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5 High Level Attributes of Therapy (including what it is not!)

Dr. Wiltshire

June 12, 2021

What is therapy?

It goes by many names: talk therapy, psychotherapy, therapeutic interventions, counseling, and some may even refer to it as coaching. Regardless of what you call it, most people would agree that this type of professional service lives in a category of its very own. 

Short Answer: A growth-promoting, professional and intimate relationship with a trained listener, empathizer, and strategic talker.

This is not the definitive answer, and I am in no way more reliable at answering this question than you just because of my position. My perspective is totally skewed and littered with ideals. My opinion on this topic is shared with the hope that you walk away knowing what therapy is NOT. This article will be a success if I can help one more person discover the right fit with their next wellness professional. 

Primary Points

  1. Intimate and ethical
  2. Facilitated by a trained professional
  3. A place to be heard 
  4. A healing space
  5. What it is not recap

Intimate and Ethical

Yes, therapy is intimate but I’m not referring to sexual contact in any shape or form. Let me repeat this one more time for the people in the back with selective hearing. Therapy does not include sexual intercourse, leg stroking, tickling, or anything remotely similar to physical intimacy. 

“No flirting. No dates. No Ghosting.”

It’s intimate because of the emotional proximity that naturally occurs when vulnerable details are exposed between two people. Think about the last person you became deeply vulnerable with and now remove the complications that came with the physical intimacy and romance. You may be feeling a sense of relief as you imagine what it would be like to be yourself with your therapist, while being confident you can’t have your heart shattered due to infidelity, lost trust, or abuse. 

“The dynamic with your therapist is oftentimes referred to as a therapeutic relationship.” 

Your primary obligation in a therapeutic relationship is to 

“Show up & participate.”

When you stay active & engaged in your own process with a therapist who “gets you” then more than likely you’ll experience positive changes. Despite all the beautiful work done together, remember it’s still a service so compensation is expected. 

“Your therapist is not your friend”

For some reason, there’s a false notion that wellness professionals should do their job out of the kindness of their heart and without the need or expectation of compensation.  However, I do not see anybody offering these professionals special loan forgiveness, free housing, discounted groceries, or any other benefit of the sort. 

Not sure where these feelings come from and I’m not afraid to say it. 

Pay your wellness professional if you agreed to the fee when you started

Just as you pay for your other loyal services: 

  • Hair
  • Nails
  • Massages
  • Car maintenance
  • Taxes
  • Friday night VIP service
  • and the private services that you don’t want to talk about. All that! 

True, we as a society need access to affordable mental health because everyone deserves to do this level of deep work. This is a systems issue not an individual issue.  There are numerous examples of companies and heroic individuals who are champions at providing resources, and we certainly need the system to change for greater impact.

Recap: Intimate and Ethical

A therapeutic relationship is a service facilitated by a trained professional who upholds healthy boundaries with you, respects your privacy, and who is compensated for their relationship with you.

Facilitated by a Trained Professional

I felt this point needed its own section. While I can’t speak for all therapist, I can provide some insight into my journey to a doctorate of psychology (i.e. Psy.D.). It went a little something like this: 

  1. Bachelor of Science in Psychology (college) – 4 years
  2. Doctorate of Psychology (graduate school) – 5 Years
    1. Full load of academics courses (book knowledge) 
    2. Onsite training at schools, rehabs, agencies, universities . . .
    3. Supervision by licensed psychologists critiquing every single client case, every note, and pushing the boundaries of my comfort zone
    4. 40+ Hours of personal therapy required to do deep work on self and to better understand the experience of my clients. Paid for by me. No sponsorship. 
    5. Internship training at a community center 40+ hours a week
  3. Post-doctoral training; hands on with more responsibilities – 1 year
  4. Licensing exams (*don’t even bring this topic up with me unless you want to fight lol!). 
  5. Finally, 2015 I was free to spread my ambitious wings to operate independently.

It may at times seem like we just landed in a role without much work or effort. However, it takes the average psychologist approximately 10-15 years to arrive in front of you independently licensed. By the time you sit on our couch (or your own couch – #pandemic), we have most likely worked with over 300+ people from diverse backgrounds, heard many unique life stories, and faced a variety of personal and professional challenges. 

The investment a wellness professional makes into their careers goes beyond time and money. It takes a lot of dedication to give 45-50 minutes of focused attention to one person at a time. It’s incredibly important that you (the client) establish a therapeutic relationship with someone who fits you; who gets you. We may generally come from similar training backgrounds but remember, we’re still human beings with our own special quirks which we bring to our work with our clients. See post on FIT.

Recap: Facilitated by a Trained Professional

Do your due diligence to confirm you’re working with a trained professional (e.g. LCSW, Ph.D., Psy.D., MSW). There’s a whole lot of credentials out there to choose from and you’re not limited to just Western style therapy and wellness. I am in no way suggesting that one method is better than the other to be SUPER DUPER clear. What I’m saying is ask questions, understand what to expect, and if it’s isn’t working with that individual try again with someone else. Do the same thing you would with anything else in your life. You test drove more than one car to get to the one you purchased. You tried on multiple outfits before you made a purchase. You went to the wine bar and did a flight to taste test the liquor. So . . . yup I think you get it. 

A Place To Be Heard

What a trained, mindful, and helpful professional does is demonstrate the ability to focus on you during the session. They are not spending 20% or more of the time talking about themselves. Typically, when we bring ourselves into the conversation it’s strategic to build rapport or to make an important growth promoting point. It’s not to brag. It’s not to derail. It’s not our therapy session. 

It’s really freaking hard to not bring self into the room. Take a moment and imagine for a second that someone is telling you about the hard day they had at work, and oftentimes the natural response is to “connect” by talking about your hard day too. In therapy, a professional puts a majority of that natural behavior aside to make monumental space for their clients to wander in on their journey to their own personal goals. 

I hear this all the time from my clients. “I can’t talk to X because the moment I say Y, they turn the story back on themselves. I don’t feel heard.” So, as an expert listener my job is to make sure my clients feel heard and not just feel but are heard. 

“Being heard by someone is a significant step in the healing process.” 

Yeah, let’s jump right into healing next! 

Recap: A Place To Be Heard 

All you need to remember from this section is that feeling heard and seen by your wellness professional is invaluable to the therapeutic process. As a customer/client you have a right to challenge or question your professional. We are not perfect by any means so if you love everything else about them except for that, bring it up and request a change. If it doesn’t change then perhaps it’s not the right fit for you. 

A Healing Space

This has to be my most favorite section! The word “Healing” brings me so much joy and it’s hard to express in words. 

Ok… deep breath … so apart from being seen and heard one of the main reasons to invest in yourself is to have a healing experience.

Let me say that one more time in another way. 

“A healing experience is worth more than diamonds, gold, and 10x growth in BTC (for the crypto-geeks out there).” 

Somewhere deep down inside (and for some of us not so deep), there are some painful wounds that scar over but aren’t quite healed. In some cases there’s no scar, instead it’s a festering open wound oozing with fear, sadness, tears, trauma, anxiety, anger. A place where our younger more vulnerable self goes to hide away from the world. Seeking security in place that is uninhabitable but we go there anyways because of familiarity. For some of us, there’s a deep abyss of never ending darkness that we know exists but we ignore. And every so often we’re swallowed up by the “sunken place” filled with darkness and lost hope.

HIDDEN TEXT

And yet on the surface, public facing, all that anybody else sees is “everything is awesome!”

You don’t have to be a therapist or doctor to guess the potentially harmful outcomes of repressed pain. Many of us have repressed for so long, we no longer acknowledge that pain is what we’re feeling. Our threshold for new hurt and trauma widen so much that we don’t recognize danger when we see it. 

“Unfortunately, it means some of us will eat shit but only taste sugar, sprinkles and sunshine.” 

So . . . HEALING.

There’s no goal of healing to perfection. The scars will remain as reminders but there’s security in knowing that under those scars is sensitive tissue instead of a wound. 

Therapy is about a healing therapeutic relationship. Some people experienve healing by way of redefining the terms and definitions they use casually for example seeing a “weakness” as a “strength” and exploring examples of this in their life. Other opportunities for healing come through forgiving self of past behaviors and actively working on new behaviors that align with the person you want to be now. In other circumstances, the healing happens because your wellness person recognizes that you need someone to talk to you more gently, listens to you more persistently, and someone who gets you and laughs at your jokes genuinely. In some cases you need someone who cries with you and connects with your losses. I’ve witnessed a previous client have an instantly healing experience simply because I stood up for them without any hesitation. It was all they needed for the domino effect to take place. 

If this is intriguing to you then continue reading more examples of healing experiences here.

Recap:  A Healing Space

While establishing trust and connection in your therapeutic relationship you simultaneously open the possibility for wholesome healing. The puzzle pieces truly begin to connect as healing is achieved. The healthy boundaries, the consistency with your professional, and the hard work begin to pay off with a little time and persistence. 

What It Is Not!

Just The Recap: Throughout this post, I’ve dropped a few ideas of what therapy is not to be. This recap is not conclusive and I’m only including the most extreme items. Why? Because no human is perfect and we bring our quirks to the session that can oftentimes positively influence the work. Therefore, I don’t want to leave you, the reader, with the wrong idea that somehow there’s a perfect person out there who makes no mistakes. However, the following items are listed because they are unethical and can cause direct harm to you. 

Never Ever Should there be: 

  1. Sexual intimacy
  2. Inappropriate advances like flirting.
  3. Profusely talking about themselves (therapist) and their life challenges.
  4. Intentional Ghosting or Abandonment
  5. Misuse of their authority in the room

Not a long list right? These are probably all obvious to you but I wanted to state them anyway. 

Summary

This was a high level look at “What is therapy?” from the perspective of a licensed clinical psychologist. I know my perspective is skewed but I’m confident it’s not too far off. 

Do you have the urge to debate a little? Or something to add? Hit me up! I love to have my views challenged with the opportunity to grow. Thanks for stopping by.

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