Therapy Demystified: It’s All in the Relationship

In the presence of darkness, we break, we wound, and we crumble inside; in the presence of kindness, openness, and love we heal with one another.

When asked what my “style” of therapy is, I spout an eclectic mixture of therapies like “psychodynamic, supportive, and relational psychotherapy,” but I truly believe that the most important element that can lead to healing in a therapeutic relationship is the connection between the therapist and client.  This is not a typical connection, because it is not reciprocal; it is only intended to serve the client’s interest. But it can be even more powerful in healing broken hearts and wounded souls because of the commitment of the therapist to the client.

Many esteemed researchers have come to the same conclusion through different avenues.  Scholars like John Bowlby, Alan Schore, Daniel Siegel, and Robert Karen would liken this connection in therapy to healing wounds from lost or ruptured attachments in childhood and adulthood.  There is neurological research proving that being in connection with another person can actually create new neurocircuitry, or pathways, in the brain in order to form new attachments to others (Schore, 2003). The authors of Relational-Cultural theory discuss connection as a “growth fostering relationship” leading to a fuller, happier life, as opposed to disconnection as “empathic failures” and missed opportunities (Jordan, Kaplan, Miller, Stiver, & Surrey, 1991; Jordan, 1997; Miller & Stiver, 1997).  The arrival at this conclusion, that people heal in relationship with one another, is empirically undeniable.

But what does this look like in the therapy room?  Many will experience it as discomfort at first because it feels unusual to have someone in front of you who needs nothing from you and is there to openly explore your psyche.  I hope to alleviate some of that discomfort for those of you who are reading because therapists are humans too and we are both engaged in the process of relationship building the moment you walk in the door.

The experience “in the chair” can be enlightening for some in that it brings up feelings that are universal throughout the person’s life.  For example, a person comes to therapy with severe social anxiety.  He tells the therapist this piece of information and the therapist responds by saying, “what a brave move you have made coming here since you are so scared to leave the house.”  The client may feel discomfort, vulnerability, and like he is being seen and heard, feelings he is uncomfortable with in the outside world and in the therapy room.  The question is, what do you do with those feelings?  Is the therapy room safe enough to explore those feelings of discomfort?

It is the therapist’s job to make sure there is as much safety as possible for the client.  In order for there to be safety, the client must understand that the therapist will be non-judgmental and genuinely caring.  She must also know that the things she says are confidential and will be kept safe with the therapist.  The client must also know that the therapist is taking care of herself and will continue to do so throughout the relationship.  For example, the client must know that his therapist will show up on time, will hold to their agreements, will have taken care of her own needs so that she is present, follows her code of ethics in order to maintain a practice, and is working in the best interest of the client.

This is not to suggest that the skills therapists learn from other empirical research is useless.  There is skill involved in exploration and presence while witnessing such important work.  However, we heal through one another and it should be known that if you are experiencing emotions like discomfort, tension, frustration, resentment, happiness, or any other feeling, especially toward the therapist, they should be welcomed in the therapy room.  They are incredibly helpful keys to unlocking closed doors in our minds and discovering how we behave in the outside world.  They can also lead to healing old wounds and finding new ways to open one’s heart to others.