How Psychotherapy Works

February 1, 2023

Psychotherapist office

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What is psychotherapy, therapy, and counselling?

These three terms have the same meaning. Like many subjects in the field of psychology, there are multiple names for similar things. It can be somewhat confusing. I’ll call it ‘psychotherapy’ to be consistent.

Psychotherapy is a psychological intervention that changes thinking patterns, feelings, behaviours, and perhaps beliefs as well. Typically, such a change is needed when people feel stuck and when life’s issues are causing considerable emotional pain. These issues have deep roots and require time and effort to repair.

The psychotherapy process

The process of psychotherapy starts with the developing relationship between client and therapist. Within the initial sessions, a bond is formed that will create a safe container for the work ahead.  The therapeutic relationship is a place for the client to learn new ways of being, interacting, expressing, and experiment with new identities. This learning will then be generalized to the client’s life outside the sessions. 

During the course of psychotherapy, interventions are applied to increase self-awareness and psychological strength.  The interventions typically contain practical methods to break free from ongoing problems and move forward in life.  Combining a therapeutic relationship with carefully applied interventions creates a process for change. 

Psychotherapeutic interventions are applied in a variety of ways:

  • insight into presently occurring issues, past traumas and response patterns
  • catharsis — the emotional unburdening that comes with sharing what is pent up inside and the resulting feeling of wholeness
  • emotional processing — where supressed emotions are experienced in healthy and constructive ways
  • strength, safety and security from having someone in your corner who understands and doesn’t judge
  • restructuring the relationship with Self
  • the development of new life skills through education, training, and practice

Most of these ways are about providing a client with the perspective, knowledge and skills required to change. As a result, we psychotherapists refer to our work as ‘facilitation’. We are facilitating (or assisting) a client in making changes themselves.

Is psychotherapy a waste of time and money?

I have rarely seen psychotherapy fail if there exists a healthy relationship between therapist and client. However, I’ve seen people waste time and money in therapy because they persisted even when it wasn’t a good fit.  It’s okay to end the relationship with one therapist and try again with another.   

Motivation is another factor. When psychotherapy fails, there may have been a lack of commitment to do the work — perhaps the person attended in order to please someone else. The only motivation which seems to produce positive outcomes is one’s own enlightened self-interest to grow and persevere.

If the therapeutic alliance and motivation is right, then the psychotherapy process will most likely result in change. However, the change may take time and may not fully occur during the course of therapy. It will happen later when the neural connections within the brain solidify and begin manifesting in conscious life. In the meanwhile, time spent in psychotherapy may feel like a waste because the results aren’t always immediate.

Is therapy for the weak? 

Life is tough. We live in a highly individualized era. Our society today does not have the sense of community and supportive traditions that it did a few generations ago.

We aren’t meant to live in such loneliness and isolation. I understand that as individuals we should be strong and try to handle life independently as much as possible. However, we aren’t meant to go through life alone, handling our traumas and emotions by ourselves. Reaching out for help and learning from others is natural and healthy. It is not a sign of weakness.

“We must live together as brothers or perish together as fools”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

As well, it is okay to not know how to handle some of life’s problems. We were born into these bodies and minds, without a blueprint or an instruction manual to help understand how it all works.  Sitting with someone who has made it his or her life’s work to understand the most difficult psychological problems of life is also not a sign of weakness. 

Psychotherapy is for the strong. It takes courage to face o ur wounds and grow through them. In fact, taking that long journey into ourselves is life’s greatest challenge. You will be amazed by it once you have begun.

Categories: Psychotherapy