In my first chapter on the experience of beginning to walk the healing path of psychotherapy, I identified that learning to tell our own story, finding our voice, and beginning to unpack our life experience in the presence of another person, who is trained to listen well, were powerful initial healing experiences. In our therapist’s presence, I suggested, we might begin to discover our unembellished and unvarnished life experiences, our real story. We might then begin to understand and accept how we were shaped by important experiences in our families, in our schooling, with our friends, i.e., with the people who affected our development and our understanding of ourselves for good or for ill.
In this installment, I will explore the resources that psychotherapy offers us initially, ones that we will learn to use in the healing process. At the same time, I will suggest what this process requires of those who seek understanding and healing. This kind of reciprocity is at the heart of the therapy process. On one side of the equation, the essential elements required of new clients are presence, focus, and courage. On the other side, these strengths and abilities develop in a special context that therapists hope to create for their clients. This context is one in which clients will be offered permission to explore the landscape of their personality and character, to learn not only their personal history, but who they really are. Secondly, the therapist will be offering a non-judgmental environment of safety and protection. This safe environment is needed because the therapeutic process requires that clients learn to be vulnerable to their life experiences without the fear of judgment or reprisal. Likewise, the context must be one in which they can discover their potency, talents, and abilities, not just what they have learned and accomplished, but those abilities and talents that are connected to the essence of who they are, the endowment they brought into this life at birth. So permission, protection and potency will begin to be reinforced by the therapist, and in return, the client will be invited to make the choice to enter the therapeutic process fully; to learn to focus on what aspects of their lives are not working; and to develop the courage they need to improve the quality of their lives and heal their emotional wounds.
Imagine for a moment that we can time travel back to 1971, and that you are sitting with me in a large living room with eleven other aspiring young therapists. Morris and Natalie Haimowitz, two brilliant, funny, and nurturing psychologists, are sitting in the group across from one another. They welcome us and identify themselves as our guides to learning to do Transactional Analysis in a group setting. Morris smiles warmly, and after pointing out that he is wearing very colorful socks, speaks in a friendly, but slightly challenging tone, “Ok, who wants to work?” This is how every group session begins, with this same question, which subtly announces the first premise of the Haimowitzs’ approach to therapy. If you want to begin the therapy process, you must ask for what you want and you must be ready to work toward that goal. In other words, you will need to demonstrate that you are choosing to work with these trainers, and you must embrace being an active participant in the process.
For Morris and Natalie, what they were offering their clients and their students was a collaborative relationship chosen and agreed to by therapist and client alike. They understood the therapeutic relationship to be a contractual one in which both therapist and client are active and engaged in a working partnership. In this collaboration the choices and decisions of everyone involved in the process were mutually agreed upon. The message was very clear in the Haimowitzs’ practice of Transactional Analysis, and they took pride in clearly articulating the definition of the contract between therapist and client. A client in psychotherapy agrees to actively participate in the healing work. The therapist agrees to be fully present, to make interpretations and suggestions in the therapy sessions, and to assign homework for the client to do in the coming week. Clients and students agreed to take responsibility for identifying their issues as they saw them, and for taking an active role in the work of healing and problem solving. For most of us who participated in their training groups this was both a labor of love and a remarkable educational experience that nourished and inspired our understanding of the therapeutic process.
Sheldon Kopp, a streetwise Jungian psychologist, who like the Haimowitz’s was one of the cutting edge, humanistic psychotherapists of his time, offered this metaphor to describe the therapy process. A person who is lost in the woods comes across another person on the trail. “I seem to have lost my way,” she says. “Can you help me?” “Well,” says the stranger, “I have been lost here even longer than you have, but I know where the woods get thicker. Perhaps from there we can find our way out together.” This metaphor articulates an existential understanding of the therapist/client relationship. This way of proceeding is fundamentally collaborative, rather than authoritative, and it is this point of view that began to revolutionize the practice of psychotherapy in the last three decades of the twentieth century. What Sheldon Kopp articulated was the “we’re in this together” paradigm, which is ultimately more empowering for the client than the authoritative model of psychoanalysis. Dr. Kopp clearly communicated that it is not the therapist’s job to jump in and fix the problem like a car mechanic. Both therapist and client are going to have to get under the hood.
Obviously, people who are seeking help from a psychotherapist come to their first session for a wide variety of reasons. What these seekers all have in common is that there is some area of life that is not working very well for them. This fact leads to feelings of distress and vulnerability, whatever the problem area may be. What a therapist offers in response will usually be a mixture of concern and empathy, and an open and exploratory attitude, as therapist and client begin to survey the terrain of the problem. This is the point at which clients begin to tell their story, and at which the therapist inquires how much the client knows about the problem. When did the client first notice the problem occurring? What does the experience of the problem feel like? Has anything similar to this situation happened previously? HH Has anyHas Has anyone in the client’s immediate or extended family experienced something similar? These kinds of questions open the way to the client’s history, her experience in her family, her frustrations, her longings and aspirations.
So this is the call and response of the therapeutic process. There is an invitation from the therapist to the client to enter their own experiential world, to conjecture and recall, to question and to doubt, and especially, to surrender to and experience the excitement of self disclosure and discovery. This stage of the therapy may move slowly or in fits and starts at first, but something is happening just beneath the surface of consciousness. With each new revelation, each offering of understanding or insight, a relationship is developing on different levels of the subconscious and unconscious mind. If the therapist is responsive, caring, insightful, and understanding, the client will begin to feel comfortable with the telling of her distressing experiences. Equally important to the experience, a bond is forming. This bond is the essence of our human connection. It will begin to contribute to the sense of ease that arises from empathic interplay. This developing therapeutic bond gradually creates the conditions for openness and trust.
There is a hidden reciprocity between client and therapist in the early stages of the therapy process. The client wants to be understood, wants to be seen. The therapist wants to see, to hear, to feel and to understand the client’s expressions and questions. Most important is the emergence of the longing to connect person to person, human being to human being. One of my therapist friends used to wear a button on his sport coat when he was in session with his clients. The button read, “I am a lot like you.” This is what the humanitarian approach of therapists like Sheldon Kopp and Morris and Natalie Haimowitz brought to the evolution of psychotherapy, the revelation that the therapist, like the client, is also lost in the woods of life. We are all fallible human beings searching for assistance and healing as we attempt to follow our life’s path, and yet, as Eric Berne, the founder of Transactional Analysis realized, we are all OK. Some of us, who have been lost a little longer and have studied where the woods get thicker, can help others find the path to health and well being from there.
Sheldon Kopp taught that childhood is in many ways a nightmare of experiences that harm the child. No one escapes this wounding process. Some harm comes to us and some harm is created by us. By the time we arrive in adulthood, we have developed ways of coping with our vulnerabilities. We try to create a story that affirms we have done the best we could under the circumstances. Milton H. Erickson, the founder of modern hypnosis, suggested that in fact, people are actually making the best choices they believe are available to them. But it is the conclusions that we all draw about how these choices turn out, that determines how the story of our lives takes shape. Whether we appear to be successful, or whether we appear to have struggled or failed, the story that we have created for ourselves is often full of explanations that paint us in the best possible light. It is the photo shopped portrait of who we are. It justifies our existence and our life situation. I may not be a success, but I am not a failure. I have struggled mightily to overcome the difficulties that life placed in my way, and I will prevail. I will overcome. This is one possible version. I have failed miserably and I will never be able to recover from this disaster is another.
In other words, though we are wounded, we have accumulated defenses which explain why we are the way we are. Whether we are in denial of our wounds, whether we are filled with distrust for others or have rationalized what we have experienced, whether we blame others or circumstances for our predicaments, or even if we have decided that our life is about helping others and placating the downhearted, at some point we begin to realize that this life we have constructed is not working as well for us as we would like. We may find that we are depressed, anxious and fearful, that we feel alienated or rejected, that we are fundamentally dissatisfied with the life that we have created. When any or all of these situations pertain, it is time to reach out for help. It’s a good time to find a guide who knows what it is to feel lost and alone in the world, and who can help us find our way back to the healing path and the life we want to create.
The therapist’s job in the early stages of therapy is to help us look more closely at the details of our story and to begin the work of understanding what happened to us in childhood, in adolescence, and early adulthood that contributed to the strategies that we use to cope with life in the here and now. The therapist can also help us look at what is hurting us now, which is often easier to identify, and then help us create the connections to our past injuries, disappointments and vulnerabilities. However we proceed, we will learn that past and present are isomorphic. They have a parallel structure and a reciprocal relationship to each other. If I have not clearly recognized my childhood wounds and have not yet begun to heal them, those wounds will recur in my adult life. In order for my healing process to begin, I will have to identify clearly what hurts me, disappoints me, and causes me to feel unhappiness, distress, and even despair.
So this is the challenging part of walking the therapeutic path, the uncovering of the struggles and pains of life that keep repeating themselves until we are ready to look at them, feel them, and begin the healing process. By now, you must be thinking, why would I ever want to do this? Wouldn’t it be better to learn to think positively about my life, instead of mucking about in my pain, disappointments, and my failures? If this positive approach to life actually healed our deep wounds, then the answer would be easy. Just think positively, be happy, and life will turn into that bowl of cherries that we are all longing for. Unfortunately, this strategy is mostly a palliative measure. If it were all that easy to forgive, forget, and heal, we could easily free ourselves from the past. My experience is that the key to living life fully, to healing our past wounds and to preventing them from recurring over and over again, is to begin this process of exploration of our life story, and then to begin to see and eventually to accept our injuries, the emotional consequences of our traumas, and the beliefs that precipitate from them, for what they are.
Yesterday, one of my young clients reported that he had come to the conclusion that we cannot heal without examining our memories. “When we try to bypass our memory of what really happened to us, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to heal ourselves. We must remember the past; we must feel what we felt in those formative situations. Then, and only then, can we heal our wounds.” “Wow”, was my response to her. “How have you learned that lesson so early in your life?” “I have good teachers,” was her reply, “and, she continued, I am a damn good student.”
And so I would like to add in concluding this chapter, that if you have been considering psychotherapy as a path of self-discovery and healing, ask around among your friends and associates who are now or have previously been in therapy and ask them to refer you to someone they trust, someone who has been of real help to them. Usually, if someone knows a good therapist, they will offer their name readily. Ask them about their experience working with this person, and then go to the internet and look them up. Many therapists have their own websites, or have profiles on Linked in. Some, like me, have written articles that have been published by an online magazine like Newtopia, or by a blog site. If you like what you find there, give the person a call and set up an interview appointment. There is no substitute for face to face experience in looking for a therapist. In the interview, let yourself feel how you experience this person. Feel free to ask questions about how they work, what schools of thought they have studied, and most importantly, perhaps, what their own experience in therapy as a client has been like for them. Everyone who is practicing psychotherapy needs to have been a client of therapy, and for some extensive period of time. You can’t do this work effectively unless you have gotten lost, asked for help, and received the guidance you needed to find your way back to your true self.
As John Bradshaw pointed out some years ago, the healing path of psychotherapy is a “homecoming” experience, that allows us to recover our full 360 degree self. It is not only a method for healing our wounds, but also for the recovery of parts of the self that we have lost or rejected in the growing up stages of life. Like the Biblical story of the prodigal son, it is a welcoming back home of parts of ourselves that have made serious mistakes or have been badly misunderstood and rejected by our families, our teachers, and even by our closest friends. Take it from someone who learned the benefits of therapy directly as a client, and by witnessing the growth and healing of hundreds of people I have been fortunate to work with as their therapist. A healing partnership between yourself and a good therapist is more valuable that you can imagine.
In my next installment, I will explore the intermediate stages of being in psychotherapy and the benefits of going more deeply into the psyche for the purpose of discovery and healing.
As always, dear readers, thank you for following my “Tools” blog. And thank you for your responses to these ideas. Please feel free to offer critique, analysis, and suggestions, and I will respond in the places provided below.
Great thanks to my friend and collaborator, Toby Landesman, for her fabulous photos. You can see her work at www.tobylandesmanphotographics.com. Deep bows of thanks as well to my dear friend Amy Becker for the photo of “The Rock Skipper,” to her son Myles for his friendship and his permission to use the photograph, and to his sister Olivia for her friendship and for her kindness and responsiveness to my many requests. Last but not least, my undying gratitude to my dear sister Linda Zillman for her photo of the Tent Rocks near Santé Fe, New Mexico, and for guiding our party so skillfully and lovingly through that magical wonderland.
Article Written by Thomas Goforth
Newtopia staff writer THOMAS GOFORTH is a psychotherapist and pastoral counselor working in Chicago, IL. He was ordained to the Episcopal priesthood in 1967 and served as Chaplain to the Cook County Jail and the Chicago House of Correction while working for St. Leonard’s House, one of the first halfway houses in the country.. He did draft counseling and community organizing during the Viet Nam War, and was one of the founding members of the Lincoln Park Therapy Collective, an all volunteer organization which provided free group therapy for people living on the North Side of Chicago from 1968 until the mid 80′s.He helped organize the first crisis phone line in Chicago, and later helped train the staff counselors for Kool Aide Youth Emergency Services and Metro Help. He was an actor in the Free Theater Company and Rapid Transit Guerrilla Communications, two groundbreaking political theater companies performing in Chicago during the late 60′s and early 70′s. In the 80′s he helped found the Milton H. Erickson Institute of Chicago and became its third president and a member of its teaching faculty. At the invitation of Charles Shaw, he became the acting “Pit Boss” of the New Poetry Collective, the poetry arm of Newtopia Magazine in its first incarnation. Follow him at Twitter @thomas_goforth.