I’ve been getting a lot of inquiries from women who tell me a similar story about their experience with therapy in the past. It goes a little something like this, “I’ve been to therapy multiple times before and it helps in the short-term, but it always feels a little surface-level. I end the experience feeling like we’ve helped the symptoms, but have ignored the deeper stuff that is causing the symptoms in the first place”. Sound familiar? To be honest with you, I’ve felt this way too from time to time in the pursuit of fulfilling therapy. So I wanted to share with you some thoughts on what might be going on and what you can do differently to get your needs met in the therapy space.
- Therapist framework. So to start with, one of the reasons your therapist may be circumventing the deeper stuff is because of the framework they are using. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is one of the most popular approaches and is based on the premise that our thoughts impact our emotions and our emotions impact our behaviour. In this way, CBT is interested in what is happening in the here and now, and posits that identifying and reframing unhelpful thinking patterns will improve mental health symptoms. This is absolutely true for some people, but can leave others feeling like therapy missed the point. In my practice, I use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) which is a similar approach to CBT however, rather than spending energy trying to change thoughts (which often pop into our heads uncontrollably), we focus on learning to notice thoughts, feelings and sensations through the lens of non-judgement, curiosity and acceptance. This opens up space and allows us to make decisions that are aligned with our values. If someone comes to therapy wanting some short-term support, ACT is my go-to. Having a transparent conversation with your therapist about the approach they are using and your expectations for therapy will set you up for success. Some other approaches that are more focussed on addressing the past are Schema Therapy, Internal Family Systems (IFS) and Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR). So don’t be afraid to ask your therapist if they are able to use a different approach that addresses the origin of mental health difficulties.
- Stepping-stones to deeper work. Alternatively, if someone comes to therapy wanting to address deeper past wounds, but I notice that they are avoidant of difficult emotions, I may suggest starting with ACT or nervous-system awareness to increase their capacity to sit with discomfort. Being able to sit with discomfort and difficult feelings without being totally consumed by them is an incredibly helpful stepping stone to be able to process trauma in a safe way. In many approaches to trauma healing, this phase of therapy is known as the safety and stabilisation phase. So if you’ve just started therapy and you feel like the focus is more on increasing your capacity in the here and now, ask your therapist why you are doing this and make a plan around when you will progress to focusing on healing past wounds.
- Building a safe relationship takes time. The most important thing in therapy that transcends frameworks and approaches is relationship. Relationships are the context in which many of our past traumas and adverse life experiences occur, but they are also the context that holds the potential to support deep healing. When you meet your therapist for the first time, they are a stranger, so it will take more than one or two sessions to build the level of trust that is required for processing difficult and traumatic memories. Processing these memories without a safe and trusting relationship with your therapist can be dangerous, so taking things slow and adjusting your expectations around time-frames can be helpful. It may be tempting to ‘quit’ therapy when progress feels too slow, but a reminder that slow and gradual are what is often needed for safe deeper healing.
Overall, being clear and transparent with your therapist from the outset about your expectations and goals for therapy can set you up for a fulfilling therapy experience. If you’re searching for deeper healing that addresses old wounds, say that! Contrary to the very boring question we get asked by strangers at parties (ohh psychology, does that mean you can read my mind?), therapists are not telepathic and will sometimes make misaligned assumptions about what you want out of therapy if you don’t communicate. If asking for what you want and need is something you struggle with, the therapeutic relationship is the perfect place to dip your toe in. We are literally trained to respond to you with compassion and curiosity!
For me, although I love ACT, my passion lies in addressing the source of current difficulties that are usually rooted in early experiences. How do we do this? In a nutshell, it’s all about reprocessing memories through Schema Therapy, IFS or EMDR. If this sounds like the missing piece in therapy that you’re looking for, book your free 15-minute connection call with me to find out if we might be the right fit for one on one online counselling work.