Three Things Therapy is NOT

Therapy is not a way to get rid of painful emotions.

One of the things that we do in therapy is learn how to sit and be with difficult emotions. The purpose of this is not to torture ourselves. We do this in order to increase our ability to tolerate our emotional experience (good or bad), as well as to learn from what our emotions are here to tell us.

Emotions are signals. Each time we feel an emotion, we are receiving a message about the way that a part of us is perceiving the world. I say a “part” of us, because as we all know, we can have parts of us that want and feel different things. For example, “Part of me really wants to go visit my family, and the other part is completely dreading it and wants to avoid it at all costs.”

The dread we are feeling may be telling us about a dynamic or an experience of shame and humiliation that we anticipate will occur. Learning how to be with this emotion can help us understand our fears, desires, hopes, etc. If we try to ignore, suppress, or “get rid” of this emotion, we may be missing a lot of useful information about who we are, what we need, and how we were hurt in the past.

The emotions that bring us to therapy are often really trying hard to get our attention. It’s as if someone is running towards us with a panicked look on their face, their hands waving in the air, shouting, “Fire! Fire!” and we are putting on our headphones and turning our backs. Could you imagine how desperate that person would be to get our attention? That is how our ignored emotions wreak havoc on us – they ultimately want to be heard and will find ways to infiltrate our awareness, perhaps giving us a stomachache or headache, nightmares, crying spells, irritability, etc.

So in therapy we learn how to ground ourselves, learn how to soothe our bodies, and from there we venture into difficult places. It’s like setting up a basecamp from which to go exploring in the wilderness. In therapy we learn how to be comfortable in the wilderness, how to bring gifts of compassion and care and understanding to the parts of us that need it most. Therapy is not a way to practice avoiding what is painful, but how to really see what it is we have been resisting.

Therapy is not a way to get everyone to treat you with the kindness and respect you deserve.

No matter how kind, loving, caring, generous, and patient you are, there will be people in this world who do not treat you with love and respect. It’s not a fault of you; it’s just a reflection that people are in different places on their journey of self-development in life. Many times, the way people treat you has much less to do with you than it does with them. A person’s ability to really be present with you, make you feel heard and understood, depends upon if they developed these qualities in themselves or not. It does not depend upon you.

Yes, we can definitely influence others by how we hold ourselves, speaking from our heart, and being clear and effective communicators. But just because we choose work on these things does not mean that our coworkers, friends, family, or the cashier at the grocery store are working on doing the same.

As children, we do not get to choose our families. Rarely do we get to get to choose our friendships at a young age either, since they are largely based upon our school, neighborhood, and social aptitude of our parents. Often when we are treated poorly as children, we develop a sense of helplessness and blame ourselves. We have not yet developed the wisdom to understand that other people’s problems impact how they show up in the world, and it has little to do with us.

As adults, we can choose who we wish to spend our time with. We can choose to set boundaries. We can also choose to be kind to someone who is not kind, or to be understanding of someone who is close-minded. Therapy is not about getting others to do what we want. Therapy is all about learning to treat yourself with the kindness and respect you deserve, so that you can show up the way you want to in the world.

Your therapist is not going to tell you what you should do with your life.

Life is full of decisions. We are constantly making decisions; however we are not always weighing the options available to us. That would be overwhelming. We make decisions about jobs, friendships, activities, spending, saving, daily habits, TV shows, grocery shopping, driving routes, etc. Even moment to moment, we are deciding what to eat, when to eat, when to brush our teeth, when to sleep, what to wear, who to text, who to call, what to do, etc.

Sometimes there might not seem to be a “choice” because the thing to do seems so obvious or habitual: of course I am going to feed my dog; he always eats at 6am and he is clearly hungry. Of course I am going to pick up my children from school. Of course I am going to go to the grocery store I always go to. But these are decisions, these are choices, and it’s true that if we weighed all of these decisions with thorough pros and cons lists, consulting with friends and family, identifying a list of our values to ensure our actions are aligned with them, we would be totally overwhelmed and bogged down.

These “choices” are less about deciding moment-to-moment the next course of action, and more about deciding upon an overarching goal that guides our actions. For example, if I choose to adopt a dog, I am in essence also choosing to groom, walk, feed, pet, and train this dog too. If I choose to brush my teeth twice a day, I am choosing to own and keep a toothbrush, toothpaste, have a spot for them in my bathroom, and make time for this activity in the morning and evening every day. We make a larger decision, and that, in effect, creates a series of activities that may occur once or ongoing.

People don’t tend to ask their therapist whether or not they should brush their teeth or buy food for their dog. However, they might feel confused about whether or not they should quit their job, change careers, move cities, confront a friend, or leave their partner. And the answers to these questions definitely do not lie within your therapist.

The decisions people generally are stuck on are the decisions that give rise to conflicting parts of you. Here we are with “parts” again. When 100% of us wants to do something, there really doesn’t seem to be a choice. It’s like a vote where you need a majority to get a new law passed. If 100% of people vote in favor of passing the law, the law gets passed easily and without complaint. If 51% of people vote in favor of passing the law, the law might still get passed, but there will be a lot of people who may be irritated and upset about it. If 40% of people want the law to pass, 40% do not, and 20% are undecided, nothing happens.

What we do in therapy is similar to listening to the arguments for and against all sides. Sometimes in life there is a clear “right and wrong” from an ethical perspective – such as if we are deciding to steal an item or pay for it. However, for many decisions there are no clear ethical or moral guidelines to follow. We are forced to come up with our own reasons for moving in a certain direction. That is what your therapist can help you with: understanding, valuing, and accepting your why. We don’t always know how something will turn out, but we can learn to have our back with honoring why we made the choices we did.

  • Nina Tomkiewicz, LCSW
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