Most of the time we are asking for help to reduce or remove some terrible anguish in our hearts, minds or bodies.
We may be suffering anxiety attacks, or beleaguered by annoying obsessive or even paralyzing thoughts, suffering a crisis of hatred and disconnection in our marriage, worrying about the disturbing behavior of a child, or a million more ways of being in emotional trouble and feeling lousy and worried.
Now if our therapist, indeed wisely and skillfully, eliminates or reduces our upset, is that good enough? Whether we know it or not, are our symptoms and complaints asking for more help than that? Many – though hardly all – of us therapists think so, that symptoms of emotional hurt are signaling that we are making some big mistakes in our lifestyle or habits or ways of responding to a vexing problem.
Of course it is obvious that a request for psychological therapy first of all is generally a plea to reduce or remove pain or worry, but know it or not we are simultaneously asking for counsel as to how we can live in better ways. If this type of help also is not offered, symptoms of distress have a much higher likelihood of recurring, but even more than that our deeper cry for help about our style of living will have gone unanswered.
Contemporary psychiatric or psychological therapy so often is designed to be brief and to aim only at removing symptoms. Many of the insurance companies actually insist on such a goal and refuse to pay for broader processes of a more instructive psychoeducational therapy –learning about how I am doing harm to myself and how to stop that, and learning about how I am doing harm to others in my life and stopping that. And many therapists and schools of therapy outdo themselves in efforts to remove symptoms rather than treat lifestyles. How do we know what we are going to get from a therapist? Often we don’t know until we find out, but that can be late for us. One good idea is to ask a lot of questions at the start and to tell the therapist whether you only want to feel better or you want a good look at your life style – ‘outside and inside.’
I believe that psychotherapy needs to include instruction and coaching in how to live and grow, and not just help us to be free of pain. In fact the goal should also include our learning how to live with much of the inevitable stresses that are inherent in our human condition, and how to better contain the inevitable existential pains we all suffer even in the course of perfectly healthy and normal lives.
I believe that therapists need to think of their jobs not simply as healing, curing or improving, but as helping people to live, experience, grow and be decent — both to themselves and to others in their lives. Effective psychotherapy is no less a treatment for Being (how we experience ourselves in the course of our life) than for Doing (being effective in one’s functioning). Just as we have learned the critical difference it makes for the many children who are brought up by a “Doing Parent” who is not sufficiently a “Being Parent,” so it is in all of our adult lives: Satisfying “Being” is no less important than effective “Doing.”