the speaker. Their ability to confirm or clarify would help to determine if your attentiveness is improving.

Source: Mihai Surdu/Unsplash
Source: Mihai Surdu/Unsplash

2. Metacognition

Philosophers have thought about thinking about thinking for thousands of years. John Flavell coined the term metacognition for this concept that encompasses an awareness about one’s thoughts. With this empowering concept comes the notion that if we have the power to observe our thoughts, we may also have the power to change them. Rather than falling into the trap of believing that our negative, irrational, and/or unhealthy thoughts are facts, we use mindfulness to observe them and know that our thoughts do not define us—we can observe them, recognize their impact, and opt to edit them.

To improve your metacognition, you can begin by simply connecting to the definition. You can be an observer of your thoughts. If you wish to take this a step further, you can explore whether or not they serve you, where they come from, and if you wish to keep them as is or work to alter them.

3. Congruence

Remember in grade school when you finally found the match in a sorting activity? Two blue triangles, how satisfying! The delight you experienced is kind of what this concept is like in counseling, but on a deeper level. As Gandhi once said, “Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony.” To achieve congruence, who you are on the inside should likely match what you convey. For example, say you value commitment and loyalty. The congruent action of choosing to marry your lifetime partner may likely bring you happiness, while the incongruent choice to cheat on your spouse may cause discontent.

To apply this, first think about your core values. Consider how your thoughts and behaviors align. Start small. For example, at the end of the day, consider how what you did that day may or may not align with your values, and subsequently consider how you felt. Think about what would need to be done to shift closer to congruence.

Source: Soraya Irving/Unsplash
Source: Soraya Irving/Unsplash

4. Dissonance

Directly related to congruence, dissonance is the discomfort that arises when there is a mismatch between your thoughts, beliefs, or actions. Many times we may experience the dissonance, but do not recognize that the cause is the lack of congruence. According to Leon Festinger, we strive for consistency, and the lack thereof prompts psychological stressors, such as anxiety, frustration, and sadness. For example, you may think that leaving a negative work environment may improve your happiness, but you may also believe that the temporary lack in compensation may also reduce your happiness. With your perspectives in conflict, stressors may arise, without you even realizing that this may be the source of your stress.

To apply this, build upon the congruence strategy above. In the situation in which you notice a conflict, consider how you can reorient yourself to achieve consistency. After repeated practice, your awareness can transition from a reactive reflection to a strategy that is noticed in the moment stressors arise to serve as a directional guide.

5. Empathy

You may know the word empathy, but how do you define it? If you’re like most people, your definition is likely to be something more like sympathy, the more commonly used term. Even if you know that there is indeed a difference, odds are you are working backwards from a definition of sympathy to describe it. Don’t worry, the words are similar, so even if you’re doing this, you are not far off. Consider sympathy as feeling with someone. Without needing to directly experience something, you can logically understand the person’s emotion in a given situation. Sympathy is most commonly associated with grief. Without ever needing to experience a similar loss, you can imagine what it is like and subsequently evoke emotions like pity, compassion, and concern. Empathy takes this to a deeper level. Rather than considering what the experience is like, it is engulfing yourself in their context and placing yourself in their shoes. A crucial difference is that for sympathy, you are still somewhat focused on yourself, whereas empathy embodies the position of the other person.

To practice differentiating between sympathy and empathy, question whether your focus is on yourself. Be mindful that empathy can be a deeper level of emotion that you may not be ready for, so take caution with this practice when you are experiencing your own emotional turmoil. It can be challenging for your mental health to handle your own tumultuous experience and add the baggage of another individual. Finally, to practice pure empathy, it may be helpful to take this in levels. Usually empathy is when we feel a connection to the person. Consider practicing empathy first with a loved one, then gradually choose another person to whom you are less connected.

Unsplash/Vonecia Carswell
Source: Unsplash/Vonecia Carswell

6. Enable

While it’s not uncommon to learn the word enable, the context is a tad different from the counseling connotation. Typically, the term is used in a positive context, synonymous with empower. When discussed in therapy, it does indeed have to do with providing authority to someone, but it also examines the level of the power provided. By all means, we should enable our loved ones to conquer their dreams. But at the same time, it may be helpful to consider when a potency of love and compassion may backfire. Consider it a bell curve in which at a certain point, the intensity of assistance may do more harm than good in the bigger picture. Let’s consider a parent and their child. Of course, we would hope that the parent’s top priority is providing care and support for their child. However, if a child develops a fatal drug dependence, is providing monetary support helpful as it may help the child evade withdrawal? This type of behavior could be helping to a fault. On the other hand, confronting the child with concerns about the addiction and importance of seeking help may be more difficult, yet it could technically be more helpful.

To avoid enabling, take responsibility for how you encourage others. Check your best intentions within the bigger picture. Bring your awareness to the concept in which there is a point where your help may actually be unhelpful. Think about what the bell curve looks like for you in the given context. Consider the far end of the spectrum: If you were to give too much, what do you believe would happen? Use the practical signs and consequences to help you work yourself backwards. Eventually you should find a level that feels right for you.

It could be helpful to consider if you are the person who is in fact being enabled. Hone your self-awareness to reflect on the help you receive from others. Is there a level at which the help you are fortunate to have actually causes you to diminish your autonomy, accountability, and/or responsibility?

7. Enmeshed

Family therapist and theorist Salvador Minuchin considered enmeshment to be a concerning issue that arises when blurred boundaries may exist in a relationship or wider system (e.g., family, friends). One can become entangled and may find it difficult to differentiate between the thoughts, feelings, and values of another person, and those that are their own. Many times this develops into codependence, or other concerning mental health problems. This term prompts us to consider our sense of self and to what extent that may be influenced by others. While it is not necessarily unhealthy to be inspired by another person, it can be unhealthy to be a certain way because you believe that’s the way that person would want you to be. For example, a child may choose to pursue a career by seeing their parent flourish in that domain; however, choosing that path because they believe it is what they should do to make their parent happy may be undermining their own sense of self. While this may vary culturally, the lack of clarity for a person’s sense of self, especially paired with frustration and resentment, can cause the development of further mental health issues.

To avoid enmeshment, take a step back and consider your sense of self. Who are you, and who influences who you are? Is there an aspect of you that you would like to change, but you worry it would dissatisfy someone in your life? If so, consider the relationship you may have with this person around that quality, and whether it may actually be intermingled and unhealthy.

8. Projection

Projection occurs when you attribute your concerns to another individual. As a defense mechanism, this usually arises when the connection is subconsciously made to personal concerns, but to protect the ego, the recognition is highlighted in someone else rather than yourself. I believe Carl Jung conveyed it simply when he said, “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves.” When you are frustrated with the qualities of another person, it may be because they relate to you in some way. Consider two partners in a healthy relationship who have decided to move in together. Partner A notices an increase in annoyance towards Partner B about a month in because of partner B’s lack of cleanliness. What does this mean about Partner A’s cleanliness? Is it that partner A simply prioritizes cleaning, or that partner A is actually Type-A and is struggling to adjust to changing patterns?

To make use of this notion in your life, consider Jung’s quote. Tap into your emotional intelligence when someone triggers a negative emotion in you; before considering what this means about them and how to proceed, reflect on what this truly means for you.

9. Psychogenic

The link between mental and physical well-being is becoming more common in our modern day, but this certainly isn’t a new notion. Particularly in Eastern science and religion, the link was often not discussed, not because of the idea that there isn’t a connection, but because they are seen as one and the same. A popular example of the mind-body that has influenced Western society is the concept of chakras from faiths such as Hinduism and Buddhism.

In the Mindbody Prescription, John Sarno discuses the link between our psychological and physical pain. In doing so, Sarno explains his preference for the term "psychogenic" rather than "psychosomatic." Psychosomatism is generally understood to be a physical condition that is caused or worsened by a mental stressor. However, Sarno also asserts that over time the connotation has become linked to the idea that the concerns are concocted, and hence, the preference for psychogenic, which emphasizes the psychological origins of physical pain. Without this realization, individuals may not recognize the underlying psychological stressors; these issues may go unaddressed, and pain may remain persistent.

To apply this concept, when a physical discomfort arises in the body, consider it to be pain at large. Rather than separating physical and mental pain, consider how the issue may be representative of something else. This is not to ignore additional physical stressors, but to empower you to consider all variables to help improve your well-being ​​​​

10. Schema

Jean Piaget theorized that as we learn, we categorize to make sense of things. From the Greek for shape or plan, a schema is essentially a combined system of these categorizations. Schemas are flexible, especially in our early years, and change as we expand the realm of what we know.

Take a young child on his first visit to a farm. Upon seeing a horse for the first time, the child excitedly exclaims, “Puppy!” While the surrounding adults are likely to laugh at this adorable quip and may correct him, “That’s a horse,” what is actually happening is an expansion of the child's vocabulary, and subsequently his schema. We are capable of learning throughout the course of our lives, and hence, our schemas can technically be expanded at any time.

To make use of this notion in your daily life, embrace being a lifelong learner. While cognitive processes do indeed cause learning to be harder as we age, contrary to old theories, we now know we can continue to learn throughout the course of our lives. Never give up on your ability to expand your mind, question what you know, and learn something new.