It’s the relationship...

Many, maybe most people believe that therapists “do” something which makes patients feel better because it is hard to believe that it is the relationship between the therapist and the patient which is the healing factor.

If I go to the dentist because I have pain in my mouth and the dentist doesn't help, I likely will seek help elsewhere, and that seems reasonable. But I look to the dentist to *do* something to make me feel better. The dentist does not usually, at least in acute situations, require of me that I do more than be cooperative and hold my mouth open. But psychotherapy is a different thing altogether. Therapists do not perform procedures upon patients in order to relieve their suffering. We might sometimes wish we could and certainly patients wish we would, but it just isn't that way.

In any depth psychotherapy, the therapist does not tell the patient how to solve problems. The focus of treatment is exploration of the patient's psyche and habitual thought patterns. The goal of treatment is increased understanding of the sources of inner conflicts and emotional problems. This understanding is what we call insight. Now insight without action is pretty useless. But the therapist doesn't say to do this or that but instead might ask how this new understanding might be put into action in the patient's life.

In order to accomplish this work of therapy, the patient and therapist must have a good working relationship, or therapeutic alliance. The patient needs to feel that the therapist is on her side, so to speak, allied with her in her desire to have a better, happier life. And in turn, the therapist needs from the patient a willingness to do the work of therapy, to put feelings into words, to talk about what she is thinking and feeling. And that includes being willing to talk about feelings of anger, disappointment or frustration about the therapy or therapist.

“For psychotherapy to be effective a close rapport is needed, so close that the doctor cannot shut his eyes to the heights and depths of human suffering. The rapport consists, after all, in a constant comparison and mutual comprehension, in the dialectical confrontation of two opposing psychic realities. If for some reason these mutual impressions do not impinge on each other, the psychotherapeutic process remains ineffective, and no change is produced. Unless both doctor and patient become a problem to each other, no solution is found.”  C.G. Jung

Most often when I hear people saying that therapy isn't helping, I am also hearing an expectation that the therapist will tell the person what to do in order to feel better. And  to a very limited degree, we can do some of that -- like take a walk or write in a journal or try painting or some other creative outlet when having difficulty between sessions. But on the big things -- like whether or not to stay in a marriage or change careers or leave home or any of many many other important life decisions, we cannot tell a patient what to do. We, as human beings ourselves, have enough trouble finding our way through the complexities of our own lives and not only cannot, but really should not presume to be in a position to make decisions for others in their lives. No matter how much the patient may want it. But talking about wanting that, being angry that therapist won't do it -- that is the stuff of therapy. Because it is the relationship with the therapist that facilitates change.

Ultimately we behave with the therapist the way we do with most important people in our lives, with the same kinds of assumptions about the therapist and about ourselves. And we do so unquestioningly. 

It is also true that it is difficult for the therapist to respond to feelings and issues that the patient does not talk about. All rumors to the contrary, we are not mind readers! This underlies the basic therapeutic dictum that the patient should say whatever comes to mind.

Now of course, this is difficult for most of us, conditioned as we are by social norms, by rules we have learned from our parents. Remember Thumper in Bambi:"If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all"? Most of us operate on some version of that in our relationships and avoid saying things to another person that we think might make them uncomfortable or angry with us. But therapy is a place where Thumper's Rule needs to be suspended. So, if you don't tell the therapist you don't feel cared about, there isn't much the therapist can do to help you with that. Similarly if you are angry with the therapist, have sexual feelings toward him or her, or any of the myriad of other feelings and thoughts about the therapist you might have. It all belongs in therapy. Putting those feelings into words is a key  part of what therapy is about, after all, because that opens the doorway to understanding where they come from and how to deal with them in ways that are helpful rather than destructive in life.


© Cheryl Fuller, 2018. All  rights reserved.