When therapy doesn’t seem to work
Let us look at what therapy is. Most people have no or little knowledge or experience with psychotherapy, and come into therapy with all kinds of attitude; some just want the therapist to fix them or their problems or fix the person who is giving them a hard time.
Some come with an open mind, and some know someone that has experienced therapy. Many carry with them a misconception of what therapy might be.
So what is therapy and why does it fail?
I hope to be able to give some understanding of what therapy is and why it does not always work. Therapy is a place where you can look at the creative adjustments you made as a child to fit into the environment you are born in to. In gestalt therapy we like to look at the creative adjustment we made as a child, not to explain or blame anyone but to explore new options. Because when one is able to work with the creative adjustments made as a child, we often find fixed gestalt or automatic pattern. Automatic pattern that worked fine as a child or young adult, but as a grown up causes problems. Problems because it is outside of ones awareness, the benefit of exploring automatic responses is to broaden ones perspective and be less ridged and free to respond outenticly.
Creative adjustments are different coping mechanism we adapt in order to protect our self and maintain our authenticity as to who we experience we are. It is mechanisms we use in order to relate adequately to our environment without losing ourselves. It is to fit in and find our place in the family, workplace, with friends or relatives. If we look at our life we will discover that we play different roles in different settings and we don’t experience it as unusual to relate a different way in different settings. Most of our actions and way of acting in different groups is something that became automatic during our growth period from child to adolescent by being exposed to different environment during our growth. We learn to socially fit in, then to spend the rest of our lives to figure out how to be in the present moment and not act out of automatic reactions.
In order to let go of our automatic responses and be open to new experiences and personal growth, we need to feel acceptance and safety. Compare it to a new workplace or getting to know a new friend; our nervous system is on edge and looking for how to fit in and find our place. In order to grow emotionally, intellectually and psychologically we need to feel safe enough of who we are, which will enable us to look at ourselves and explore our automatic responses. This is therapy; to open up and being able to look at your automatic responses without self-criticism, inner judgment, shame, lust or any other feelings that prevent you from working with your responses. It is not other people or situations that are wrong, but the lack of ability to respond in an adequate way. The automatic responses we used as a child or young adult was automatic and not responding authentically to the present situation. The lack of ability to be in the present is preventing us from sensing, understanding or even can lead to misunderstanding or rejecting the reality of our life. The lack of safety might stop us from and turn us against any situation that doesn’t match our automatic responses. This is one reason therapy won’t work, or would take long time to work, and often, in this long process, people give up because they can’t handle the emotional stress.
Another reason therapy might fail is using the wrong approach; there is not a therapy that fits one and all. It also depends on the ability and willingness of the therapist to listen to the need of the client. Some therapists have a preferred way of working that will not fit all clients. There are a variety of approaches and the therapist can guide the client in different directions. Such a situation requires honesty both from the therapist and the client; it is not a bad thing to say this does not work for me! The responsibility of the therapist is to look for the best approach for the client, not the therapist. This, in my opinion, will open up the possibility to look for things that could be more helpful for the client, and make it a part of the therapy to explore other options.
To live fully
To live fully, we need to be free and be present “in the, here and now”, and to feel and respond to life as it is, in the moment. It means to respond with authentic reactions “in the here and now”, without holding back; evaluating, looking at life from a distance, criticising, justifying, judging, isolating, or using other coping mechanisms form the past. In order for therapy to work, we need to be ready to open up and look at our automatic responses and see if we live a life in the present or are held hostages by the past automatic reactions; have we perhaps distanced ourselves from situations that bring us to therapy in the first please, trying to have the therapist confirm that you are right?
Need for control
Some people have an outstanding need for control and have a hard time to be authentic. I would claim there is no room for authentic living in a ridged environment, freedom to be authentic is limited and life or reality is always up for criticism. When we reject the present, we live a lie, a lie where we pretend not to care when we do care; when we say we are angry but actually are afraid; when we pretend to be helpless, when we actually are manipulative; when we are kind to everyone except those we promise to love; when we express opinions that we do not live by; the list of irrational human behaviour is long. Every time we act irrationally we have sold ourselves to the automatic responses and chosen the less challenging way in order to satisfy ourselves, and the cost is low self-esteem.
A happy life is a choice
A well-functional life is dependent on our ability to use our common sense and reflections in an adequate way. Our greatest challenge as a human being is that satisfactory use of our own consciousness does not take place automatically. It is rather something we must choose. We must actively use our thoughts in a sensible way to live healthily, and that is perhaps the very essence of mental health.
As human beings, we can strive to develop our mental abilities or not. We can strive and see as much as possible, experience more and explore what we do not understand, or resign in ignorance. We may want clarity and insight or live with the blinds down. We can live consciously and take an active position in our own lives, or we can live unconsciously on routines.
If our happiness in life depends on how we use our awareness and attention, it is about whether we choose to be mentally dull or mentally active. Unfortunately, mental lethargy can seem daunting because it requires little of us at the moment. Mental lethargy simply means working on old habits and being controlled by random emotions and impulses.
Margoth Tove Kalstad
Certified Gestalt therapist