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How Psychotherapy Works and How to Benefit

Psychotherapy is a process of exploring your inner and outer life in a way that brings new consciousness, solutions and growth in many areas. It is a place where you can open up to a trusted professional -- and this safety thereby helps you to be more radically honest with yourself, as well.


Whenever we feel that we have the total permission and safety to be ourselves with another person, the things we say will come from a deeper place. Things of which we were only vaguely aware will bubble up into consciousness and even surprise us as we say them.


For example, you may feel relieved to have finally said something out loud and realize just how long you've been holding it in or repressing your awareness of it. Honesty and self-awareness is such a core aspect of our well-being, and that is why counseling is profoundly healing. It is a place for honest self-reflection and authentic relating.

The Benefits of Psychodynamic Therapy

The type of therapy we all know as traditional talk therapy, is also called psychodynamic therapy. Psychodynamic therapy emphasizes the transformative and healing nature of the therapeutic relationship, which is shown in most cases to be more significant than the particular approach the therapist uses. 


Psychodynamic therapy aims to treat the whole person, taking account of the patient's family history, significant relationships, traumatic experiences, unconscious process (dreams, intuitions, creativity), career issues and overall paradigm of life and meaning.

The pressures of healthcare insurance and medication research have created a situation that treats human problems as medical conditions to be managed, which they very seldom are. That framework creates the funding for research that seeks to measure therapeutic approaches that maximize short-term benefits. 

For certain situations, short-term therapy that focuses on cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques and daily mood journals -- "Rate your anxiety on a scale of 1 to 10 before and after your session" -- can be helpful, but a deeper look at the research shows that the positive effects tend to wear off quickly. 

Talking About the Past to Move Forward in the Present

Traditional therapy has been contrasted with CBT and also life-coaching approaches, and it has been criticized for focusing too much on the past. This criticism is largely false, although some therapists may be guilty as charged. 

The focus in traditional therapy is not on the past as such, but rather it is on how past experiences are still affecting the client today. An insightful psychologist understands that no matter what the past traumas and indirect causes of dysfunction have been, the healing and empowerment is to be found in the present.


At some point our feelings, and our painful memories, must give way to a practical understanding and an embrace of the attitudes and action will help us today. A therapist who loses this focus will allow their clients to wallow in old pains and to lead them in circles.

In constructing a theory which derives the neurosis from causes in the distant past, we are first and foremost following the tendency of our patient to lure us as far away as possible from the critical present…. It is mainly in the present that the affective causes lie, and here alone are the possibilities of removing them. 

For all my respect for history, it seems to me that no insight into the past and no re-experiencing of pathogenic reminiscences – however powerful it may be – is as effective in freeing man from the grip of the past as the construction of something new…no matter what the original circumstances from which they arose, [the neurosis] is conditioned and maintained by a wrong attitude which is present all the time and which, once it is recognized, must be corrected now.

Carl Jung, Freud and Psychoanalysis

Powerful therapy must be centered on the client's adjustment to their present circumstances and relationships, no matter what happened yesterday or in early childhood. We do need to talk about the past, about what happened yesterday and last year and even years ago. But we do so in order to illumiante the present and to free up energy for moving forward. It's the forward movement that heals and uplifts.


Benefits That Increase Over Time
Of course, psychodynamic therapy can also be short-term and focus on problem-solving. It can use cognitive-behavioral techniques that give people specific homework and exercises to reduce anxiety. But it offers so much more than that. Namely, it offers a lifelong boost in self-awareness, relationship health, trauma resolution and overal life satisfaction.  

The bad news for insurance companies and the pharmaceutical industry is that there is no drug or short-term treatment in the world that can replace the benefits of effective therapy over several months or even years. Of course, not everyone needs months or years of therapy - but some do.

Therapy that focuses on creating self-knowledge, healthy relationships and the healing of emotional wounds is proven to create benefits that are not only significant in the short term but which increase exponentially over time, rather than quickly falling away. To read more about these benefits please see Therapy That Sticks


This kind of benefit is reflected in client statements like, "Dr. Smith saved my life. She helped me save my marriage and find out who I really I am and want to be. I couldn't see those things while I was drinking so much and repressing all the pain of my childhood abuse."

Or, "I couldn't have gotten through those two years when I lost both my parents, without therapy. I needed a place to process the grief without being told to just move on."

An effective psychotherapist can certainly help solve immediate problems and reduce anxieties and phobias, and I think every therapist should have CBT techniques in their toolkit. However, the art of helping people heal and improve their lives goes much deeper than coping techniques, and offers great benefits for those who are willing to invest in the process.

The Process

We can look at the process of counseling in terms of the immediate, short-term goals and the long-term goals and benefits. First, the goal is to help you feel more stable, calm and hopeful about your situation, and, if there is any kind of crisis or urgent situation in your outer life, then to identify and start implementing the most necessary actions or steps that are needed.


Second, as therapy progresses, the goal is to help you understand your personality and relationships more fully, gain insight into your thoughts and emotions, and develop a stronger foundation of positive attitudes, skills and habits that will improve your life for years to come.

All of this works to awaken your potential and to align with your most authentic self, so that your life can shift from fear to love and from a sense of inner deficiency to empowerment, meaning and joy. 


This can be called the process of self-actualization or individuation. By coming to a fuller consciousness of who we are as unique individuals, we can feel more connected with others and fulfilled by a sense of higher meaning and joy in our lives. We land in our most natural individuality, while also feeling connected to the whole in whatever way we understand it --- our family, community, the universe, or God.

A Constructive and Open-Ended Dialogue 

Therapy is an organic process of finding solutions, learning new habits and allowing insights to arise from the dialogue. It is a purposeful, focused dialogue but it must also remain open-ended and spontaneous. For example, when I meet with a client each week, I want to let their process lead the way. I want to see what's on their mind and what seems natural for them to bring up.


If they are a bit stuck, I might offer a question or reflection from past sessions, but I don't want to step in and take over. If they fall silent for a while, it may be because they need to ponder or process something that is not yet fully conscious in them, but is coming into consciousness.


Therapy is not a formula. People are not robots who can easily spit out their thoughts and feelings about complex matters of the heart. It takes time.


In the beginning of therapy, I will ask many questions and provide a lot of context and explanations of how I am seeing their case and how long therapy may be needed. As therapy progresses, the client's process leads the way.

The Feeling of Having Things to Talk About

When your process is "alive" and there is a good working relationship with your therapist, you feel open and able to talk about all kinds of things. If it feels difficult to say anything or that there is really not much to talk about, that might be because therapy has met its goals and has come to a natural end. 

Alternatively, it may be that the client is not ready to engage in the process; that there is not enough trust between client and therapist; or that the therapist is talking too much and inserting their own views.

Notice if you sometimes just want the psychologist to just give you answers or tell you what to do. Yes, it is sometimes entirely appropriate for a psychologist to offer a suggestion as to what to do, or to say what he or she thinks is the truth about your situation.


Meanwhile, it is important to understand that they are there to help you feel within and find many answers in yourself. If the psychologist says too much about what they think, it tends to preempt your own process of discovery. On other hand, if all they do is listen and provide little feedback, you will feel a bit alone and lost in your own thoughts. A skillful psychologist finds the right balance.


You should never feel that your therapist has nothing helpful to say. You are coming to someone who ideally has a great deal of experience at quickly seeing into the situation and detecting what the core issues are. Your therapist should be expected to regularly offer illuminating reflections and actionable suggestions -- but they should also ask you questions to deepen your thinking, and give you the space and time to reflect on things and arrive at your own gut feelings.

The Desire to Grow

The most important factor in the success of psychotherapy is your desire and willingness to grow. If you are dedicated to your growth and all that it requires, then you will certainly experience positive inner changes. When you face a difficult issue or choice, your intention guides you towards the right outcome.

The way our psyche works is mysterious, and therefore the process of therapy is mysterious. Important shifts of feeling and attitude happen under the radar of awareness before we realize them consciously. On the surface, therapy has us reporting on daily events and looking for solutions to problems, but on a deeper level it’s a process of self-exploration and conscious evolution.


Our pains and problems are here to help us evolve and become who we are meant to be. To my mind, that generally means becoming a person of greater capacity to give and receive love, to take courageous action and navigate the trials and triumphs of life with integrity and grace.

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