People ask me all the time, what happens in therapy? There is often a reluctance to go to a stranger and tell them your life history and pay for the privilege. Sometimes it is hard to accept that we cannot solve our problems on our own or that someone will be telling us what to do. So how does therapy help? There are multiple ways of course that are too many to list here but essentially it helps to improve our relationships. Primarily healing the relationship to ourselves is an important step in improving our relationship to others; if we can learn to have compassion for our own pain we are more likely to understand someone else’s.
It brings up the question of why we need to learn self-compassion in the first place and why it is not simply innate within us. As humans we learn to relate to ourselves the way our primary caregivers related to us when we were children. These patterns become programmed early on and mold our attachment patterns that inform how we function in relationship. If your parent was curious about your feelings when you were a kid and reflective about your internal world, the likelihood is you are in touch with your emotions and able to express them as an adult. If on the other hand your parent was quick to distract you from your negative emotions and conflict was not tolerated, the likelihood is that conflict is an issue in your adult relationships and your emotions are devalued when they bubble up.
I like to think of therapy as the process of being re-parented. It provides the chance to repair the attachment issues from our own childhoods. The therapist becomes a surrogate parent in a way and a space opens up where we get to understand how we were parented and why we react the way we do when our loved ones trigger us. Once we understand we then have a choice to react differently next time round. Many people say, “the past is in the past, I can’t change anything that happened, so what is the point?” The point is that it is not about blaming our parents for their shortcomings, it is about understanding our patterns so that we can make better choices moving forward. At the same time we have to grieve the loss of the relationships we always wished we had with our parents and never did. By saying goodbye to the fantasy we can then be free to have the relationship that is actually available right now. Perhaps this is the moment we really become an adult, when we stop thinking of ourselves as our parents’ child and are able to finally parent ourselves in a healthy way. The hope then is that we can move on to create healthy relationships with our parents, partners, friends and children.
For a great article on couples relationships try The Einstein of Love by Kristin Ohlson, in the October edition of Psychology Today.
Annabelle Safinia is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist working with families and parents at Well Baby Center. She is also the Group and Counseling Coordinator and Mindful Parenting Group facilitator/trainer.