Privileges of Therapy
By Karmen Thulin, PsyD
The therapy room is a special and weird place. It is a place where people come to grow and there are many factors that influence this. Listed below are the things about therapy that are uniquely special and have the most impact on clients.
Idiosyncratic. There is a lot of self-help out there. The benefit of trained psychological therapists is that they are grounded in evidence-based practices, theoretical bases of understanding behavior, and knowledge of the science for biological bases of behavior. They also are familiar with several theories and methods of intervention and can tailor therapy for you and your goals individually. For more, see the blog post ‘When You Should Have a Therapist Instead of a Coach’.
Unidirectional. After a lifetime of regular bidirectional relationships, having one that only focuses on the needs of one person takes knowledge and practice. A therapists’ investment is in your goals, meaning they are defined by you. While some of the work can often be identifying what those are, it should never be prescribed by the therapist. It should result from conversation where you hear hypotheses and choose the ones that feel right. You also get to say ‘Actually that’s not it.’ without worrying about the other persons’ reaction. This is about you.
Accountable. Change is hard. Again, because we are in it based on your self-defined best interests, that makes accountability part of therapy. In therapy you have the space to kick around what you want to hold yourself to and for how long, and then to have someone check in on it with you. A bonus is that instead of being punitive or shaming when you fall short, you get professional insight to identify what went wrong and what you could try moving forward.
Accepting. While many believe and acknowledge that acceptance is a basic human need, it is hard to come by as purely as you can get it in therapy. While this doesn’t mean your therapist should approve and condone every single thing you do (that’s probably not good therapy) it does mean therapy is a place where you can reliably be your most vulnerable without worrying about rejection or distancing from the other person. It is our job to handle whatever you have with compassion and scientific understanding. Some of the most therapeutic moments are when clients finally let themselves speak or feel something they’ve been afraid of for a long time. There’s no better place to do that than with someone who has training, experience, and allegiance to ethical guidelines.
Honesty. This is my favorite. Therapy is the only relationship where you get to say what you don’t like, and the other person responds with openness. This is a beautiful side-effect of that unidirectionality (stated above). You can also get honest interpretations of how you come off to others. Rather than it being rejection-based or unspoken as is usually the case in regular relationships, here it is only posited in your best interests. Finally, all of this can be processed. This to me is what makes a space “safe”. Not that the perfect response is always there, but that the therapist is always willing to explore and adjust based on how things feel for you. Almost always this is fertile ground and can be used for the person’s therapy goals. If it isn’t goal-related, it is useful in order to make sure there is an optimal working relationship. There is a whole ethical and theoretical framework to this for therapists but the take-home for clients is that it creates a wonderful background for deep, life-changing work to occur.