Being Understood in Therapy

One of the basic ingredients of good therapy is being understood.  People often do not consider what it means for a therapist to understand.  Ideas vary from one school of therapy to another—even from one therapist to another.

Some look for understanding through causes. How did you get to be the person you are? What early experiences may have taken part in forming your personality?

Some therapists focus on understanding in a manner rooted in biology.  Do you have a shortage of neurotransmitters that are designed to make you feel happy—to give you a sense of well-being?

Others are more interested in understanding what you experience as you go through the world.  What does it feel like to be in your shoes—to have your anxieties, loves, fears, and hopes?

Most therapists use a combination of these modes, as well as many others I haven’t mentioned.  In my view, there is a critical part of understanding that provides a profound respect for your humanity—a sort of understanding that is familiar to all of us, but is not an ordinary part of the therapeutic literature.

I’m referring to the process of understanding a person precisely how that person understands himself or herself.  I believe the modes of understanding that I have mentioned are critical, but having someone see you in the way you see yourself is foremost. There is subtle disrespect in a therapist’s bypassing your self-understanding toward an investigation that lies beneath—whether it be unconscious phenomena, biochemistry, or even felt experience—as your experience in the world is not quite the same as your evaluation of it.

It’s true that we all have blind spots, and therapists are in a position to notice things we may not.  We collaborate with our therapists to investigate the mysteries of the unconscious, the unknown, and what we don’t understand about ourselves.  That quest has been a part of therapy since its inception. But wouldn’t it make sense for therapist and person in therapy to have dialogue about that first?

For example, does your understanding of self-discovery differ from that of your therapist? Presumably, nobody is the expert when it comes the most important human questions—those that matter most to us. Therapists in their craft have something to teach: Sigmund Freud's technique ignited a passion for self-inquiry lasting more than 100 years and still burning. However, the extent to which you may have something to teach often is overlooked.

Following one of Freud’s favorite metaphors, as the archaeologist penetrates beneath the earth’s surface, the psychoanalyst does the same with the mind In a descending excavation, the height of great aspirations—the astronomer’s sky—may be inappropriately understood.

Therapists can become preoccupied with your biases and misconceptions. They may lose sight of the independent dignity of what you see. What are the things you love and hold dear? Why do you love them? What are the things that guide your life? Love? Family? Truth? Beauty? Security? What are your highest aspirations? Your virtues? Strengths? What are your opinions about the most important things? The universe? And how do you understand your place in it?

Many therapists develop understandings of people in therapy in relation to these questions.  However, it might be a mistake to believe these investigations lead only to an illusory superstructure under which your real truth lies. These questions are integral to being human and hold an independent dignity. They cannot be reduced to something else. It is a terrific advantage if your therapist welcomes the things that are most dear to you and understands them on your terms with the utmost seriousness.