With so many different modalities of counselling and psychotherapy to choose from, the field of therapy can seem quite confusing in itself. However, it is generally agreed that if you’re not looking for a specific type of therapy, what’s more important than the modality itself is the connection and safety you feel with your therapist, and that despite the emotional difficulties and challenges that therapy can unveil, that you are happy with the way your therapist is working with you. Whatever modality your therapist is trained in, all professionally registered psychotherapists undertake continuing professional development to update their skills and knowledge, and share valuable insights they have gained from their clinical practice. This article attempts to simplify the process of psychotherapy as I see it. I hope it helps.
From Greek mythology, psyche means soul, and so psychotherapy can be viewed as a therapy for the soul. Founder of the psychospiritual model called Psychosynthesis, Roberto Assagioli, believed that the soul is the source of psychological health. There are many ideas about what the soul is, and in my view it does not necessarily have to have a spiritual connotation if one isn’t spiritually oriented, just as there are many models of psychotherapy that do not include a spiritual context. I think of soul as that aspect of our being that experiences life in its fullness, with integrity, vitality, and meaning; whether we are washing dishes, talking with a friend, being a lover, feeding the children, having time out with nature, or busy in our professional lives.
However, let alone the stress caused by the demands of daily life, the mind is often preoccupied with issues of the past, fears for the future, and unexpressed feelings and emotions that can get held and locked in the body. Much of this goes on unconsciously and causes an overall discomfort. When the discomfort becomes difficult to bear, it can lend itself to dissociation by causing us to neglect the felt sense of the body and become somewhat separated from ourselves. A sense of separation and disconnection produces anxiety and inhibits our capacity to have a fuller experience of ourselves, others, and life in general.
The psyche or soul has a natural open sensitivity to life. But in childhood we might shut this down in order to cope with difficult issues and anxieties, challenging circumstances, and traumatic events; some of which might even stem from our earliest developmental stages. As we grow, we will adapt our developing personality and construct certain personality traits to help us protect ourselves from difficult feelings and experiences. We do this so that we may continue in a mode of psychological survival that enables us to function in the world. This is a testament to our resiliency, and is necessary when we do not have the right psychological and emotional support to process feelings and experiences that may seem to be far too overwhelming.
The problem is, that in our adulthood, we are often trying to continue to survive something that has already happened as if it is still happening. Generally, we are not aware of this and have become unconsciously driven. Now it is our feelings that we are trying to survive by keeping them buried or at bay. We literally form protective/defensive psychological structures, but that are now working against us, inhibiting our capacity to be present and experience authentic connection and intimacy. This is why psychotherapy tends to work on the whole person rather than just a specific issue alone.
The purpose of psychotherapy is to unpack these protective/defensive structures that have helped us to psychologically survive, so that we might feel and understand the hidden wounding that lies beneath them. This happens through talking, listening, giving attention to feelings, and engaging with our somatic experience. We do this in a way that is nurturing towards ourselves. It helps us heal. We also give ourselves the respect we deserve for our ability to adapt and survive what we could not bear at the time, and we slowly let our protective mechanisms go if they are no longer needed. As we engage in this process, we can allow ourselves to feel our feelings, re-engage with the felt sense of the body, and feel what its like to be more fully alive in the here and now. This releases our troubles from the past, and reduces our fears and anxieties about the future. We become more integrated and can feel the integrity that is inherent in our humanity but which we had lost touch with. As a result, we are much less driven and are free to make choices that are more aligned with our values.
Many modalities of psychotherapy that are practiced today are an integrative model. They will include the main elements of other therapeutic models. And as science is now revealing the benefits of Mindfulness, many modalities will include mindfulness of your somatic experience – mindfulness of the body – with the context of what the body might be holding due to psychological and emotional issues. This includes traumas that we have suffered. We look to see if there are issues that have become somatic, that are now being unconsciously expressed through the body. Psychotherapists have been working mindfully with the the somatic experience since the 1970’s. And to quote the pioneer of mindfulness, who engaged wholeheartedly with his somatic experience, “without mindfulness of the body, there is no mindfulness.” The Buddha.
The human being can be viewed as a whole mixture of mind, body, feelings, sexuality (life force), and soul; and our expression may come through any one of these avenues or a combination of them. The point in psychotherapy is to find where our energy is being held or blocked, and find the safest, the most effective and authentic means to express it. This puts us back in touch with ourselves and helps us to embody our integrity – our integrated self.
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