You are in pain. You have been experiencing difficulties getting up in the morning. You dread the thought of facing another day. No matter what you say to yourself to feel better – “you are going to be all right;” “this is just a temporary situation;” “you have been in worse situations before” – you don’t feel any better. Or, you are still thinking about your ex-husband, who cheated on you and divorced you three years ago. You tell yourself you need to move on and forget about him. After all, he did not deserve you and, even if he came back, you would never trust him again, and yet you cannot get him out of your mind. You don’t want to go out. The thought of meeting someone else nauseates you. Or you are anxious, always waiting for the other shoe to drop. You cannot enjoy what is good in your life because you are afraid it won’t last, so you steel yourself against the next catastrophe that you see lurking around every corner. You constantly remind yourself there is nothing to worry about, and yet you continue to feel anxious. Or you feel aimless. You don’t know what direction you want your life to take. You don’t trust yourself to make clear decisions about what you should do.
What can you do to feel better?
You have talked to your doctor. You may even have tried some medication, but you still feel unhappy. You feel numb. What else is there to do? Someone mentions to you that you should try psychotherapy or counseling. You are hesitant. You may feel embarrassed to tell a stranger your deepest thoughts. After all, you were taught not to air your dirty laundry with anyone outside your family. But your family cannot help you. You have tried. They are all frustrated and tired of what they see as your inability to help yourself.
How does therapy work? How can talking to a therapist help you feel better about yourself and your life? How can a stranger succeed where family members failed? And yet therapy has been around forever, in one form or another, because it is only when we are with someone who provides emotional safety for us that we can face our fears, address our concerns and, together, integrate and manage them. Family members cannot provide this safe space for us to explore the painful feelings that create and maintain our symptoms.
Our emotions reflect our lives, our experiences, our traumas as well as our positive experiences. In order for us to be able to face and address the painful emotions that we have been trying to keep at bay by excluding them from our consciousness, it is necessary to be in the presence of an attuned person. This is someone who is emotionally responsive to our affective states, who is not pushing, controlling and judging us, but who is interested, consistently available and emotionally accessible, non judgmental and trustworthy. In therapy, this person is the therapist, who is both grounded in psychological theory and in touch with his own feelings and thoughts and able to keep them separate from ours. This combination of knowledge about the workings of our minds, ability to empathize and self-awareness is something our family cannot provide for us. The therapist listens to our feelings, as well as his or her own, helps us put our emotions into words and helps us understand what is happening in our minds. With his or her demeanor, the therapist also conveys the message that she or he can stay in this situation as long we need it, allowing for the meaning of what is happening to gradually emerge.
Therapy, in a lot of ways, recreates the childhood ideal situation where the parent helps the child explore feelings and gives words to them. This parent contains the strong, painful feelings, showing the child they don’t have to be overwhelming and uncontrollable. Little by little the child learns to be more comfortable with them. Eventually, this process leads to the child’s and later the adult’s ability to identify feelings and thoughts, put them into words and regulate them effectively.
In therapy, we work through those unresolved experiences that continue to hinder our ability to become intimate with others and be autonomous, and that maintain our emotional distress. In this process we develop the ability to self- reflect on our inner experiences, and we are able to create a narrative of our emotional lives that explains and organizes our experiences in a coherent manner. We become comfortable with our emotional experiences, whatever they are, as our inner life, through therapy, develops a strong “core’ that can withstand any emotion.
Feel free to post your comments below.