You Can’t Think Your Way Through Therapy

There are many things in life that you can do by thinking. You can do math equations, project future scenarios, imagine past events, and calculate how many pounds of sweet potatoes you will need to feed your family for Thanksgiving dinner. You can think of a purple can of paint, or your best friend, or your goals for the new year. Thinking is a very useful facet of the human experience. We need to think in order to navigate our world, communicate, plan, and execute.

But there is another part to human experience that cannot be ignored, especially when it comes to mental health. It is the world of emotion, feeling, and physical experience.

When you first come to therapy, you may have the idea that your life isn’t the way that you want it to be. You are not happy in some sense, you feel anxious or depressed, you feel stuck or stifled, you feel hopeless, you have low self-worth.

What we do in therapy is to define all the ways that your life is not the way you want it to be. We want to talk about the symptoms that you are having, the sadness, anxiety, avoidance, and fear. We want to talk about when it happens, how often, and how much. We want to identify the specific moments that you say to yourself, “This is too much for me. I’m just no good. I’m not enough. I can’t do this. I’ll probably fail. No one will ever love me. It’s all my fault. I just can’t get it right.”

And as cliché as this might sound, we also want to look inside and see how these experiences make you feel. (There is some truth to the overly used, stereotypical, cheesy therapist question, “And how does that make you feel?”)

If you come to therapy and say, “Gosh, I feel really anxious at work. I find that I am always thinking about how I just can’t do things right,” it’s quite possible that we can come up with a list of all the ways you do do things right. We can also talk about how your coworkers don’t always get things right, and that you are just as imperfectly human as they are. We can also talk about all of your strengths, and the fact that even if you don’t get things right all the time, it’s totally okay. We can talk about the advice that you would give to a friend in the same situation, eventually telling yourself the very same sage wisdom and compassionate words.

However, if you don’t feel any differently, all of these interventions will seem abstract and distant. You will be able to intellectually understand that “it’s okay to make mistakes, everyone does,” but if you don’t feel loved, safe, or at peace with yourself, there is no way you will actually experience a change in your daily life.

This is why you cannot think your way through therapy. If making changes to your life was purely a matter of thinking new thoughts, therapy would be nothing more than an intellectual exercise. You could essentially disconnect from your body, your feelings, your emotions, your mood, your tensions, your tightness, your pounding heart, your frozen chest – you could think up new affirmations such as, “I really love myself. Life is great. I do a great job,” and, that would be it.

Mental health does not work this way, and therefore therapy does not work this way. We cannot white-knuckle our way into a new set of thoughts about ourselves and the world and then believe that we are going to be forever liberated from pain.

While we do need this intellectual part of us to help define our challenges, set goals, and put language to our experience, if we don’t actually feel any differently, it doesn’t really matter what we are thinking. What we really want when we come into therapy is to feel differently. We may want to see some external changes, such as a better job or a better relationship, but ultimately, we want to feel okay, capable, and hopeful.

We can take many different roads to get there. Arriving upon a new feeling can be done via a new experience, an open mind, an open heart, a willingness to let go of the past, a willingness to imagine a new future. There are many ways that we do this together in therapy. But how will we ultimately know when we feel differently?

What we must do in therapy is cultivate a greater understanding of what it feels like to be in our body. That becomes our barometer for how distressed or how at peace we are. It also becomes the most wonderful vehicle to feel differently in our life and about our life.

As mentioned, there are many different roads to get there depending upon what is needed. Learning how to make contact with emotional comfort within ourselves is one of the biggest gifts we can learn to create and receive. And we cannot simply think ourselves there.

  • Nina Tomkiewicz, LCSW

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