A therapeutic conversation is unlike any other conversation
Source: Image by Farrel Nobel on Unsplash
Therapists are frequently asked this question: How is therapy different than talking with mom, dad, or a close friend?
It’s a good question; after all, a chat with a close friend can show us their view of our situation and open up possibilities for us, options we hadn’t thought of. Talking with someone in our family might be comforting and reassuring. Both of these conversations could be considered therapeutic because they provide us with something we need and they move us from one emotional state to another.
Speaking with Friends or Family Members
Our friend or family member has an intimate knowledge of us, which will help them understand us in the context of the relationship we have with them. They will be thinking in terms of what they know about us and will have an opinion based on how we usually cope with life. It is also likely that they will be interacting with our partner, children, or friends, and will have a connection with our world on a social or professional level. Because of this, they will probably:
- Take sides: It is common for people to take sides. This is based on what they know about us and the kind of relationship we have.
- Placate us: Our friends and family care about us and won’t want to see us hurt or emotional. Telling us that everything will be ok or that there are plenty more fish in the sea, is meant to make us feel better and encourage us to have a calmer and happier frame of mind.
- Divert the conversation: They might find the topic we need to talk about uncomfortable to explore and will want to divert the conversation to something easier.
- Distract us: Just like parents do with children when they are sad, our friends and family may want to distract us to cheer us up.
- Compare our story with others: They might know of someone who has experienced something similar. They will want to tell us about what happened to them and how they coped.
- Tell us their own opinion: If we are going through a tough time, they are likely to offer suggestions of what they would do or how we can improve our situation.
- Give us physical comfort: A well-intentioned hug from someone we trust and feel close to can make our challenges seem easier to cope with.
Of course, most of the time all of this is exactly what we are looking for and these actions might even bring us closer or strengthen the connection in our relationship.
However, there are times when this just isn’t enough and we find our thoughts going round in circles, we don’t want to listen to the stories of other people’s heroic successes or take the advice offered. Perhaps the emotional or psychological sticking plaster that used to work has lost its stickiness and we are unable to contain what is bothering us anymore. While our friends and family are doing the best they can, the conversations we are able to have with them seem to miss the point or shift the challenges we are facing.
Speaking with a Therapist
The conversation we have in therapy goes deeper than any conversation we have outside of therapy. A therapist will not use the strategies above; instead, they will explore our experiences with compassion and empathy, being curious about us and how we see life and the situations we find ourselves in.
In therapy, we are at the centre of the conversation and that won’t change; no other topic will sneak in to distract us or the therapist from focusing on what is going on for us. Therapists are trained to be gentle though determined in teasing out thoughts and emotions, without imposing their own life experiences or opinions.
Our therapist will only know us in the capacity of being their client, which frees them to explore our experiences in ways that can be too challenging for any other type of relationship. This makes them able to be neutral; they are able to see us and our experiences like an observer watching a play on a stage.
Therapists will challenge our beliefs and values, letting us see how our assumptions are affecting us. This will allow us to discover options in life, so we can change the thoughts and behaviours that no longer serve us, or which are making our life or certain experiences seem like a struggle.
Because of their training in theory and interventions, therapists have developed skills to help us:
- See ourselves differently
- Discover negative thoughts and behaviours we were unaware of
- Develop our self-esteem and confidence
- Discover options we might not have been aware of before
- Change our understanding of the world and how we fit into it
- Develop our own coping skills and resilience
- Shine a light on resources that we didn’t realise we had
We will uncover stories that we might not have spoken about before or perhaps we didn’t realise were inside of us. With the help of the therapist, we can re-write the stories, so they become a positive aspect of our lives rather than a hindrance.
We all need our friends and our family. They offer us so much comfort, fun, and a variety of connections, all of which are important parts of living a fulfilled existence. We cannot underestimate the value they bring to our life and that we bring to their life.
However, every now and then there is nothing that can replace the open, neutral conversation we can have with our therapist, the conversation that is focused just on us, with no other distraction or deviation.