Psychotherapy outcome researchers repeatedly evidence the strength of the therapeutic relationship to be the best predictor of successful treatment. Why is seeing a therapist any different from confiding in a trusted friend? There are some obvious differences, like the training and credentials that make therapists uniquely qualified to treat emotional and behavioral health problems. Moreover, it is the therapeutic relationship itself, one which could not be replicated with a friend or family member, that has the potential to make lasting changes in the way you see yourself, other people, and the world at large.
Here are three potential takeaways from therapy:
1. Improved Sense of Self
We all carry with us beliefs and attitudes about ourselves, both positive and negative – I’m a lousy friend, I’m a hard worker, I’m not creative. Perhaps without knowing it, these stories we tell about ourselves, in essence, become our identity. Gone unexamined, we are likely to go on living our lives with these beliefs inadvertently shaping the decisions we make. This is normal, and not inherently harmful.
Often, however, these stories were written in the past, and they deserve to be edited to account for new evidence – especially when these stories are contributing to our own emotional distress, harmful behavior patterns or problematic relationships. It is within the safety of the therapeutic relationship, where your therapist is able to offer a new perspective, that you are free to come to new, more complete understandings about yourself.
2. Stronger Relationships
Starting the day we are born, we begin to learn what we can expect from other people. When I cry, does someone comfort me? Is it safe to be vulnerable? As we grow, we continue to learn more about ourselves in relation to others. Sometimes, especially when our relationships with important others have been confusing or harmful, we can unknowingly carry these expectations into new relationships. In other words, we can find ourselves applying the “scripts” from old relationships to new ones where the dialogue does not apply.
Therapists are trained to listen for themes in the way you relate to others through the stories you tell. While therapists cannot “read your mind”, they might help you to see threads in your current relationships that you can collaboratively follow all the way back to earlier ones. In the same way that the stories you tell yourself deserve to be edited, so too do these threads in your relationships deserve to be untangled.
As we narrate our own life story, we come up with assumptions about the world at large. We do this as an antidote to uncertainty. For some people, these assumptions could be something like if I put effort into my work, I will be successful, or the world is generally a safe and predictable place. For others, however, these assumptions might be more along the lines of it doesn’t matter how hard I try, nothing good happens for me, or the world is scary and dangerous, and tragedy is just around the corner. Our assessments of the world at large are developed based in part by life experiences. For example, traumatic experiences can quickly make the world seem unpredictable and dangerous. In therapy, you are given the opportunity, again, to rewrite your assumptions, and establish a sense of safety, mastery, and hope.