Last week we looked at the differences and similarities between "fixing what's broken" and "facilitating change." This week I want to take a look at what makes a therapist's office different than your friend's living room. That is, why can't you just talk to your friend and fix your problems?
First, let me acknowledge that friends can help a lot with one's problems. Friends usually offer unqualified support and can at minimum help one feel not alone in the world. A good friend isn't just someone who will rubber stamp everything you say or do, but will lovingly challenge you too.
A therapist's office, on the other hand, can be likened to a "clean room." Ideally the therapist has no agenda, so there is no pressure on you to think or behave in a particular way. Even your best friend, who wants only good for you, will usually want what's best for you according to his or her version of what "best" means.
The second important piece is that it's a very rare friend who will continually listen to you and not want to be listened to in return. This is one of the aspects of paying someone. Besides the professional knowledge that you are paying for, payment also relieves you from any need for equity. The situation is supposed to be imbalanced in your favor and you don't have to worry about whether or not you're talking too much, taking up too much time, and you definitely shouldn't have to worry about your therapist's well being.
The third thing you're getting from a therapist is a knowledge base of how certain psychological issues form and play out. Therapy at its best is a combination of art and science, of intellect and intuition. The field of psychology has attracted an enormous number of brilliant minds over the past century, and they have opened up many new ways of legitimate understanding and methods for working with people in pain. Of course there have been a lot of ugly misses on the way, but that is true of every field of developing knowledge. It is very reassuring to have a variety of quirky emotional symptoms and have someone who knows how to tie them together into a meaningful whole. Understanding the problem is seldom enough to make it go away, but it is an important first step.
The fourth, and this may be thought of as a combination of all factors, is a "holding environment." Inside all of us sometimes are scared little children who need someone strong, loving and understanding to be bigger than us when we are going through a period of turbulence. It is enormously helpful to have a parental figure (and I frequently serve this role even for people who are older than me) who can be a rooted and reassuring presence, someone who is big enough to hold whatever you bring into the room and to remain unflappable no matter how upset you are.
Next week: how does talking help someone get better?
Do you have a question about struggles with your partner or within yourself? Is there a particular topic on relationships or individual psychological issues you would like addressed in this blog? Ask Josh in the comments below or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Josh Gressel, Ph.D., is a couples and individual therapist based in Pleasant Hill, CA. Visit his website at joshgressel.com. He is accepting new referrals.