What is it?
Psychotherapy by definition is made up of two words ‘psyche’ meaning soul, mind, spirit and ‘therapy’ meaning healing or remedy. So psychotherapy is that which heals or remedies the soul mind or spirit. While somewhat vague and unspecific, this definition does give us a clear understanding that psychotherapy is about the internal world of the individual. Psychotherapy seeks to support people who would like to understand themselves more and who wish to be more in sync with their innate sense of self. We all desire to be happy and the desire for meaning and value is also fundamental to our human condition. Psychotherapy can offer the supportive space to engage with gaining personal insight.
Who is it for?
Psychotherapy is for anyone who is curious or concerned about their own experiences often arising from external issues and relationships. It is an individualised process towards ‘well being’ of ones individual self. Psychotherapy may be sought by people as a way of addressing presenting concerns and/or as a process to help them know, support and understand more about themselves and redress issues from there. The focus of the process is the clients experience and awareness. While psychotherapy is often perceived as being a process that deals with deep set trauma and issues emerging from childhood experiences, it is increasingly being accessed by individuals who have a more general sense of malaise about life, nothing is necessarily ‘wrong’ but they sense something is missing or dragging, a sense of personal meaning or ‘mattering’ perhaps. This is often described as a manifestation of the urge to become ‘that who we truly are’ which is regarded as one of the primary drives in human experience, something we all, as human beings, share. It underpins much of our ‘longing’ and may be projected out through our addictions, our consuming compulsions towards the attainment of something idyllic, an arrival point that simply never arrives. It is an internal urge towards the full realisation and acceptance of oneself and can only be met internally.
How does it work?
Psychotherapy is firstly a relational process and it is essential for its efficacy that the client feels a good rapport (respected and understood) with their therapist. The client and therapist work together to explore the material and the dynamics that the client’s brings to therapy. In psychotherapy the therapist will hold a kind of curiosity or openness to attending to the less apparent aspects that may emerge through the process. These insights and observations can become a resource to the client in gaining access to the self understanding they seek. They emerge from what we refer to as the unconscious material in every individual’s inner world. Great care is taken by the therapist in allowing the client to assimilate possible meaning rather than imposing any assumption (well intentioned though it may be). It is in this way that the individual can connect with their own sense of self and come to trust and know the resource that it is as they address their concerns. This is what we mean when we use the word ‘humanistic’. It is the individuals inherent urge towards wholeness, to become more fully who they are, or as it’s termed in psychology the drive towards ‘self actualisation’. It is this that is at the core of the psychotherapeutic process.
In the organisation of our world the focus is largely on categorising, fitting in and finding ways to get what you need to survive and succeed and survive. For many people, while this can be helpful in creating a sense of external security, it becomes meaningless as an end in itself. This sense of ‘something more’, ‘something missing’, ‘something wrong’ may not present in a conscious way but may be emerging indirectly through various other symptoms manifesting physically or psychologically. To illustrate in a general way, this may be seen in the consumption of goods we don’t actually need, a yearning for the perfect feeling and experience projected externally through beliefs such as ‘if only I had…’ ‘when I get…’ things will be better. Like a mirage in the desert, almost as soon as it is grasped it dissipates and can become never-ending. The same pattern is seen if you find yourself repeatedly returning to a negative situation despite your best efforts. Something is being missed and is calling for your attention through this repeated manifestation. This is the language that psychotherapy can help you to work with.
The psychotherapeutic process therefore, offers people the space to address disquiet and yearning that may present through symptoms and issues in their external experience but be originating in their internal world. It is not an idyllic ‘happy ever after’ that psychotherapy offers but rather an ability to understand this disquiet or yearning and to be able to consciously choose how to respond rather than finding yourself in tumbling patterns subject to continuing helpless suffering. Your psychotherapist can help you to work with material that maybe as yet unconscious, leading to increasing conscious awareness where you can come to know more about your own experience and responses. Psychotherapy is difficult and often means going through experiences of suffering but as this is done in a conscious and supported way, worked with and understood to bring out the meaning inherent in it. That we experience suffering is inevitable how we meet that is a choice, to which psychotherapy can be a powerful and positive response.
Is it successful?
In short the answer is yes. Many studies have illustrated the success of psychotherapy as an intervention when measured against control groups who do not participate in psychotherapy. The most powerful indicators of it’s efficacy are now being seen through the latest developments and technology applied by neuroscience. Using advancing scanning technology, psychotherapy has been shown to effect physiological changes in brain chemistry and neural connections. We now know that the deeply focused and concentrated efforts embedded in the psychotherapeutic process are directly linked to new neural pathway development in the brain. These scientific developments are also beginning to tell us more about why and how psychotherapy works, further reinforcing and supporting the theoretical understanding that the process has been based on. This is also giving psychotherapists insight into ways to further enhance the effectiveness of their work with clients.
There are however a number of factors that can significantly influence the level of success of a psychotherapeutic process. The primary one is the relationship between therapist and client. It is essential that the client feels safe and welcome and that they hold the therapists genuine interest and support. If difficulties arise in the relationship it is important that they be addressed and heard, this in itself can form part of the therapeutic experience. The quality and availability of the therapist is also very important. This is about the therapists level of expertise and perhaps more importantly their own depth of self reflection. To hold and work with the deeper experience and suffering of others it is incumbent upon therapists that they have worked deeply with their own inner world and suffering. While it is not possible for a client to ascertain this, as it is not necessarily about quantity of therapy, it is important that they feel confident that their therapist can work with all levels of their experience. While academic qualifications are very important they are not sufficient to be a competent psychotherapist.