What is psychotherapy really about anyway? Everyone can agree about the value of physical therapy or dental therapy, but what about therapy for the mind, the psyche, the soul? What about the old talk therapy of the 60’s? Is it still viable? In our culture, we are not well educated about what psychotherapy is and what it does. The phrase “oh, it’s all in your mind,” gives the impression that taking our minds and ourselves seriously is a questionable activity. Unlike a bleeding wound, psychological distress is not visible and consequently is not as often or as easily addressed.
Some folks think that therapy is meant for people who are in crisis and yes, crisis therapy does help people in the throes of distress, whether it be panic attack, severe depression or physical/emotional trauma. However, weekly talk therapy (psychotherapy or modern analysis) is also highly beneficial to functioning, stable people. Just as students in a classroom learn best when they are relaxed, persons involved in the therapeutic process progress best when their psyche is calm.
Both crisis therapy and weekly psychotherapy rely on the process of talking for relief and progress. Why does therapeutic talking make a difference? Most talking during the course of a day is not therapeutic, in fact, everyday talk primarily operates in service of the status quo or the existing hierarchy – for example, keeping the top dog on top or keeping relationships from conflict.
Therapeutic or progressive talk occurs when well-trained therapists listen intently to their patients talk about all that is going on for them. Good therapists do not have an agenda for their patients and instead help them explore and discover what might be hindering their quests. Whatever thoughts, ideas, desires or goals patients talk about are taken very seriously. In the process, patients begin to place more value on their thoughts and ultimately take themselves, their minds and their own interests more seriously.
In our culture, it’s easy to lose track of our goals. It’s hard to keep our goals in mind when we are responsible for taking care of children, extended family, work, home, food, yard, vehicles, bills and more. When we tend all this, it’s easy to set our personal interests aside–and over time we may begin to forget they are even there. Losing sight of our interests or goals, we begin to lose our internal compass and temporarily or permanently lose our ability to know and value our own thinking.
It seems like an odd thing to have personal goals and not be able to reach them — but actually, it’s not odd at all. It is more common to be side tracked or derailed or ambivalent. Such hold-ups indicate that there are underlying issues at play, issues that need to be addressed before progress can be made. When we are stuck or held back, it’s important to find out what has been happening and discover what has been getting in the way. Psychotherapeutic talking is designed to address and resolve these blockages.
Actually, the old adage that “it’s all in your mind,” is quite accurate. Our ideas, our desires, our aspirations, our inspirations – how we experience the world – everything comes from our minds. Psychotherapy employs talking as the means to get what is “all in your mind” out. It is the vehicle to get us unstuck. It helps us lay our thoughts out on the table so we can see them clearly, then maybe reorder them, throw some out or add some new. It gives us the chance to solidify, tweak or redefine ourselves to our liking.
Here in the 21st century, psychotherapy remains the ally of self preservation, self interest and self care. It teaches us to value our minds as our most important resource because the mind is the powerhouse that generates ideas, makes decisions and funds power for action. When we acquire access to this resource, we are able to move our intentions out of our minds and into the world. From its inception through the present, the fundamental purpose of psychotherapy remains to strengthen the mind, the psyche and the soul. In the valuing of our words, talk therapy teaches us the value of taking ourselves seriously — finally placing value where it belongs.
Anna Frost, MA, LPC is a therapist and partner of Asheville Consultation.