May is Mental Health Awareness month and given the many unfortunate impressions of therapy and therapist that are out there, this is a good time to sort out fact from fiction.
As I mentioned before, one common misconception is that a therapist is someone who will “straighten” you out. That false image comes from psychiatry itself. For a long time, psychiatry used the orthodontic metaphor of straightening to convey what a therapist does to heal the disordered mind. Even today there is a leading professional journal named Ortho-Psychiatry. The Greek term ortho which means to straighten, conveys the notion that emotional problems are like crooked teeth i.e. something in a person’s mind has come out of alignment and needs to forcibly “straightened out”.
Certainly the traumatic events of childhood warp and distort our perceptions and responses to life and cause us to have exaggerated and irrational thoughts, feelings and reactions. Those distortions do need to be identified and corrected so that one may once again accurately perceive and rationally respond to the challenges one encounters in life.
While the straightening image conveys some truth, in other ways, it is essentially false. Even worse, it gives folks the wrong idea about what therapy really is. Who wants to be forced into changing by another person?
Applying the orthodontic metaphor to psychotherapy, i.e. of pushing a person’s thoughts and feelings back into alignment, expressed a world view from a bygone era and is not reflective of how our own culture places a high value on self-determination and individual freedom. Healing and change are the results of a client’s own discovery and effort made as s/he works with the therapist and not because of the action of the therapist or treatment alone.
In a previous post, I suggested the idea of therapist as pilot. Another, helpful metaphor for conveying what psychotherapy is and what a psychotherapist actually does is a guide who takes the client on a tour of his/her life. Therapy is the process which allows the client to see his/her life from a different view and see hid/her problems from a larger perspective.
The therapist points out the relative relationships and historical connections of various aspects and events of the person’s life and places various behavioral patterns in the context of how they have developed. Learning how a person’s present differs from his/her original context helps explain how patterns that once made sense no longer fit the client’s present situation. This expanded awareness can, in turn, help clients to make needed changes in their response patterns.
The chief function of psychotherapy is to help folks to change their perspective which allows them to change their experience and behavior. Increased awareness of life patterns and unrecognized resources allows clients to experience life more positively and cope with challenges more effectively.
The healing self-discovery is not imposed on the person by the therapist. The “ah ha” moment is accomplished by the person’s willingness to explore and see how things appear from a different and elevated perspective.
It is important that folks who are struggling with emotional and behavior issues know that the process of therapy is one in which they are in control and that the therapist is there to assist but not to force any belief or change. You can learn a lot from a tour guide but, ultimately, it is the way each person appropriates the new knowledge that results in lasting change.