While there is an increasing awareness that psychotherapy is not only for ‘problems’, it is not as commonly understood exactly how it facilitates personal growth. Just how do these methods—originally used to help with depression, anxiety and difficulties in relationships—translate into helping one become more fulfilled, spontaneous and creative?
The truth of the matter is that people who come to therapy usually start because of some specific concern or pain, even if only vaguely felt. But by concentrating only on the specific circumstances that bring someone to psychotherapy there will be no general growth, only a strategy for dealing with a specific situation. Solving just one problematic situation, while important to do, seldom restores spontaneity, creativity or independence from the therapist. True personal growth is about more than dealing with one particular circumstance.
Discovering Your Patterns
We all tend to circumscribe our lives unnecessarily, usually without even realizing that we are doing so. We all have blind-spots, and of course the very nature of blind-spots is that we do not know we have them. We all have phobic areas and manage to arrange our lives to avoid them. And some of this is so habitual, or seems so necessary, that we do not realize how we have hemmed ourselves in. As the saying goes, “The fish are the last to know the water.”
We only begin to sense this when our self-imposed limitations result in a general feeling of unsatisfactoriness with our lives, or perhaps mild anxiety or depression. So therapy has to begin with developing an awareness of these patterns—to clearly see how some of the ways we perceive and act limit our potential. These are not only your beliefs about yourself and the world, but the various ways in which you enact these beliefs in the present. A present-centered therapist will sense these patterns not only in what you tell them, but how you are interacting together in the session.
There is a myth, perpetuated by countless movies, that when we gain insight into what caused us to develop these patterns we suddenly are free of them. Such insights often are useful in that they help us appreciate that we once had very good reasons for developing the traits that now cause us difficulties. This realization can let us stop beating ourselves up about them but does not in itself lead to personal growth.
The Real Work Begins
It is at this point that the hard and collaborative work begins. One approach is experimentation with new behaviors. Along with the therapist, the client creates ideas about trying out different things, usually in small steps. Because this means moving outside of your comfort zone, such experimenting usually is done in the therapy session where it is a “safe risk”—safe because the grounds for trust have been nurtured and developed, and risk because it still feels scary until you try it.
It actually is quite astounding as to how simple such experiments can be. The experiment for one man was simply to loosen his necktie—it took him three sessions but then a whole new persona emerged. This was the beginning of his learning that he doesn’t always have to look, or even be, perfectly ‘together’. For another person it was asking to borrow a magazine from the waiting room, which took tremendous courage for a woman who had absorbed the belief that she deserves absolutely nothing. For a man who always had to act adult even when he was a child, it was to find something in the office with which he could play.
So we might say that with growth-oriented psychotherapy it is not only you who grows—it is the whole world that seems to expand. As you limit yourself less, you will see more opportunity for influencing situations, new outlets for your creativity, unimagined possibilities in relationships….. and find more in the world to be playful with.
Kenneth Meyer Ph.D. is senior faculty at the Gestalt Center in NYC and maintains a private psychotherapy practice in Manhattan’s West Village and in Monroe. He can be reached by calling 646-504-0719 or emailing KDocMeyer@gmail.com.