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Psychotherapy is a relational process that empowers growth and change in the individual, couple or family. While therapy is a mix of learning and experience, generally more emphasis is placed on process and experience over rote learning. Research has shown that certain factors are common to effective therapy. I work to make sure that these components, seven of which I mention below, are a central part of each therapeutic relationship.
First of all, good therapy should be non-pathologizing, that is not so much focused on ‘mental illness’ but rather on ‘problems in living’ that can be challenging for most people. I think of clients not as sick but stuck, more in need of recovery than fixing. Treatment is not just focused on deficits and what’s wrong but also on potential, strengths, resiliencies and on removing obstacles to growth and change.
Secondly, therapy should be empowering, that is able to effect insight and motivation on a level that unleashes forward momentum and movement toward a preferred future in key areas of life. At the same time therapy can also help clients free themselves from destructive or limiting patterns of thinking, acting and relating.
Collaboration is the third hallmark of good therapy. This is the sense of two people working together toward meaningful, growth-oriented goals and outcomes. I see the client as the expert on his/her life and the determiner/holder of values and beliefs. The therapist is less the ‘doctor’ than the co-journeyer or faithful witness focused on facilitation and progress.
Fourth, the therapy endeavor should be focused and specific, rather than general and diffuse. I make It a point in each session to return to originally stated problems, issues and goals so that the work stays on track. Of course, goals can change and unfold as we proceed forward together.
The fifth aspect of good therapy is that, as your therapist, I have a duty to be aware of myself and my own history, process and issues so that they don’t interfere with the focus on the client. My goal is to be engaged but as objective as possible. Therapists are entitled to their own values and beliefs. But throughout the therapeutic endeavor it is important that the focus stays on the issues at hand and the clients needs and goals.
The sixth aspect of good therapy, and one of utmost importance to me is the relationship between me and my clients: the ongoing human-to-human connection that provides the foundation for growth and change. My goal is to provide a safe holding/containing environment that enables a sense of trust while allowing the client to be him/herself in the presence of the therapist. A therapist who is unconditionally accepting of whatever the client brings to the consulting room nurtures the therapeutic relationship. Without a solid therapeutic/working relationship, there is no healing, growth or change.
In working on different layers or levels, good therapy tends to greater depth as the therapeutic relationship progresses over time. This is the seventh aspect of good therapy. While help can come at any level, moving into deeper, less conscious layers of thinking, emoting, remembering and experiencing is important for insight and growth. Many problems in living are rooted in our early environment. Once present functioning is stabilized, the path forward can involve unaccessed aspects of our life experience that need to be integrated with our present state of awareness.
Despite our best efforts, it is important to remember that good therapy is more art than science. It is a deeply human experience and as such is just as imperfect as any other endeavor we may undertake. Change happens in many different ways and we can never be certain about the best way forward. But if each of these seven components is in place then the spirit of our work together will draw us back if we happen to get off track.