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Monday, February 13, 2017

Common Myths About Psychotherapy: Therapy is "All Talk and No Action"

As I've mentioned in prior articles, there are many common myths about psychotherapy (see my articles: Common Myths About Psychotherapy: Therapy Takes a Long Time and Common Myths About Psychotherapy: Going to Therapy Means You're Weak).  In addition to the myths that I mentioned in my prior articles, there's also a myth that therapy is all about talking and not taking action.

Common Myths About Psychotherapy:  Therapy is "All Talk and No Action"

I believe this myth survives because of old stereotypes of psychotherapy where a client comes to therapy for many years and nothing changes.

The type of contemporary psychotherapy that I practice focuses on helping clients to achieve transformation, which includes taking action to change.

There can be many obstacles to transformation, so clients often have to work through those obstacles, including early emotional trauma, including their own ambivalence about change, before they can make changes in their lives (see my article: Starting Psychotherapy: It's Not Unusual to Feel Anxious and Ambivalent).

Let's take a look at a fictionalized scenario that addresses these issues:

Rick came to therapy because he felt stuck in almost every area of his life.

He was in a marriage where he had been unhappy for many years, and he was also in a career that he had come to dislike intensely.

Rick was in therapy before when his anxiety about these issues was especially acute, but he never remained long enough to make changes (see my article: When Clients Leave Therapy Prematurely).

After he turned 45, Rick's fear of remaining stuck became worse than ever.  He was afraid he would complain for the rest of his life about his unhappiness, but he wouldn't make any changes.

When he started therapy again, Rick wasn't very hopeful that it would help him, but he knew that his friends and colleagues were getting tired of hearing him complain, and he and his wife were barely speaking to each other, so he couldn't count on her for emotional support.

Common Myths About Psychotherapy: Therapy is "All Talk and No Action"

Having low expectations of therapy, Rick said he wanted a place to "vent" and to "let off steam" so that his anxiety and dissatisfaction wouldn't overwhelm him.

His therapist addressed these issues in the first session when she asked him what he wanted to accomplish in therapy.

When she heard that he had little expectation of changing, she explained that she worked with clients to help them overcome the obstacles to change and she hoped to be able to help Rick with whatever challenges were getting in his way.

During one of their early sessions, his therapist asked Rick to do a sentence completion exercise in their session through free association, which means to say whatever comes to mind.

Free association is a psychoanalytic technique and using free association in this way is a technique used in Coherence Therapy (see my articles: Discovering the Unconscious Emotions at the Root of Your Problems and Experiential Therapy Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

The therapist gave Rick the following sentence stem for Rick to complete:

"If I could make the necessary changes to be happy in a relationship and in a career, then ________."

Initially, like most people, Rick's first few answers for filling in the blank were somewhat superficial (" life would be easier," "...I would feel better about myself," and so on.

But by the time he did it for the tenth time, he was shocked to hear himself say, "...then I would be afraid that something terrible would happen."

It took a few minutes before Rick could reflect on his words because he was so surprised.  But once he could think about it, he said this felt true to him--although he never realized he felt this way before.

As he and his therapist explored this issue, Rick realized that one of his unconscious core beliefs was that if he allowed himself to be happy, fate would intervene to spoil it for him and something terrible would happen (see my article: Are Your Core Beliefs Keeping You Stuck?)

He didn't have any idea what that "something terrible" would be, but it was a strong feeling that he felt in his chest and in his stomach (see my article: Are You Afraid to Allow Yourself to Be Happy?).

As his therapist listened to his family history, she and Rick discovered the roots to this underlying belief.

Rick talked about how unhappy his parents were, especially his father, who had many unresolved early traumatic experiences.

From the time that Rick was a young child, his father told him that Rick had to remain ever vigilant for the "fickle finger of fate," especially if things were going well and he was happy.

His father had many early losses, including the loss of both parents in a car accident, when he was a small boy.

From his father's perspective, the accident (and other family tragedies) occurred because things were going too well in the family, and fate came along to teach them a lesson.

His father saw each loss and downturn as the direct result of "fate" when things were going well, so that, from his perspective, no one could ever let down their guard, especially when they were feeling happy.

Common Myths About Psychotherapy: Therapy is "All Talk and No Action"

His father told Rick from an early age, "If you learn to expect terrible things when you're happy, you'll be prepared and you won't be taken off guard."

Rick's father's belief were so detrimental to Rick that he feared being happy, which was the obstacle in his way to making changes (see my article: Freeing Yourself From Family Beliefs and Expectations That Are Harmful to You).

It was Rick's unconscious belief that as long as he was in an unhappy marriage and in a career that he hated, "fate" wouldn't be tempted to devastate him.

After he said these words out loud, Rick realized how unrealistic it sounded but, deep down, he also knew that he had come to believe this at an early age.

After his therapist helped Rick to discover this unconscious belief, it made sense to both of them why he remained stuck.  Given his belief, why would he want to "tempt fate" to bring him pain?

As he continued to work in therapy, Rick explored the many times when he was happy in the past and when he wasn't "punished by fate" for it, so he started to understand the fallacy in his unconscious belief.

Over time, his therapist encouraged Rick to begin to explore other career options that might interest him.  Initially, he set up informational interviews, and then he talked about his experiences in therapy.

After one of these interviews, Rick got a call from someone, who met with him for an informational interview, telling Rick about an opening in the company.  This manager had been so impressed with Rick's background that he asked Rick to apply for the job.

When Rick told his therapist about it, he was excited about the possibility.  As she listened to him speak, his therapist asked him to check in with himself to see if he was feeling his old fear that if he allowed himself to be happy that "something terrible would happen" to end my happiness.

Rick reflected on this for a moment, and he was surprised that he didn't feel this old feeling.

As Rick took each step in the process towards changing his career, he would check in with himself to see if his old core belief was getting in his way, and each time he was surprised that it wasn't.

As it turned out, Rick didn't get that job, but he now felt free to explore other options and take the necessary steps to make changes.

The other problem, his marriage, was more complicated because Rick wasn't sure how he felt about his wife.

After talking it over with his wife, they went for marriage counseling and, after a few sessions, they mutually agreed that the relationship had been over for several years and that neither of them were happy.

Soon after that, they spoke to their marriage counselor about how they could end their marriage in a way that was amicable and respectful.

Rick got his own apartment nearby and they began the divorce process.

Even though Rick knew that he wasn't happy in his marriage and the divorce was for best for both of them, he still felt sad about the ending of this long relationship, and he dealt with his grief about it in his own individual therapy.

A year later, Rick wondered if he should start dating, but he had not been on a date in many years, and he felt uncomfortable.

As they explored this issue, Rick checked in with himself again to see if his old core belief was lurking in the background and tripping him up.  But he had no sense of this.

After they had talked about dating for a few sessions, Rick's therapist encouraged him to start taking steps, no matter how small, to start dating.

Rick would have preferred to continue talking about dating rather than taking any action, but his therapist told him that he could do both.  He could start taking steps to date and they could continue to talk about each step.

In this way, step by step, Rick began dating and he developed increasing confidence in the dating process, even though he had not met anyone that he really liked yet.

In a therapy session where he and his therapist looked back at where Rick started and where he was at that point, Rick expressed a sense of empowerment that he was able to take steps to overcome the obstacles that were preventing him from making changes in his life.

Old stereotypes contribute to the common myth that therapy is "all talk and no action."

Contemporary psychotherapy is a combination of self discovery which leads to taking meaningful action to change.

In the fictionalized scenario above, there is a particular longstanding core belief from early childhood that got in the way of the client making changes.

There are many other types of obstacles, conscious and unconscious, that get in the way of people making changes.

Once these obstacles are discovered, they can be worked with in therapy so that clients can free themselves of their effect.

It's important for the therapist to encourage clients to take action, no matter how small, and not to just talk about the problem.

This requires a clinician who has the clinical skills to know when to push the limits and when to hold off and, of course, this will be different with every client.

Getting Help in Therapy
If you have been avoiding therapy because you believe in the old myth that therapy is just about talking and not taking action, you're doing yourself a disservice.

Rather than telling yourself that you've tried to change in the past, but you can't do it, recognize that there are obstacles that you haven't discovered yet but that you can discover with the right therapist.

You might be surprised, as the client in the scenario above, to discover that there are unconscious beliefs that are holding you back.

Very often, once these unconscious beliefs have been exposed to the light of day, they don't hold up.

If you've been feeling stuck, you could benefit from working with a skilled psychotherapist who can help you to bring about the changes that you want.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (212) 726-1006 or email me.

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