Therapy creates change. And human beings have an inordinate capacity to change in meaningful and lasting ways. It is, ultimately, the need for change in their experience, relationships or life situations that draws people to therapy.
It is my experience that therapy is most helpful when it includes three elements:
A highly competent and ethical therapist
A motivated and willing client
A collaborative and trusting relationship
People often ask me what to look for in choosing a therapist. This is an important question because the success of therapy is heavily dependent on the relationship you have with your therapist.
Credentials matter. Your therapist needs to have the proper training, licensure and experience. Any therapist you consider needs to have firm ethical standards.
The most effective therapists attend to their own psychological growth and maturity. Given the nature of the work therapists do, this is of paramount importance. The personal qualities of a therapist, such as perceptiveness and empathy, are extremely important to consider as well.
Perceptiveness is a rarely mentioned quality of an excellent therapist. If your therapist can’t see and hear more about you than you and your friends and family can, you are unlikely to learn anything about yourself that you don’t already know. Is your therapist able to pick up on things that you didn’t realize you were communicating?
An excellent therapist is also empathetic and has the ability to hear and deeply connect with the experience you are having in the present moment. Clients frequently say that therapy was the first time they ever felt truly known, rather than “known about.” People have mentioned countless times that a significant person in their lives “could write a book about me, but doesn’t know me at all on the inside.” Relief from pain and stress and the ability to take action often come from simply being heard and understood.
In therapy, you are the most important person in the room.
Therapy is not an attempt to “fix” you, but to help you access your innate capacity for change and growth.
You have all the essential ingredients for change inside you. When you couple your personal experience and resources with openness to change and a willingness to do the inner work, you make transformation possible.
Once you commit to therapy, be ready to take everything you see and learn inside your therapy sessions back into your day-to-day life, and vice versa. The more open and honest you are able to be with yourself and your therapist, the greater your benefits from therapy will be.
The relationship between you and your therapist is also important. This relationship is accurately called the therapeutic alliance. You and your therapist enter into a process that involves mutual engagement and a shared commitment to helping you change.
The therapist provides an atmosphere of warmth, safety, and support. In that setting, you can explore deeply personal feelings and experiences with an expectation of your therapist’s respect and concern. The therapeutic relationship provides you with a context in which you can do some of the most important work of your life.
As a systemic therapist, I have extensive training in many therapeutic approaches and am experienced in working with people of diverse backgrounds and widely varied concerns.
I use an integrative approach, which addresses all aspects of the person: emotional, cognitive, behavioral and spiritual. In reality, this is a necessity, not a choice, for both therapist and client. We simply don’t leave any part of ourselves outside the door when we enter the therapy room.
Therapy is as unique as individuals are. Your personal needs and hopes guide the length and depth of your therapy.
Some specific life situations call for a practical problem-solving approach, which may require only a few sessions. For example, you might be seeking clarity as you make a tough decision and want to consult with an objective person in a supportive atmosphere. For people dealing with deeper concerns about themselves and their lives, therapy may take longer. True growth and substantive change cannot be forced or rushed; the process moves at its own pace.
What people most often ask at the end of therapy sessions is: “What can I do before our next appointment?” My most frequent response is: “pay attention.” Integrating the insights and awareness you gain in sessions into your daily life is the very foundation of change.
You can then bring what you’ve noticed back to the therapy room to go deeper into your experience and learn more. You’ll develop the ability to observe yourself, and over time, to see yourself with more clarity, and in new ways. When you experience strong emotions, you can begin to notice and question them instead of reacting as you always have. With increased awareness, you become able to choose how to respond to people and events, rather than retreating into old beliefs and patterns of behavior that no longer serve you.
One of the questions I am asked most frequently is: “Are you one of those therapists who encourages people to blame their parents?” My response is: there is no room for blaming or judging anyone in the therapy room. It does not serve anyone. Least of all you. The process of therapy is about becoming personally responsible in a healthy way.
In fact, I have no interest in talking about the past at all, as long as it is really in the past. But everything we experience today is undeniably the result of everything we have learned and experienced up to yesterday. Growing up, we all develop beliefs that are not accurate about ourselves and the world. It is important to acknowledge and respect the patterns that have helped us survive to this point, but we often carry the past as a burden in the present. Some parts of it may be limiting us more than we realize.
A metaphor I use for therapy is that the beliefs and attitudes we learn growing up become like “psychological glasses.” We inevitably perceive ourselves and others through these lenses. The catch is that we don’t know we have them on. We think we see the world as it really is when what we’re actually seeing is the world as we have been taught to see it. One description of therapy is that it is the process of removing these glasses so we can see ourselves and the world more clearly.
Specialties and Services
I work with individuals over 11, couples, elders, and I periodically offer group therapy.
I don’t work with “problems” – I work with human beings who come to me because they are experiencing emotional pain or distress. People often associate therapy with clinical, diagnostic terms such as depression or anxiety. But other, less dramatic-sounding issues like self-esteem, procrastination, or perfectionism are often behind these problems.
Clients have sought my services to deal with the following issues:
Relationship Challenges (family, work, school, etc.)
Grief and Mourning
Guilt and Shame
Insecurity and Self-doubt
Boundary Issues (trouble saying no, etc.)
Personal Growth and Exploration
Preparation for Major Life Changes
Substance Abuse (In Recovery)
Family of Origin Issues
Loneliness and Isolation
Personal or Relational Issues in the Workplace
Often, addressing two or three core patterns or beliefs that create issues like those listed above will cause many other patterns to fall away. It’s like pulling a string that unravels an entire ball of twine.
Joan Collins Harwood MA, LMFT, LPC
PhD Candidate, Marriage & Family Therapy
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