What is Therapy?

When I first entered psychoanalysis years ago, I hoped that it would purify me so I would be “cured”. Really, this meant that I hoped I would never feel painful feelings again in life. I hoped I would reach some exalted state where I would always know what to do and what to say, where I would never be at a loss. Of course, you have already guessed that I was really seeking omnipotence and omniscience rather than genuine healing. But it turns out I was not the only person who had unrealistic expectations of therapy.

Many people come to therapy thinking there is something “wrong” with them, and that they “need to be fixed.” They assume that I will agree that there is something basically wrong with them, and that I will help them “get rid” of it.

Therapy has nothing to do with ‘fixing yourself’. True therapy exposes the ways in which you are already trying – and failing – to fix yourself. In other words, it exposes the ways you are trying to heal yourself by rejecting yourself and your inner life. True therapy exposes the ways you try to become someone else with someone else’s inner life. But that attempt always fails.

After failing to fix ourselves through self-rejection (defenses), we finally give up and start accepting who we are and what we feel in this moment. Then there is nothing left to fix, since the wholeness of your inner life has been there the whole time. And increasingly, you allow yourself to be moved by the inner life of your being instead of driving yourself to be something other than who you are right now.

Therapy has nothing to do with fixing something that’s broken. What breaks is our illusions. Through therapy we rediscover the wholeness in the midst of the very experience of our shattered illusions. Can anything you feel right now be incomplete? Can any sensation right now be incomplete? No. Every sensation or feeling is complete within itself. It may seem incomplete compared to a fantasy you have in your mind. Even a flower can seem incomplete because it’s not the same as your fantasy. But is the flower incomplete? No. It is complete as it is in reality. So are you. Your experience does not need to be fixed. But it might benefit from your acceptance!

What we call ‘resistance’ is simply an invitation to accept the experience of our being that we have rejected. All of us reject and resist our inner life. Yet our resistance is also an invitation to us to accept what we reject and, thereby, become complete, whole. Your resistance is the doorway to the next step in becoming more whole. What is the next dimension of your being your resistance invites you to accept? You don’t want to accept that part of you? Perfect. Can we accept that dimension of you too?

Resistance is perfect. It does not need to be “fixed.” It is the perfect expression of your history of suffering. Are you willing to accept your history? Are you willing to accept that this resistance is how you saved your life? Are you willing to thank this resistance for always being dedicated to your safety? Are you willing to accept whatever feelings you are resisting as well as the resistance itself? Are you willing to accept that you don’t want to accept yourself? Are you willing to accept all of your inner life without conditions?

You see, initially I, like many patients, thought I could be cured if I figured out what parts of me to reject and exile. That’s the superego theory of cure: cure through self-hatred. Needless to say, this is a form of cure that always finds more to reject and hate. And it leads to interminable therapies as patients seek to become so pure that the superego can’t find anything to hate. But being human, we cannot eradicate our flaws. We can only accept them.

The opposite of superego pathology is not “turning against defenses”, nor is it calling this pathology “unhealthy”. This just helps patients get better at rejecting and judging themselves. In short, we inadvertently run the risk of increasing the severity of their superego pathology. The opposite of superego pathology is self-compassion and self-love.

According to the superego, there is something wrong with you and you really need some fixing. According to the superego, you are so far from ideal it’s amazing anybody wants to have anything to do with you! According to the superego, it’s wrong for you to be you. It’s wrong for you to feel what you feel. According to the superego, you should be someone else by living up to the superego’s ideal image.

But on a fundamental level, there is nothing wrong with and there never has been. You are a perfect expression of your life and history. You are far from ideal and always will be. Join my club! It’s right to be you. It would be wrong to try to be anyone else. It’s not your job to live up to some abstract ideal. It’s your job to fulfill your destiny of becoming your full potential as a person.

You don’t need to be fixed. You just need to be accepted. By you!

This mutual acceptance of the patient’s complete inner life is therapy. That is the process of healing. In ISTDP we are always relating to the inner wholeness of the patient which the patient has spent a lifetime rejecting. When we ask about feelings, we are asking if the entire patient would be willing to come into this relationship and come out of hiding behind all these defenses and resistances.

The good news? The patient has always been whole. The bad news? The patient habitually rejects the wholeness of his inner life. Our task? To interrupt that pattern of self-rejection and self-hatred so that the patient can begin to experience his inner wholeness, this experience of feelings that is so disruptive initially to all his theories, thoughts, and ideas. But once those ideas are exploded by feelings, he starts to experience his inner wholeness which has never needed to be fixed. His inner wholeness which has always been here.

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