What Makes Therapy Different?

My first encounter with new clients is often over the phone. I spend a lot of time in those initial conversations, because reaching out for support is scary for most people. It’s hard to admit that they feel overwhelmed, worn down, exhausted. It’s hard to admit that they need more support, that they are craving a space where they feel safe and heard.

It seems like that first call is particularly hard for people who feel like they have strong social support networks. They have loving families, close friends, good co-workers. And it can be hard to articulate why that isn’t always enough for someone who is in pain. I frequently hear clients talk about not wanting to “wear out” or “burden’ their friends and family. They express frustration about “repeating myself over and over.”

In many of these conversations, I explain to prospective clients that therapy is different from close relationships in several key ways:

1. Therapists aren’t emotionally engaged in the client’s life. This doesn’t mean that therapists don’t care about their client’s well-being. However, there is a critical difference between being a caring outsider and a part of someone’s emotional network. As the outsider, I bring a new perspective to the client’s experience.

2. Therapists are trained to be comfortable with pain. I know that might initially read as sadistic, but stay with me for a minute. Think about someone you love. Now, imagine that person in pain, crying, hurting. What is your reflexive response to that pain? If you’re like most caring family members or friends, your response is to try to alleviate the pain, to minimize it, to make it better. Here’s the problem. Some things can’t be “made better.” Some pain can’t be talked away. Sometimes, the way to deal with pain is to experience it, to walk through it, to learn from it. Sometimes we just need to cry–maybe more than once. We need the opportunity to learn what lesson our pain is bringing with it. Because my clients aren’t my loved ones, I can create the space for them to experience their pain, even if it seems to take longer than they want it to.

3. You’re paying to be in therapy. This means two things. First, if you need to repeat yourself, you’re not going to “wear me out” or “burden” me. Sometimes we all need repetition to help us process. Second, that means that your session, your therapy space are all about what you need. Do you need to cry? No problem, I buy my tissues by the case. Do you need to be challenged, to have things re-framed? I can handle that. It’s your time. For the duration of your appointment, your needs and your health are center stage. I don’t take other calls during session. I don’t check email or my Twitter feed. Therapy is an investment in your own value.

Do you have questions about the therapy process? Please feel free to contact me, or leave your question in the comments.