Psychotherapy Isn’t a Cure, But It Can Be Helpful in Multiple Ways

My life will always be punctuated by moments in which I feel like a failure, probably more so than the average person.

My negative bias is the result of a healthy mix of having a highly sensitive personality structure, which I try my best to hide, and an invalidating, and often frightening, childhood environment. I frequently wonder whether or not people like me, if I’m attractive, and what I have to offer the world. And, if I’m being honest, I just as frequently believe they don’t, I’m not, and nothing. A string of losses, or the shortage of professional or interpersonal achievements, can cascade and suffocate me. So, as many of my clients, I ruminate on when, or if, the bad feelings will end.

Various forms of therapy address negative beliefs in different ways. In psychoanalysis, you’re relating your self-conceptions to childhood experiences, empathizing with your inner child while learning about your inability accept love. But, psychoanalysis doesn’t directly address your beliefs; it merely asks how your preceding experiences contribute to your poor, yet self-protective, decisions, keeping you stuck in self-destructive, or at least self-defeating, patterns. This approach is helpful in that it allows you to ask the fundamental question of your fear of abandonment: if my mother (or father) couldn’t love me, yet was supposed to, then how can anyone else? In this vein, the psychodynamic therapist will consider your parent’s personality style, looking at their decisions and fears in the broader context of their own various relationships, and perhaps even in their own childhood. If hurt people hurt people, then the patient’s experience could become a little less personal.

In the consulting room of a cognitive-behavioral therapist, the client learns to explore her core beliefs more directly. She doesn’t ask where her intuitive thoughts about herself stem from, but, rather, inquires about their validity. Were her black and white thinking, self-labeling, and over-generalized thinking reinforced as a child? And was she ever taught how to think analytically? The answers to these questions are so obvious that they aren’t worth exploring in treatment, unless they comprise an element of the evidence for some negative core belief. In CBT, clients often wonder: how long will it take for me to stop feeling this way? Unfortunately, you won’t, at least not forever. Negative thoughts are associated with negative feelings, which can be managed by addressing the thoughts. But, the thoughts are intuitive, protected by skepticism, fear, and mistrust, the aspects of your life which shield you from rejection, failure, and unrelenting suffering. So, even when the evidence is relatively clear and the burdensome emotions fall into remission, my client will sometimes say: I don’t know how you’re wrong, but I still sense that you are. To me, that means, “I’ll tentatively accept your conclusion but will be on alert for conflicting evidence.”

That protective, skeptical part of you, which precludes you from getting your hopes up when you may fail, will always be part of you. Sometimes, it will present itself in the form of a question (e.g. What if he’s wrong and I am a loser?); and, at others, it will roar in the form of self-censure (e.g. I told you that you were too stupid to understand this.) So, therapy can never and will never cure you. It will help you understand your patterns and those of others; it will give you the tools to challenge and reframe your negative thinking; and (in existential therapy) it will help you place yourself in the context of other humans, accepting that your pervasive sense of being insignificant isn’t solely based on your childhood. Therapy does many things but the one most desired. Just as life can’t cure us of death, therapy can’t care of us of what appears to be its psychic counterpart. In essence, just as our accomplishments and friendships act as temporary balms and respites from the norm, therapy offers a similar remedy. at least for those of us who aren’t naturally happy.

But, I hope that the main takeaway from this is this: when you’re trying your best, it isn’t your fault that you’re so irrational and the professionals are equally responsible for the results, both good and bad.

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