By: Kyle Kermott, Psy.D.
There is a pervasive misconception in our culture about therapy, and the people who attend it. Many have erroneously developed a bias that there’s “something wrong” with the people who come to therapy, and that psychologists spend their time fixing these people. But both of those ideas are false.
There is nothing wrong with people who come to therapy. In fact, many patients in therapy are some of the strongest, most resilient, and resourceful individuals I have ever met. And, unlike the depictions in popular culture, I do not spend my time fixing people, or directing people on how to live their lives.
The majority of my efforts in therapy don’t revolve around collecting information, and doling out advice. Rather, on a moment-by-moment basis, I am focusing my energy on listening intently to my patients so that I can try to emotionally find them. I’m earnestly trying to find, and speak to, the deep, authentic ways that my patients are feeling and thinking.
I do this based on the assumption that—for the most part—people who come to therapy are in some form disconnected from themselves. They aren’t certain how they feel. Or if they know how they feel, they aren’t sure why. And I am confident that if I can first find a person, and make some true connection with them, then they can begin to find themselves.
Much of mental life is composed of the times when we are finding and losing ourselves. We progress in our knowledge of ourselves when we gain fresh insights about who we are as people. And our understanding of ourselves is stunted during the times when we try, but fail, to capture certain aspects of our experience.
Think, for example, of a time when you experienced a major set-back alone. You could sense that you were going through a wide range of intense emotions, but because of how strong those feelings were, you struggled to label them, instead settling on describing the whole situation as just “feeling like a lot.” You couldn’t truly find yourself in this tumultuous situation.
Or think of a time when you went through some intense circumstances with a loved one or friend. You both were feeling strong emotions of joy, sadness, or anger. But because you went through the experience together, and could share with each other your feelings, you were able to understand just how important and impactful this moment was for you. Though this experience was no less intense than the one you went through alone, because you had the ability to share your experience with another (and with yourself), you were able to find yourself in the experience. And because you were able to find yourself, your experience felt more meaningful and enduring.
Mental health issues don’t stem from some deficiency or problem with ourselves. Rather, they are caused by some inability within us to find and make sense of how we are thinking or feeling.
When someone states that they are “anxious,” that anxiety isn’t the whole story. In fact, the anxiety they are aware of is actually just the tip of the iceberg of deeper feelings they aren’t aware of. Why do you think people feel better when they have the time and space to share their feelings? When individuals are given a platform to explore their experience, and understand the factors that are causing them to feel as they do, the intense emotions they are grappling with become more bearable, and their experience begins to make sense.
Anxiety becomes less anxious when you are able to understand it. Depression becomes less sad when you are able to think about, and share it.
I have seen first-hand that people don’t need advice or directions. I believe that you are smart and capable enough to navigate your life without input from me. And the truth is that I could never know the intricacies of your circumstances as completely as you do.
Instead, what people need is someone who can help them make sense of their thoughts and feelings. Those really intense and difficult ones that you know are there, but just can’t put your finger on. I help people begin to touch and make sense of the experiences that for too long have been kept at a distance. And by finding and understanding these experiences, I help people live more meaningful, fulfilling lives. Your life becomes fuller when you are able to bring back into yourself all of those thoughts and feelings that, until now, you haven’t been able to acknowledge.
So if I had the power to influence everyone’s beliefs about therapy, I wouldn’t hesitate. I would climb a rooftop and loudly broadcast my conviction that what people need is not someone to fix them, but someone to find them.
Because once someone finds you, then you can begin to find yourself.