Sometimes people come into therapy looking for tools. Sometimes they are experiencing depression or intense levels of anxiety; sometimes they are having problems in relationships of all kinds. And while there is something to be said for deep breathing and relaxation techniques, I am not a therapist who provides instruction in those things. I don’t do that because I don’t believe that that is what ultimately helps.
Psychotherapy is the tool. The relationship that the client and I form provides the opportunity for the client to learn more about him or herself and to change. Relationships are what heal.
From the moment of our birth throughout the lifecycle, we are social beings – we depend on others, sometimes for survival, sometimes for the ability to soothe and regulate our distress. An infant needs a caretaker who provides what is desperately needed: warmth when she is cold, food when she is hungry. And when a person is a toddler, there needs to be some other (usually a parent) who can pick her up when she falls and by saying “it will be all right” makes it all right and eases the pain.
It is through relationships and experiences such as the ones I just described that a human being develops the capacity to soothe and calm oneself. When things go well and others help to soothe a person’s injuries, that person then internalizes the capacity to do that herself. I recall the time when an inoculation at the doctor’s office no longer was such a scary and painful experience (albeit I was an adolescent by then). I had internalized the caregiving I had received and I could provide it myself.
At its fundamental core, psychotherapy provides a relationship that promotes healing and growth through an increased understanding of oneself and greater capacity to experience oneself fully. Often people come into therapy, however, with painful, sometimes traumatic, experiences from relationships in the past. Often they have formulated expectations about not being understood or cared about; about the risks of trusting and depending on others. The clinical relationship then becomes a forum in which to recognize these assumptions and feelings and to, in the working through process, have a different experience of relationship.
I view an essential movement in life, and movement in psychotherapy, as progressing from a state of dependency to one of interdependency. We need others. We also need an internal sense of self, a way of soothing ourselves (telling ourselves it will be all right), setting direction and providing momentum for that direction. Those are the essential goals of psychotherapy.
So while I may talk with a client about relaxation techniques, meditation (as someone with a long history of meditation, I am very happy to talk about it), I find that we are up to something so much more essential and vital. We are creating a relationship in which true healing and growth, not just relief from symptoms, can occur.