Someone recently asked me to briefly describe the most important tasks of psychotherapy. It's a great question and here are my thoughts on the topic.
Task Number One: Track Yourself
Most of us are really great at distraction. We can find plenty of other things to do in our lives besides checking in to discover how we are feeling from moment to moment. There's always a topic we can research on the web, something we want to buy, errands to run, celebrities to follow, someone to text, or more work at the office.
There has been no time in human history when distraction has been so readily available. We can live our entire lives in distraction and the more money we have the more distractions we can easily access. When these distractions no longer make us happy some of us seek out therapy.
In therapy you begin to track and notice the thoughts and feelings that lay underneath your activities.
You can track yourself on several levels:
You can track your thoughts by listening carefully to how you are evaluating yourself and others with your internal dialog.
You can track your feelings in any moment by noticing if you are sad, angry, anxious, or joyful.
You can track your body sensations. Are your palms sweaty, teeth clenched, shoulders hunched, or chest tight? The body is a great source of information about your hidden feelings.
All of this will require a little bit of slowing down. Not a lot. You can track yourself in five seconds or less.
The reason we track is because until you have a clearer idea of what you think and how you feel, you won't be able to get at the root causes of the problems in your life. Tracking is like the detective work of psychotherapy. It helps you get the information needed to address what is underlying the issues.
Task Number Two: Become Friendly with Your Little Boy or Girl
What typically happens when you begin to track yourself is that you discover a lot of your current thoughts and feelings are really the thoughts and feelings you experienced when you were a child.
For example, how do we learn about love? We learn what love feels like from the first people most of us fall in love with: our parents. Have you noticed how passionately a four-year-old loves his or her mommy or daddy? To a four-year-old, parents are perfect people who know everything.
Typically, however, we tend to experience some disappointments in that first love. No parent is perfect and some parents are very far from perfect. We get hurt. We tend to think it's our fault. It's safer to think that we are flawed than to think our all-powerful parents aren't perfect. It would be terrifying for a child to think that the people he relies on for food, shelter, and love may not be as capable as he thinks they are. It is safer to believe the flaw is within ourselves because a child has much more control over himself than he does his caretakers.
This is not about blaming your parents: this is about caring enough about you to be curious about what it was like to be you in your family.
We all have that semi-wounded child within us. He is most visible to us when we are triggered, when something that is a small problem feels like a really big one. That's a clue that we are reacting more from a past event than one in the present.
Most adults don't want to acknowledge this part of the self. Didn't that happen long ago? Shouldn't we be over it by now? Welcome to the human race. It does matter what happened to you as a child. And there's plenty of research to prove it.
Task Three: Love Yourself More Than You Thought Possible
Everyone, at some level, has internalized a painful belief that they are bad, stupid, ugly, or less than. These beliefs come to light in Task Two when we learn more about the false assumptions we made about ourselves as children. We all have a lot to unlearn.
Ultimately it comes down to love. The cliche that love conquers also is true for self-development. We can learn to love that little kid inside until he believes that you do care, and that you will respect his needs. When he feels more certain that you will validate and protect him, he will be more willing to relax and let your wiser grown-up self run more of your life.
Can you go through these steps without a therapist? For some of us, the answer is yes. Is it easier to do this with support and guidance from a good therapist? Yes, everything is easier with support. Is therapy expensive? It is, although most cities have sliding scale clinics. Is it worth it? Well if it allows you to enjoy your life here on the planet more fully, then I believe it is.
Whether or not you need help, I encourage you throughout your life to track yourself so that you won't miss what is really going on. Become a compassionate friend to that child within because you can never have too many good friends. Begin to challenge the misguided part of you that believes you are "less than" because that part of you is operating from a reality that no longer exists.
(First published on psychedinsanfrancisco.blogspot.com)
For more information about how we help LGBT individuals and couples please visit our website at www.thegaytherapycenter.com. We offer services in our San Francisco office or by Skype or phone worldwide.