Demystifying Psychotherapy

In a world in which we are increasingly persuaded that all our discomforts should be dispensed with by way of a new drug, a new body, a new car or holiday, leisure activity, home renovation etc., etc., there is clearly no shortage of insecurities to exploit, nor 'products' to promise fulfilment. Inevitably, these remedies fail to deliver and insecurity resurfaces in the same or some other form. Commonly it is a crisis that brings individuals into psychotherapy. Some use the opportunity to go more deeply into understanding the origins of their discontent. For others it is the nagging ache of unfulfilled longings that echo from some hidden and yet vaguely familiar place, and may be felt as depression or anxiety about one's life.

Psychotherapy is intrinsically a collaborative endeavour between therapist and client(s), involving a uniquely constellated relationship, and a shared responsibility for progress. For many individuals, it is the first time they have really been heard, without judgement or the distraction of another person's agenda. As someone who has deeply engaged with his/her own inner work of awareness, the therapist will ideally convey a compassionate, non-judgmental, highly tuned presence that is able to recognise and reflect back to the client her strengths and competencies, as well as her defences and projections - both of which may be unconscious (and disconcerting) to the client.

Unconscious complexes, projections, unexamined and deeply held attitudes formed in our past that colour our experience - known by Eastern philosophy as Sanskaras or 'obscurations'- create unnecessary suffering for ourselves and those around us. Identifying these complexes, their possible origins, and exploring how they function in our world is part of the work of therapy. Transforming these complexes, often by slowly loosening their hold with ever increasing awareness, is the long-term dimension to therapy. It is also what we continue to work with - probably lifelong - after therapy has concluded.

Meditation makes an invaluable contribution to the process of relaxing the hold these complexes have upon us, especially once they are revealed unambiguously in therapy. The daily practice of disengaging with the inner drama, no matter how compelling it may be, builds our 'mindfulness muscle' to stand us in good stead when the going gets tough. And the going will always get tough at times - no amount of therapy can change that (though we probably all come to it with a hidden fantasy that it can!). We can however, learn to deal more gracefully with the drama of life and its vicissitudes.

An essential component in the therapeutic relationship is one whereby the vulnerabilities exposed in therapy are met with non-judgmental acceptance by the therapist, which is often in and of itself a transforming experience. It has been said that the most reliable form of self-esteem is self-acceptance. That is, that we have dared to know ourselves inside out, warts and all, fully embraced and accepted our vulnerabilities and 'grotty bits' without self-judgment, so that we have nothing to hide from anyone else. Being met with an empathic acceptance from the therapist is a significant step in that direction; thawing out deeply held beliefs about our essential unacceptability or unworthiness, and melting destructive attachment to negative attitudes to ourselves. The therapist's unwavering acceptance of our flaws and recognition of our strengths models a way of being in which we can be kinder to ourselves - and hence to others. Therein lay the humanitarian dimensions of psychotherapy.

On the surface, individuation and the focus on the Self in therapy appears to be a self-indulgent endeavour that perhaps only an elite few can afford to pursue. Its wider goal however takes us way beyond an individual client's happiness and satisfaction with their personal world. At the very least, someone who is more self-accepting and happier in their own skin is going to be a better partner, parent, friend, work colleague, boss and neighbour. Already dozens of others benefit from this 'self-indulgent' activity, and some measure of suffering is allayed in the world around them. In its most radical dimensions, psychotherapy, especially if combined with a committed practice of meditation, can contribute to an opening to a deeper sense of communion with all beings as we recognise how we are all essentially struggling to achieve happiness and avoid suffering.

Words by Mandy Peyton

Posted on 18 September 2005