Unless you’ve been to therapy, you probably don’t know how it works. Do you really lie on a couch and talk about your problems the whole time? Does the therapist just listen? Do they offer advice? Will they judge you? What kinds of questions do they ask? What really happens in a session?
Because therapy is confidential, it “creates an aura of mystery,” said Ryan Howes, Ph.D, a psychologist in Pasadena, Calif. And many of us fear the unknown, so we avoid it, he said.
The information we do get about therapy often just adds to our confusion (and avoidance). Howes gets frustrated with professional organizations and educators who try to teach consumers about therapy by focusing on “the minutiae of diagnoses and therapeutic modalities.” He gets frustrated with jargon-filled articles written by therapists who assume their audience consists of other therapists.
“These just further alienate a public who are hungry for help but don’t have time to get a masters in psychology in order to understand how to get that help,” he said.
Such articles, talks and presentations also don’t convey the sheer power of therapy, the transformation that happens inside (and outside) of session.
This is where stories come in. Rudyard Kipling said, “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.” Something similar is true for therapy: If therapy were taught in stories, individuals would understand it better and appreciate its benefits.
“If we did a better job of portraying what therapy actually is, I think a lot more people would try it,” Howes said. He, along with his colleagues, decided to do just that: teach therapy in the form of stories. In February 2015 they hosted an event called “Moments of Meaning.” Six therapists took the stage, sharing true stories from their own therapy practices. (The stories were distorted to maintain confidentiality.)
“Therapists listen to and participate in stories every day, and clients come to tell and re-write their story, so I thought this would be the perfect medium,” Howes said. They also wanted to convey the humanness of therapy and how profound the interaction between client and clinician can be, he said.
You can view the six videos here. In each story, you’ll find vulnerability and transparency. You’ll see how therapists and clients interact. You’ll see how therapists make connections in a person’s story, between their past and current perspectives and actions. You’ll be privy to therapists’ own thought processes as they try to help their clients heal. You’ll see how transformation is made.
In other words, these stories offer a rare and poignant glimpse into therapy, along with insights into our own thoughts and behaviors.
The therapists share all sorts of stories. For instance, psychologist Joe Dilley, Ph.D, discusses his own experiences with seeing a therapist to cope with his uncle’s betrayal. He experiences an a-ha moment that alters his views on the betrayal and really everything.
Psychologist Silvina Irwin, Ph.D, talks about seeing a couple whose relationship has been marred by lies and betrayal for over 20 years. The couple seeks therapy as a last resort (which is common).
Irwin decided to discuss this particular couple because she wanted to show other couples they’re not the only ones struggling to love and be loved. She also wanted to convey that each partner is the antidote to the other partner’s pain, even when there’s great suffering.
During their sessions together, Irwin helps this couple identify and share their needs and fears. They’re able to be honest with each other and begin to soothe their pain.
The power of therapy isn’t in the clinician giving advice or having all the answers, Irwin said. In the case of couples, it’s also not in learning negotiation skills, she said.
Instead it lies in therapists providing non-judgmental and empathic environments. It is in “the therapist being a safe, trusted, compassionate guide walking alongside the couple.” It is in “creating safety for them to take risks with one another to be more open with each other — which can be incredibly hard.”
As Irwin noted, we are wired to seek connection and comfort from others. Isolation devastates us. But we often feel isolated in our pain because we feel shame for having difficult feelings. Or we try to cope with overwhelming feelings by avoiding them, she said.
“By talking about these feelings with someone who is very safe, accepting, and attuned, people can digest and process and make sense of their experiences. [They] no longer bear the burden of their discomfort alone. It is transformational.”
Many of us fear that we’ll be judged or rejected when we reveal our deepest shame, worst memory or most painful emotion, Howes said. “But when [people] instead receive understanding, compassion and a sincere desire to help from [their therapist], deep changes happen. They’re allowed to look at themselves and this problem in a completely different way.”
They are able to realize, “Maybe this isn’t the worst problem in the world, and maybe I can get through it with this person’s help.”
Psychologist Martin Hsia, PsyD, tells the story of a Vietnam vet struggling with depression. His client is haunted by a tragic accident, which happened when he was in seventh grade. Together, with the help of a simple cognitive-behavioral technique, they’re able to chip away at the client’s deeply entrenched guilt.
The power of therapy, Hsia said, lies in being a “special vehicle for deep personal change.” The relationship between client and clinician is based on honesty and trust. They have a shared mission to understand the client’s experience. “[In therapy] people can have discoveries, learn important lessons and make major life changes in so many valuable ways,” he said
Therapy isn’t just powerful for people who are actively struggling or going through a specific problem, Hsia said. Many of his clients are high-functioning, successful individuals. “They find value in the act of reflecting on daily experiences and making sense of their lives.”
Hsia used this analogy: It’s important to empty the lint filter in the dryer after every load, or it becomes a hazard. When we don’t reflect regularly on our lives, our thoughts and feelings, like lint, build up. “Therapy can be helpful in cleaning up that filter.”
Therapy isn’t “a terrifying mystical process,” Howes said. In reality it’s simply two people working together to help the client better understand themselves and create positive change.
“Stories are a powerful way to break down walls and educate,” Howes said. He encouraged anyone who’s had a powerful experience in therapy to consider sharing their story with family and friends. “There may be many people around you who would consider therapy if they knew about your experience.”
Unfortunately, there’s still a stigma surrounding seeking help. People worry that they’re weak for going to therapy. But, as Howes noted, his clients are far from weak. “They’re strong enough to ask for help and become an assertive participant in their own healing. Avoidance, denial and isolation aren’t signs of strength — confronting the issue and collaborating with another is.”
Watch the excellent video series on MomentsOfMeaning.org. These talks are part of a larger awareness campaign called National Psychotherapy Day (on September 25th). Howes, along with several graduate students, started the campaign in 2012. According to Howes, it’s “a day to fight therapy stigma, share effectiveness research, support low-fee counseling centers, tell therapy stories, and wear the color turquoise to let people know you support psychotherapy and those who seek it.”
Magic book photo available from Shutterstock