by Jeanette Galan Mogensen, intern, The Little White House
Psychotherapy is a relatively new practice that has only really been around as a scientific discipline for the last century. That’s not a long time, when you consider how long the practice of medicine has been around (some 40 centuries).
A common way of perceiving psychotherapy is as a means of symptom alleviation; if one feels sad, one takes the talking cure to “get fixed”—the same way, one sees a doctor for a broken leg. Therapy can be healing of the acutest kind; depression, anxiety, stress, trauma, cognitive challenge, and personality disorganization are all important reasons for seeing a therapist and we have much research emphasizing the power of therapy for curing pathology.
However, psychotherapy can be more than “fixing” what’s wrong. As I hope to inspire below, psychology can give us answers and inspiration to more than fixing mental illness. It can guide us on how to live a meaningful life. Here are three reasons why the human condition can benefit from therapy.
Reason 1: Life is a never-ending series of problems
Don’t get me wrong: There’s profound joy, explosive bliss, and beautiful contentment in the midst of this thing we call life. It’s really quite breathtaking at moments. However, I don’t think it takes much convincing to say that we’re all faced with our unique challenges—constantly. We lose friendships. We take on too many tasks at work. Or our dog gets sick and forces us to come up with money we don’t have—and bear pains we can’t stand.
These unique sets of pain hurt us and make us feel alone. We think to ourselves: ‘No one can possibly understand my pain. Who does this even happen to?!” And yet, the peculiar dilemma of human existence is that no matter how unique the problem, universality is inevitable; we are not the first to feel this way and we won’t be the last either.
Seeing a therapist is like a shortcut to solving the problem of existence; although no one will have the same set of problems and no one will benefit from the same solution, a therapist will be able to help. They will have general knowledge about how to approach the human psyche and be able to facilitate personal problem-solving. They do not provide answers. They provide wisdom and guidance—and strengthen one’s faith in own capabilities.
Reason 2: The unconscious
He gets a bad rep, but Freud was on to something; since his ground-breaking popularization of the unconscious, modern research has exploded; the unconscious is no longer simply an idea. Some of the names that we now call it are ‘automatic thinking’, ‘impulse’, ‘bias’, or ‘defense mechanisms’. The idea is the same: there are forces/patterns/motivations within our psyches that we are not consciously aware of. They influence the way we think, feel, and behave.
For example, the way one related to their parents growing up will likely influence how one relates to their partner in the present. Attachment theory tells us that although it can change throughout life, childhood attachment style influences adulthood attachment style. So if, say, one’s parents were busy and not very attentive throughout childhood, one could’ve adapted by keeping thoughts and feelings private. This pattern might then unconsciously repeat itself and cause conflict with a current partner.
This is not to say that the unconscious is bad. It’s really not. There are so many aspects to navigate between in the world, and we would need a much different brain if we were to make a conscious decision about everything. These unconscious patterns and instinctive mechanisms developed to help us adjust and cope with the world around us.
The tricky part is that circumstances change. This is why flexibility is vital. Through the process of awareness, we can become more flexible in our behavior and thinking—and become better able to adapt to the changing world around us.
There might be unconscious patterns within one’s psyche that were once helpful, but are now the opposite. This might make one feel like they’re unknowingly self-sabotaging. If so, seeing a therapist could be helpful; depending on the type of therapy, one of the big tasks is to make the unconscious conscious.
Reason 3: “The unexamined life is not worth living”
Socrates (the man behind the famous words above) died standing by what he believed. He was charged with impiety—disrespect of the belief system—and with corruption of the youth of Athens. His crime: asking people to be curious, examining, and reflective about themselves.
If only he could see us now; psychology is brimming with theory and research emphasizing the importance of examining our worlds. For example, narrative psychology tells us that having deconstructed and isolated aspects of ourselves makes us sick. They tell us that examining ourselves can help relieve this by creating a more coherent narrative of our lives.
This can done on our own at any time. It involves asking: What is our story? And why is our story this and not that? It is looking at where we came from and the journey to where we are right now. It is dreaming of where we want to go next and imagining a future that excites.
Life happens slowly, but also incredibly fast and blurrily. We’ll have to look at ours in order to bring the camera into focus. In fact, one way of reading Socrates’ famous words is like this: we can find out (or create) what is of worth in our lives by examining it. What makes the therapy space unique is that it is dedicated to doing exactly this.
Hajar R. (2015). History of medicine timeline. Heart views : the official journal of the Gulf Heart Association, 16(1), 43–45. https://doi.org/10.4103/1995-705x.153008
Louis J. Cozolino & Erin N. Santos (2014) Why We Need Therapy—and Why It Works: A Neuroscientific Perspective, Smith College Studies in Social Work, 84:2-3, 157-177, DOI: 10.1080/00377317.2014.923630