Truly, people have written volumes to answer that question! For our purposes here, let’s begin with the dictionary. “Psychotherapy” is defined in the American Heritage Dictionary as, “The treatment of mental and emotional disorders through the use of psychological techniques designed to encourage communication of conflicts and insight into problems, with the goal being relief of symptoms, changes in behavior leading to improved social and vocational functioning, and personality growth.” I think that definition does a good job defining in broad terms what psychotherapy is. Let’s look at this a little closer.
“The treatment of mental and emotional disorders…” There are two ideas in this part of the definition I want to underscore: “treatment” and “mental and emotional disorders.” Mental and emotional disorders vary widely in nature as well as severity. As a clinical psychologist, I am trained to assess these issues to arrive at a reasonable and appropriate plan of treatment. Also, training and ethical guidelines direct all therapists to know the limits of their training and expertise and to refer clients to other treatment when appropriate. “Treatment” also varies–from individual, couple or group psychotherapy that is insight and relationship-oriented, to other approaches such as behavior modification therapy, which is more “hands-on” in nature (riding elevators with clients who are afraid to ride elevators, for example). The bulk of my training is in insight-oriented psychotherapy based in a relational model of human development. Most therapists would describe themselves as “eclectic,” meaning they have been exposed to and utilize many psychotherapeutic approaches. This is also true for me. I do my best to tailor my approach to meet your individual and unique needs.
“…through the use of psychological techniques…” As implied above, there are many psychological techniques. Probably the most common approach is the one most people think of: talking with a therapist about your problems. However, that is not the best approach for all problems. For someone with a specific phobia such as heights or spiders, for example, behavioral activities that may include relaxation and actual exposure to heights or spiders are the treatment of choice. There is less talking and more doing in these behavioral oriented sessions. But again, this is done with the guidance of a trained psychotherapist in an environment of trust and respect. Other ‘techniques’ include body-based approaches that involve physical touch or physical expression of thoughts and emotions. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) involves identifying and changing patterns of thinking and subsequent feelings and behaviors. Some problems are best treated by talking alone while other problems may include the use of medication. As a trained clinical psychologist, I will assess the nature of your problems and recommend the best treatment approach—even if you would be better served with another professional. If medication is part of your treatment plan, I will work cooperatively with your existing physician or help you find one.
“…encourage communication of conflicts and insight into problems.” Too often, the struggles and difficulties people face are faced in isolation. The title of a recent book on depression in men says this well: “I Don’t Want to Talk About It.” Psychotherapy begins with an emotional environment in which what is unspoken can be said aloud. It is actually Sigmund Freud who is credited with creating this “talking cure.” However, I think talking alone is not a sufficient way to understand the benefit of psychotherapy. It is the synergy of talking and listening that makes the difference. When was the last time you felt deeply listened to and deeply understood? If you can remember one of those times, you may recall the deep satisfaction and connection you felt with yourself and with your ‘listener.” Psychotherapy utilizes this environment of talking and listening, free of the fear of judgment or control, so that the unspoken can be spoken and understanding can be reached. When you feel understood and are understanding of yourself, pain and isolation diminish and new possibilities emerge.
“… with the goal being relief of symptoms, changes in behavior leading to improved social and vocational functioning, and personality growth.” The rest of this definition is pretty much self-explanatory. I would, however, add a few thoughts about “and personality growth.” In the broadest sense, “personality growth” could be understood as increased resilience, tolerance, flexibility and wisdom. This component of our definition can apply to those with significant deficits in these capacities as much as it may apply to those wishing to expand themselves just for the sake of expanding. There are many ways people work on their personal, psychological, or spiritual growth. For some, psychotherapy with a seasoned psychotherapist is one way they answer that longing.