Many clients ask me, “Why does psychotherapy take a long time?”
I’d like to illustrate the answer to that with a short story called ‘The autobiography’
I walk down the road. There is a hole in the road. I do not see the hole. I fall in the hole. It is very deep, and at the bottom where I lay broken, it is dark and cold. I can’t get out.
I walk down the road. There is a hole in the road. I see the hole as I am walking down the road. I fall down the hole. Its familiar and quite cosy. I can’t get out.
I walk down the road. There is a hole in the road. I see the hole as I am walking down the road. I fall down the hole. I want to get out.
I walk down the road. There is a hole in the road. I see the hole as I am walking down the road. I dread falling down the hole. I fall down the hole. And I look up and decide to get out.
I walk down the road. There is a hole in the road. I see the hole as I walk down the road. I think, “oh, ha ha, no, no, I’m not falling for that again!”. I fall down the hole. I start climbing out.
I walk down the road. There is a hole in the road. I see the hole as I walk down the road. I try not to, but I fall in the hole again. I get back out straight away.
I walk down the road. There is a hole in the road. I see the hole as I walk down the road. My foot slides and I fall in the hole again, but I do not hit the bottom. I cling on to the side and get out of the hole.
I walk down the road. There is a hole in the road. I step over the hole. I do not fall into the hole.
I walk down a different road.
How can we have energy and feel motivated about our very existence?
I have identified three ways that, if addressed, go a long way toward bringing about a sense of loving life. This is possible for any of us.
Firstly, our life has to have meaning. We can have a sense of meaning in different degrees. Three levels of meaning and how to get them are talked about below.
Secondly, we need to ensure we are adequately refreshed, in order to deal with life and still feel energised.
Thirdly, the crucial thing, possible for all of us, is that we must transform our past pain into positive energy for living today.
Lets look at the first way of attaining life energy…
What are the different ways in which we get a sense of our life having meaning?
A sense of purpose in our lives can come from a variety of different places, and may not be the same combination of places for any of us.
There are three levels of purpose: superficial purpose, underlying purpose, and sustaining purpose.
- Superficial purpose. This gives a sense of meaning that is transitory. We are engaged and entertained, but the sense of meaning does not accumulate over time. Examples are things such as, short projects, casual club associations, and social situations.
- Underlying purpose. There is usually feelings of accomplishment that add up and give us meaning which provides this second level of purpose - having children, for example, or a meaningful career.
- Sustaining purpose comes from a life-long interest that sustains us, and provides hope and powerful life-energy. These are the things that you are committed to, or are very passionate about, for example, a love of gardening, following a sports team or a musicians events through ups and downs, love of learning and growing, devotion to God, commitment to personal development, etc.
Without a sense of superficial purpose, we may feel bored. Without a sense of underlying purpose we may have a low grade level of agitation or flatness. Without a sense of sustaining purpose we may feel that life has no meaning, and we could feel quietly despairing.
For emotional health we need to feel all three levels of purpose in our lives. Particularly important is a sense of sustaining purpose as it can provide hope in the way that love can provide happiness. Once we are engaged with life in a way that is deeply meaningful, hope develops, and life-energy grows alongside it.
The second way of attaining energy is to refresh…
What activities renew and refresh you so that you are able and willing to return to the responsibilities that we have taken on?
How do you re-charge your batteries?
Different things can be effective for different people.
If you are an introvert (in the Jungian sense) then you re-stock your energy stores by being alone. Extroverts, on the other hand, spend time with others when they need to generate energy and feel charged-up again.
Some people like to meditate, relax in the bath, or have a massage. Others like to sing, dance or play tennis. For others, still, it’s a cathartic release such as a rock concert, a fast drive, or a ski holiday that does the job.
Burnout doesn’t only happen on the job - it happens to your life. That means to your relationships, your emotions and your physical state. Rejuvenation is essential. Little and often is best.
Now, the third way to ensure that we are tapping into all of our potential life-energy, and not letting any of that negative life-energy sap us, or take up psychological space, is to transform it…
Past negative experiences can be transformed into nourishing contributions to ourselves and others today.
- Failure, disappointment, loss, pain, regret, guilt, and even shame.
All of that heavy stuff can be recycled and can become the food to fuel your energy for living today.
In the safety of the therapy room, we do something with it. We acknowledge it, understand it, tolerate it, learn from it, and heal from it. We may sometimes start with small steps, but whatever the size of the steps, we walk towards wellbeing. Motivation builds and life-energy is once again present.
Neuroscience and psychotherapy
The brain and the mind are interlinked. There have recently been great advances in our understanding of how the brain and the mind are influenced and affected by each other.
Hence, the knowledge that neuroscience has given us, has informed the way that many therapists now practice, and it has influenced how they think about what goes on in therapy.
The effects of relationship can be monitored in the brain
Using a developmental framework, neuroscience helps us to see the significance of the baby’s early relationships, e.g. that the significance of the infant looking into mothers face, and the mother looking back, and how this relational experience makes changes in the brain.
What goes on in the therapy room is also a very important experiencing of relationship. So, having relational needs met, between therapist and client, affects the brain. We now know that changes in chemistry take place. Previously it was only proven that medications could do this, now it is proven that relational therapy changes brain chemistry. This is very exciting.
The way in which the advances of neuroscience have changed he way that therapist’s work
Good therapists have always known that the therapeutic relationship is a healing medium, set apart from the content of the work done between therapist and client. So, the advances in neuroscience has just ‘proved’ that relationship has a therapeutic effect, and so therapist’s carry on doing, relationally, what they have always known is beneficial.
But, one of the things that therapists didn’t know before is regarding trauma therapy and the brain.
Neuroscience has now proven that when therapists facilitate clients to tell stories about their past trauma’s (critical incident debriefing, for example) it can incite clients into re-experiencing that trauma - and what happens in the brain as that is happening is that it reinforces and strengthens the neural pathway. The results, then, can be that the client experiences not only, a repeat of the trauma, but actually a deepening of the damaging trauma.
Ever since I was a trainee psychotherapist, and a client with trauma presented, I never felt that I could do critical debriefing ‘right’. We were supposed use a technique to invite clients to go over the traumatic experience, in story form, for the sake of debriefing the experience, with the hope of bringing all elements of it into conscious awareness and thereby eliminate the monstrousness of it (amongst other things).
But when I tried this, I found that clients would become traumatised before my very eyes. And, if I carried on, they would have to leave the session like this and drive home in that state (which I considered to be dangerous).
So, I stopped using that process and focussed on acknowledging the pain, understanding the impact of the events today (not re-living them as they were) using soothing strategies, building on clients strengths, and regaining confidence and high-functioning.
Because the relationship is as important as concepts discussed in therapy, therapists need to continue to use both their left-brain (cognitive) processes and their right-brain (empathic) processes, in work with clients.
This means that therapists offer information to clients, and stimulate their thinking, and at the same time the therapist uses an empathic manner so that the client benefits from the relational experience.
Psychotherapists have always been known about, and been mindful of working with clients as a whole being, where the client’s mind-body-brain make up a system and each impacts on the other. Now, we therapists, have the benefit of the discoveries in the world of neuroscience to help us to support our knowledge with scientific evidence.