Individual and Couple Therapy
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parke@parkeburgess.com



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« Being Witnessed | Main | Momentum in Therapy »
Friday
Jul282017

Healing As a Practice

Sometimes we go into psychotherapy with a very specific problem and corresponding goal. But very often we are working on something more general, harder to define, more complex. We are doing deep work, addressing patterns that have been with us for most of our lives that have become problematic. Most frequently, we are healing very old wounds.

Few of us escape childhood without some wounds. We remain vulnerable to wounding as adults too, of course, but the ones from earlier on tend to cut the deepest and present the greatest difficulties in healing. It takes time, the work deepens slowly, and it has an iterative quality. We find ourselves circling back around to the same old territories over and over again. Like peeling away the layers of the proverbial onion, we notice over time that we are cutting deeper and deeper into those familiar patterns of thought, feeling, and body sensation. It’s not that we have been going around in circles, but that we have been penetrating our patterns in corkscrew fashion, spiraling persistently toward the core.

If we enter into this process in a very goal-directed way, we are bound to get frustrated. It’s hard work and progress is slow. It is customary for therapists to remind us that ‘it took a lifetime to develop these patterns, so it will take significant time to change them.’ (Of course, in this day and age, a whole phalanx of the field believes that adequate change can occur in 8-12 sessions, if only you follow the most empirically validated protocol closely enough. This assertion doesn’t even pass the smell test in the kind of work we are talking about here, and the research upon which it is based has begun to look less and less convincing as it has developed—but I digress.)

But I would go further. Both my own experience and emergent neuroscience suggest that we never entirely change our patterns. The patterns that we took into adulthood are strong attractor states to which our neural pathways will continually revert when we are stressed or otherwise distracted. In other words, it requires effort to do something different, and always will. In this respect, psychological healing is not a one-time process that ends in a cure. It is a lifelong practice that, at its best, deepens continually but demands our attention and care forever.

I don’t mean to say that you have to be in therapy forever. Some, who have sufficient interest and resources, may indeed choose to work with a therapist for decades at a time, or a whole lifetime. But this is usually not necessary for robust healing. In general, therapy tends to be especially useful at three points in the healing process. First, when a person realizes that they have work to do but are unclear on what exactly the work is, or how to go about it, a therapist can help that person organize their experience and make sense of their troubles. And the therapist can help guide the person toward a way of working with their patterns. This part of the work can be measured in months, but often is measured in years. Give it a year and see how it is going. At a certain point, it is probably a good idea to untether yourself from regular therapy and work in your daily life on your own, and with the help of your loved ones and broader community.

Sometimes we stumble on a deep patch of new work, or we find that work we have been doing suddenly gets richer, more difficult, even disorienting. This is the second juncture at which therapy can be especially useful. At this point you might return to your therapist, or seek out a new therapeutic relationship to tackle the new work. These patches may appear because you discover significant new information about your past, or because you are now in a new stage of life, or you experience some strong reaction that you had never felt before.

The third place that therapy comes in handy, and perhaps the most common in long-term work, is that you have become involved in your daily life and lost track of your healing project, or some hardship or inordinate stressor sends you forcefully back into your old patterns. You find that you need to refresh your effort. This is very normal; it’s just part of living, which makes so many demands on us even in the best of times. Returning to therapy can get us back on track, remind us of what we learned before, and update our way of working to meet current needs.

In this kind of work, healing is not a ‘fix’ that we apply and then forget about it. It is a practice, much like exercise, eating well, or religious observances. It is something we devote time and energy to because we know it makes us feel better in the short-term most of the time, and seems necessary in the long-term for our overall well-being. It is good and noble work. It helps us become the best person we can be because it continually, freshly reveals to us the person we already deeply are.

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