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Sometimes I’ll meet people who ask me — as they do in the vocation-obsessed city of Hong Kong — what I do for a living. And sometimes I’ll reply that I practice magic….before admitting that I’m just a psychotherapist.
Yet the practice of psychotherapy really does feel like magic sometimes. I’ll sit there with a client, ask them questions about their lives, tell them that I’ve seen lots of people who are equally unhappy get much better, sometimes give them a possibility as to what might be at the root of what’s bothering them and perhaps suggest they think of a different way of thinking or behaving.
Other times I do even less than that. I’ll simply listen, asking questions to draw the client out, to help them make their life an open book for me. No brilliant interpretations, life-changing suggestions or insightful queries. And yet, within a few weeks or months — and sometimes even a single session — the client will tell me how much better they’re feeling. Suddenly, problems they have lived with for years or decades seem less formidable, and they are swept with a feeling of optimism. They try new behaviors, feel new feelings, and think about their problems in new, more helpful ways.
Some no longer wake up in the morning in despair that they’re still alive. Others discover that they can speak to their mothers without getting angry. Still others will find that they can stand up for themselves at work. And some will find they no longer feel the need to eat a tub of ice cream every day. Problems vanish like fog before a hot sun.
How is it such simple interventions can have such a dramatic impact on lives that have been so stuck for so long? It seems like magic at times. But the truth is that it’s something much more simple: I, and other therapists, offer understanding and acceptance.
We all have an enormous ability to fix ourselves, to understand our problems and solve them. What blocks that ability sometimes is the feeling that we’re not heard, not understood, not accepted. Perhaps others tune us out, or offer inappropriate advice, or criticize us, maybe even blame us for the pain we’re experiencing. And that sense that we’re not heard, not understood and not accepted is frustrating, frightening and enraging.
Our response often is to double down. We might try harder to explain to others, or get angry at them, perhaps distance ourselves from them. We tell ourselves that we’re justified in our feelings: that our mother is truly impossible, that our workplace is toxic, or our spouse is defective. We search for allies: siblings who share our opinion of our mother, colleagues who also hate the boss, and friends who think our spouse is simply awful. And we demand that the other person change, marshaling our arguments with them, withdrawing our attention and effort, or punishing them through our anger.
All of which can be satisfying in the very short term. But we become so invested in proving ourselves in the right, showing that we’ve been victimized, that we become stuck, unable to see other ways of thinking, feeling or behaving that would make us feel better.
When someone who is stuck in this way comes to therapy with me (or any therapist), they find themselves in a very different kind of relationship. They do not have to fight to be heard and understood by me; instead, they realize I am doing everything I can to hear and understand them. And I do not stop until I have succeeded, until I know them well enough to be able to think “If I had experienced what you’ve been through, I too would act and feel as you do.”
And so my clients find themselves — often for the first time in their lives — truly understood, accepted and liked for who they are. Their behavior and feelings are not labeled as bad or unreasonable or even crazy, but rather as normal and understandable, given what they’ve been through. Suddenly, they feel that someone truly ‘gets’ them.
It is that feeling of being ‘gotten’ that helps clients get unstuck. They relax, secure in the knowledge that they’re safe with me, that I’m not going to say anything negative or even think anything negative about them. Knowing they don’t need to defend themselves to me frees them explore alternatives: different ways of thinking, feeling and behaving. Their ability to fix themselves kicks in.
This is the core of the magic that is psychotherapy. It isn’t the hundreds of psychological theories and techniques that make clients feel better. Rather, it is the opportunity to sit with another human being who is caring, accepting, understanding and deeply interested in their life which unleashes the client’s own capabilities for change and growth.