How To Do the Work in Therapy

Why bother with therapy?

When we talk about therapy and doing “the work” there is vague idea of what is actually happening in the sessions. The stereotype of laying on a chaise while an old white dude nods “mmhmm, and how does that make you feel” comes to mind. There seems to be this mystery around why people are in therapy when they can just talk to friends or get advice (curated by the algorithms) from mental health professionals on social media. 

As humans, we have this tendency to follow the path of least resistance, it follows then, that we would seek to get our needs met by the easiest and quickest way possible. We can vent to friends about how we are feeling, and we can look to social media for the answers as to why we are feeling that way. I think the frustration lies in the next part. We vent and let out that frustration, we know why we feel that way, but now what?  It’s like you air out your grievances about your dead-end job, you know that it isn’t fulfilling and know that you want more or different, but then you get stuck. Are you doomed to a Groundhog Day type routine for the rest of your days?  This is “the work”. Just like Bill Murray, you must do something outside of your norm and routine to see a change. The problem is, this is scary, intimidating, and sometimes anxiety provoking. There is a sense of safety and security in the routine and predictable, even when the routine and predictable are making you miserable.  We get in this slump of misery and sometimes we don’t even realize that we are in it.  When we make the decision that something must give because the status quo is no longer sustainable, this where therapy can help. We have used all of the resources currently available, and they just aren’t working any more. It’s like using a flimsy umbrella in a hurricane.

What do you do in therapy?

Part of what we do is work to understand your emotions. We have these sensations; anger, sadness, fear, worry, or about a million other feelings, and we don’t have the best understanding as to why.  In Atlas of the Heart, Brene Brown discusses this idea that the average human can identify and name five emotions that they have experienced. Studies show that there are over 70 distinct emotions that humans experience.  I think we have identified part of the problem. We have the experience of emotion but not the language to describe what we are feeling.

In therapy, first we work to identify the emotion.  More specifically, in therapy with me, just saying “I’m mad” doesn’t cut it. We talk about the type of mad that you feel. Once we understand the origins of your specific “mad” we can move to stretching our brains to think differently.  As we increase our awareness of how we feel and why, we work to have more intention in our decisions and relationships.

How do we change the way we feel?

You’ve heard the saying that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”. It sounds like a bit of a cop out to me. It sounds like instead of saying “nothing beats a fail but a try”. You are saying, “I have always done things this way and I am not interested in trying something different”. Or perhaps, you worry that you won’t be able to change, that it is “too late”.

Let me introduce you to the idea of neuroplasticity. Science backs up the idea that you can always teach an old dog new tricks. Our brains are malleable and capable of growing and stretching. Kind of like ears and noses, the older you get the bigger they get. That being said, there is no right way to go about stretching our brain. This is where your therapist would come in. No matter how much you relate to the professional on socials or how good of a listener your friend is, your mechanism of change is unique to you. Each step of your growth is personal, unique, and customizable.

Therapy Techniques

I used to work at this big community health clinic. There was a great group of therapists ranging from seasoned specialists to freshly licensed graduates and interns. Every two weeks we would have a meeting and we had a spotlight presenter. A therapist would either lead the meeting or bring in a colleague to share information during an allotted time. As therapists, we have our certain styles of reaching and working with our clients. Some therapists use homework and worksheets, some use art in the session. There are therapists that pull from cognitive behavioral therapy, positive psychology, and solution focused techniques. I use a lot of “Socratic Dialogue”, I encourage clients to lean into to the experience with curiosity, think of things in a different way, even if it’s not the “right” way.

I distinctly remember one meeting, one of our artsier therapists introduced this collage technique. She had stacks of magazines of all different types. The only instruction we were given was to flip through quickly and rip out pages that had images that pulled us in some way. Don’t think, just do. I flipped through a stack picked out some images and had no idea what would happen next.

After we had our images selected, we looked through our piles and selected an image that would make the background of our collage. This was like a landscape or backdrop type image. Then we selected a figure or subject to go on the landscape. The sounds of scissors and ripping pages filled the room. The smell of glue mixed with some perfume ads wafted my way. 

Once we glued our landscape and subjects to the card, the facilitator asked us to look at the card as if it were a part of us speaking out. For me, my image represented the timid child in the back of the class quietly raising their hand, wanting to be noticed but simultaneously cringing at the thought of being called on. The image represented something that I was yearning for but didn’t realize.

Fast forward a few years. There were some big changes in my personal life. I woke up one morning, grabbed my coffee and looked out the window. The sun was rising behind these tall trees. The sun rays were shining through the morning mist.  HOLY SH*T. I was my image. I still have the collage card that I made. I keep it on my bulletin board in my office.  That was over eight years ago.

If you are ready to stretch your brain, let’s set up a time to chat. If you want to try your hand at collage and see what comes up for you, join us for a workshop!  Think of it as a “sip n’ paint” but we do collage instead.