What Therapy Isn’t

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“Our wounds are often the openings into the best and most beautiful parts of us.”

(David Richo)

Therapy As Weapon

My name has apparently become a threat. As in, “Does Tiffany Sankofa know you act like this??” “Keep it up! I’m going to tell Tiffany Sankofa all about that in our next session.” Or my *favorite* “If you don’t stop that I’m going to call Tiffany Sankofa and book you a session!” Sigh. Dear ones, therapy is not a threat to be hurled at people to make a point. That’s kind of the opposite of the whole purpose of doing one’s counseling work. You don’t have to invoke my name. Your have plenty of authority all by yourself. If you want help saying what you really want to say, come on in. We can work that out. 

Therapy As Shame

I recently chatted with a relative who had had a horrendous encounter with a narcissist. The narcissist feigned concern for the person and tried to club her with: “I simply cannot be in a relationship with you until you have done some serious therapy on your issues!” Gratefully, my relative saw right through the person’s projections. She could smell the shame a mile away and was grateful that the narcissist was cutting her off. The narcissist framed her supposed need for therapy as an indication that she was a deeply flawed and disturbed human being who might well be irredeemable. Friends, friends, friends… We don’t go to therapy because we are “sick.” We go to therapy because we don’t want anything to get in the way of living the life we want. That sounds awfully sane to me. 

Therapy As Punishment

I have actually had parents tell their children that if they didn’t straighten up and start doing their homework they are going to make their kids go back to therapy. HA! That’ll show them! The crazy truth is, if a child in that situation presents for therapy with me, the work we do will be all about navigating a parent who doesn’t recognize their own issues. I will also be strongly encouraging parenting coaching. In a family system, the family member that gets sent for therapy is nearly always the one I call the “truth telling troublemaker,” (TTT.) The TTT is pretty much always the sanest one of the bunch. They are using their behavior to telegraph to anyone who might help, that something is really not ok in this family. The families that get through it well are the ones who are willing to hear that message and work together for positive change.

Therapy As Advice

People rarely need someone telling them what to do. It isn’t even very helpful. Usually when we are giving advice it’s really for us, not the other person. I’m not at all interested in taking people’s money so that I can work on me. (I have a therapist for that.) Think about it: What’s more helpful to you? Someone who could never have all of the pieces to your personal puzzle telling you what they think you should do? Or someone skillfully helping you hear your own wisdom, and in the process, giving you a safe place to practice trusting yourself for the rest of your life without their help? That is therapy. 

Therapy As Magic

Showing up at a therapy appointment is not the same thing as doing the work of therapy. I know one couple who did therapy for two years with one of my colleagues. The wife worked hard at making requested changes, taking emotional risks and growing. The husband dutifully participated in reflective dialogue, said all the empathic things he was supposed to say, but basically chose to change as little as he could get away with. They ultimately divorced. In mediation the husband said, “I went to two years of therapy with you to fix you. It didn’t work!” Showing up and saying the right things is not therapy either. 

Therapy As Venting

I’ve heard people over the years tell me that they go to therapy to get things off their chests. They report that their therapists don’t really say anything. (I have no idea what the therapist actually does or does not say.) While I do believe that “A sorrow shared is a sorrow halved,” and that the presence of another human being who “bears witness” to our lives is healing, what some people describe really just sounds like venting to me. You can do that with a friend… for free.

Therapy As Information

Some people tell themselves that they don’t need therapy because they already know what’s wrong with them. If knowing what was “wrong with us” were all we needed to heal, we could all just read the DSM-5, find the pages that sound like us and be done with it. Have you ever noticed that linear logic (what we think) very often just isn’t enough? There is so much more data available than just the stuff that strings in a straight line. Learning how to hear and understand the information from the gut brain, (emotional logic,) is a superpower that leads to much more satisfying outcomes. Without that information we get in our own way over and over again. Another sophisticated and complicated data stream involves the ‘heart-brain.” The heart brain is concerned with relationship connectedness. Lest you think this is all therapist gobbledeegook, relational connections are the thing that literally helps our pre-frontal cortex, (our discernment centers,) attach and stay attached to the rest of our brain. Connecting with a therapist on the relational level – re-working dysfunctional relationship habits – is part of getting and keeping a brain that works for your optimal benefit. Linear data just isn’t enough.

Therapy as a Fix It

Have you noticed that the world around you is crazy? I mean, literally, people’s behavior is sometimes astonishingly awful. We don’t go to therapy because we are “crazy.” (In fact, many truly pathological people will never show up in a therapy office.) We go to therapy because we are sane and want tools that will help us stay that way, regardless of all of the craziness around us.

Therapy As a Crutch

In a culture that falls back to “blame and shame” instead of making changes, it’s easy for some people to imagine that people go to therapy to excuse their behavior. As the song goes, “Blame it on the ADD….” Anyone who has worked with me knows that bird don’t fly. Knowing what diagnostic categories our behavior fits under can be helpful, but only as a springboard to understanding what we can change so that we get more of the outcomes we do want and fewer of the ones we don’t. We are not our diagnoses. We are not stuck. We are dynamic human beings with choices and opportunities. A skilled therapist can help you un-learn the things that don’t serve you, and learn the things that free you up live an amazing life. Crutches are very helpful when you can’t bear weight on your leg because it’s healing. As it heals and strengthens, the crutch is no longer helpful. 

So What IS Therapy!??

Therapy is a place where people take their emotional courage and try on new ways of thinking and new ways of being in a skilled, supportive environment. A therapist is someone who helps you see all of the resources and strengths you have, and strengthens your ability to trust your own best wisdom. Therapy is a come-as-you-are party where it’s safe enough to bring whatever is true, regardless of whether or not it’s comfortable, “acceptable,” “logical,” and take a good hard look at what you really want to do with it. We live in a world that constantly tells us lies about who we are. “When we don’t know who we are, we act like someone else.” Therapy is a place where you can sift through the lies and the truths with a trusted other, and grow more and more into the dynamic person you were always made to be. Are you ready to un-learn and become who you really are?