If I were asked (and I’m glad I’ve not been; though I suppose I’m asking myself) if I could capture what psychotherapy is about in a word, I would say “repair.”
It’s one of the best words in the English language. To repair. There are, according to an online dictionary, a number of meanings. I like “To restore to sound condition after damage or injury.” Also “To renew or revitalize.” These meanings directly bear on the ambition of psychotherapy.
Psychotherapy is the act of repair. Often people come into psychotherapy because of some emotional injury from relationships past and present. They are in need of restoring to sound condition. And often people come into therapy with a sense of malaise, having gone off course in their lives or never having really set sail. They are in need of revitalizing their lives.
And this is what we set out to do in psychotherapy. Often that means talking about these past injuries, identifying patterns (particularly those designed to cope with those injuries) and strategizing about new ways of experiencing life in the present. Often injuries from the past maintain some tug on a person’s current life. Perhaps they were not fully healed or addressed before. To fully heal or address takes a soothing and supportive relationship: The relationship formed in therapy provides the foundation for looking at, addressing, and expressing feelings about those past injuries.
Sometimes the work involves focusing on doing the work of repair with others. Couples therapy is essentially about that. My work with couples involves helping them to repair the mishaps that have occurred and, of course, given the nature of human relationships, will occur in the future. And work with individual clients may also have this focus: helping them to repair a relationship with a family member, friend, or acquaintance.
And sometimes the work of repair takes place in the here-and-now, between the client and me. Like any other human relationship, there can be conflict, misunderstanding or disagreement between therapist and client. And when that occurs, we have the opportunity to not only repair our relationship, to deepen it, but to practice fundamental principles needed for repair. This aspect of the work is very exciting and can be a catalyst for changes in a person’s relationships outside of therapy.
I am very fond of the word “repair.” Whether it is to repair the family car, repair a broken-down washing machine, or to repair a fragile human heart, the enterprise of repair is essentially human. There is also the act of repairing the world (in Judaism expressed as Tikkun olam) through social activism on both large and small scales. I like to think that there are some small steps towards that greater goal that occur in my psychotherapy office.