“How does this work?”
It’s the first question many therapy clients ask. Those who don’t are probably just being polite. And it should be the first question. When I go to a medical doctor, I want to know what they’re doing and how it will heal my body. It’s totally reasonable to wonder the same thing about how therapy will heal your mind and your heart. So, I’m always happy to answer the question. But before I do, I have to ask another question of my own:
What does “work” mean?
In other words, what do you expect healing to look like? What will it feel like to “get better?” Because if we haven’t clarified what therapy can and cannot do for you, we can’t be clear about how it works. So, most therapy begins in an unexpected way.
Most good therapy begins by dashing some of our good hopes.
Therapy cannot eliminate sadness from your life.
Nothing can. Because sorrow is an integral part of being human. Sadness is a sign we’ve cherished something or someone—that we’ve longed for something unattained and been disappointed, or attained something for which we’ve longed and been grieved by the loss of it. It comes and it goes—this is normal—so therapy cannot make it go away for good. But therapy can help us to stop fighting our sadness, to start feeling our sadness, and to discover that true freedom is not the absence of darkness but the confidence that we can walk through our darkness and into the light. Even if, one day, we have to walk through our darkness again.
Therapy cannot eliminate fear from your life, either.
Indeed, therapy will probably create more fear in your life. Because as a sense of safety grows in the therapy space, your true self will begin to emerge, and it will be rich with pent-up passions and unlived longings, and you will begin to set your sights on untrodden trails. The unknown is scary. Therapy beckons us into the fearful unknown. Yet, this is what therapy can do: it can help us to release our shame about being afraid. Life is scary. In therapy, we begin to discover that courage is not the absence of fear; courage is the choice to truly live, in spite of our fear.
Therapy cannot give you a sense of certainty.
In fact, once again, it will do the opposite. As you begin to question the narratives you’ve always believed about your past, your present, your future, and your self, you will feel increasingly uncertain. This will be a relief. Whereas you once thought the goal of life was to become certain, you will begin to see certainty for the prison it has always been, keeping your life small, defensive, judgmental, and lonely. Therapy cannot answer all of your questions, but therapy can help you feel at peace with not having all the answers. And peace is a pretty good thing to feel.
Therapy cannot help you maintain the life you have.
Ironically, many of us go to therapy because it seems like life is changing—for example, an old job is feeling like prison, a relationship is feeling toxic, or a faith is feeling flimsy—and we want to figure out how to hold onto the status quo. But therapy doesn’t usually hold you where you are; it’s more often a gentle letting go. It’s not life support. It’s death and resurrection.
Therapy is not a magic pill; it is a magical participation.
It is not a passive ingestion of advice and wisdom; it is an active conversation between two people, comparing notes on what it means to be human, and deciding on a better way. You don’t go to therapy to be saved by someone else; you go to therapy to be seen by someone else, and, once seen, to join in the process of healing. In therapy, wisdom isn’t bestowed; it is co-created.
Therapy does not cultivate perfection of the self; it cultivates compassion for yourself.
It helps us to embrace our story, our pain, and our mess. It helps us to realize the way we’ve been acting is the natural reaction to the way we’ve been acted upon. Then, once you have practiced being compassionate on the inside of you, you will be skilled enough at love to practice compassion toward everyone outside of you.
How does therapy “work?”
Therapy works to make you more fully human, and more fully accepting of your humanity. Therapy doesn’t take away your pain; it takes you into the depths of your pain, until you discover there in that abyss, the core of who you are. Your truest, most loveable self. Your heart. Your soul. In other words, your worthiness. Your beauty. Your love. Your reason for being here.
That’s how this works.
In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.
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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.