John's Blog

The Blog of John Gibson, PhD

How Therapy Works

In an age of text messaging, social networks, e-mail, and cell phones, the idea of meeting face-to-face with an actual person sounds almost quaint. And yet that's precisely what therapy is all about. It's about taking an hour every week or so to engage in honest communication about those aspects of your life that are most vital to your well-being.

The aim of therapy is to help you work your way through distress. Of course, distress can take many forms. Maybe you’re struggling with a set of symptoms, like those associated with anxiety or depression, or maybe you're trying to get a handle on a problematic relationship. Or maybe life has sent you a curve ball –– a divorce, a job loss, or an illness –– and your head is spinning.

If human beings functioned strictly according to logic, we’d seldom run at cross purposes with ourselves. But human beings are emotional beings. We feel pain, compassion, joy, anger, sadness, fear, shame, and guilt –- and these feelings are rarely more powerfully felt than when they occur in the context of relationships with people.

Therapy helps you deepen your understanding of yourself. As we begin to examine the particular nature of your distress, we’ll discover emotional and behavioral patterns. The core of these patterns may involve contradictory feelings, hidden motivations, or maladaptive beliefs that bias your perception of the world. When you are distressed, it’s easy to get stuck. Therapy is a process that helps you identify the internal barriers that are keeping your stuck so you can move past them.

We want to get you moving again, moving in the direction you really want your life to go.

Therapy isn’t about doing things to people; it’s about doing things with them. When you invite a therapist to help you, you’re inviting him or her to join forces with you. It’s you and me against your problem, pain, symptom, concern, pattern, or barrier.

In therapy, you talk, I listen. Mostly. Sometimes, especially when I become more confident in my understanding of your unique psychology, we’ll reverse roles and I’ll do a fair share of the talking. I will provide input. Because I am not you, I may have a measure of objectivity about you that you might not have. Also, I know a few things about how the human psyche works.

What do you talk about? Usually in the first session people have plenty to say because they’re explaining the problem. But sometimes in the second session they’re not sure where to go from there. Don’t worry. I’ve done this before; I can help you with that. But think of it this way: therapy is about having an extended conversation about the most vital aspects of your life. You may be surprised by how much we have to talk about. Problems are often quite complex. It may takes us some time to understand what’s really going on with you.

If you’re struck, we’ll try to get to the bottom of why. If you’re in emotional pain, I’ll listen with my heart, not just my head.

Ideally we meet weekly. We need to establish a routine, a rhythm of working. You don’t have to take the same time slot every week, but it often helps if you can. This creates consistency and expectation.

Sometimes people will come to sessions hoping that their mere attendance alone will be enough to create change or transformation. By simply showing up, they hope that something will rub off and they’ve get better. But therapy doesn’t work that way. Therapy requires your active participation. I can’t emphasize that enough. Therapy may require you to discuss painful memories or emotions. It may require you to try experiments with new patterns, or takes small risks. It may require you to speak the unspeakable or put difficult experiences into words. It may require several rounds of trial-and-error. If you’re going to try therapy, you must be prepared to exert effort.

We start with where you are at. Yes, we identify the basic direction you want to go (values, purpose), which will naturally lead us to think about certain destinations that you have not yet reached (goals), but we start with where you are at. Don’t be afraid to tell the truth about who you really are. We all struggle; we all have flaws, pain, loss, and history. Because I am a human being, I am just as likely to struggle in life as you are. This is why I have compassion for you. I know emotional pain myself; how could I not? So don’t be afraid to show me where you’re really at. In my practice, I have encountered just about every form of human suffering you can imagine. When it comes to human problems, there is little you can say that will surprise me. I will not judge you because of the way function (or fail to).

Change is possible. I know it is; I see it every day. And yet change, or personal transformation, is rarely linear and rarely fast. In fact, often the early phases of change are barely noticeable. But that does not mean they’re not occurring. Sometimes one key difference becomes a small snowball rolling down a hill. It gets bigger and bigger as it grows. If you’re going to try therapy, give it some time. Making a course correction in your life is more akin to turning a big ship than to turning a boat. In other words, it takes a while.

Therapy isn’t designed to make people into perfect persons; there are no such things. Nor is it designed to cure life; there will always be factors outside of your control, difficult situations and people, stress and struggle. What therapy is designed to do help people create lives worth living. I want people to feel fully alive, fully engaged, excited, moved, effective, and productive. By working through internal barriers, we increase the chances of that happening for you.

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