Healing Experiences in Therapy
A great source of healing in psychotherapy comes because of the kinds of experiences, relational and otherwise, that occur during the therapeutic hour. We learn what is and isn’t acceptable, how to relate to the world, and how we expect the world to relate to us, primarily through early relationships with our attachment figures. Some learn that they aren’t safe, during traumatic experiences of various kinds. This early relational and/or traumatic conditioning is difficult to change, even when we know intellectually that the difficult times are over. Old patterns of relating to the world, ourselves, and others overtake us and repeatedly get in our way. With a therapist, we can learn new ways to relate to others, ourselves, and the world.
Therapists relate to their clients in a variety of ways, but in general, they will strive to be empathetic, non-judgmental, and genuine. Many people come to therapy having lacked such relational experiences, at least in some important way, during their early years. As a result, these individuals will expect future relationships to let them down in similar ways. Many will find themselves unconsciously pursuing new relationships with the same old dynamics which they felt trapped in growing up. Still others will find themselves automatically treating those they wish to be close to in ways that encourages the unwanted pattern to be re-created. In therapy, the client gets to learn through building a relationship with the therapist and instead of living these old patterns, having a different outcome.
Sometimes, the healing experience comes simply from expressing parts of one’s self that were treated as unacceptable, and in therapy, being accepted. At other times, it comes from getting to know yourself better because of being really listened to about something, or getting a genuine response to something, when others had not listened or not been real with you in some way. The therapeutic relationship gives opportunities to try out new ways of relating that may have felt ineffectual or unsafe in the past. Because the therapist is a person, they will at times make mistakes, have lapses in empathy, and may even temporarily fall into old patterns of relating with you. As difficult as this can be, it creates the incredible healing opportunity of having something go awry in a relationship and having that relationship repaired.
For individuals with trauma, the feeling of being unsafe is a great challenge. When the trauma is relational, being with others, including a therapist, can feel dangerous. It takes a great deal of courage to explore one’s self in therapy, and this is especially true for people with relational traumas. Repeated experiences of being safe with the therapist can increase one’s sense of safety with others. Non-relational traumas also lead to a sense of not being safe, and a therapist can help one practice various things to calm down from overwhelm, tolerate anxiety, and establish a feeling of safety again. In therapy, you learn to be in and use your body to express and take care of yourself, to trust yourself, to be with others, and live authentically in the world again.