Often people come to therapy searching for tools. Couples come because they are fighting a lot and wish to acquire tools to help deescalate the intensity and reduce the frequency of their arguments. Individuals come because they are overly anxious or feeling depressed and wish to have tools to decrease their symptoms. Or perhaps a person seeks tools to use to form deeper and more intimate relationships. Of course, psychotherapy and psychoanalysis are concerned with figuring out what is needed to bring about the desired changes.
But a human being is not an automobile. If a clutch needs replacing, the mechanic replaces the clutch. If the transmission is in need of repair, he repairs it. And while it is not always clear what is wrong with a car when it is squeaking or lurching, human beings are much more complex entities. I believe firmly in the complexity of the human heart and mind. Therefore, I do not believe there are manuals or text books with formulaic answers. The process of psychotherapy involves taking time to discover just what is wrong and what is needed.
A couple comes into therapy because there is something wrong in their relationship. They may fight excessively and emotionally hurt one another. A couple comes in with history: their own as that couple and their own as individuals as well. As individuals, we grow up in families and learn about relationship through those relationships. In my view of couples therapy, learning about what each person has already learned – what has shaped their view of relationships as well as their view of themselves and others – is paramount to the process of figuring out what is going on and what changes are needed. This understanding is paramount to acquiring the right tools.
Perhaps a person comes from a family where there was no expression of emotions. “We just didn’t talk about feelings.” Consequently, he has learned that emotions are to be avoided and that they can be disruptive and unruly. Not surprisingly, this history affects his current relationship: when his partner is emotional, he is afraid and aims to avoid emotions at all cost. His partner has her own set of expectations and modes of relating. In this scenario, she may feel abandoned when he is emotionally absent (particularly if she experienced that sort of abandonment in her history) and thus more inclined to argue as a way of at least having some contact. Psychotherapy with this couple then is not a process of instructions taken from a manual nor my telling them what to do. It is, rather, a process of both people learning what there is to be unlearned. In the situation above, for the man to learn that emotions are an essential part of what makes us human. But he also needs to learn how to soothe and tolerate the distress that arises as emotions arise. And for the woman in the example to also learn to soothe the fear that she feels when the other is emotionally distant. That learning is what happens in psychotherapy.
And in the process, the process of psychotherapy becomes a tool. Ultimately clients develop tools: tolerance for emotions, a greater capacity to soothe oneself when frustrated or upset, etc. And they develop self-knowledge as well. It is the process of psychotherapy that is also the tool not only the means to acquiring tools. What emerges in the session, between each participant, including therapist and client, provides opportunities to understand and also try something new. Psychotherapy, at least how I understand it, provides a way for people to learn more about themselves and their complexity. And that self-knowledge is one of the best and most important tools in the tool kit.