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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Alexander

Therapy: How the heck does it work?!

How does one change? This is a key question psychologists, therapists, philosophers, and many others have pondered and sought different answers to over the years. For the pioneer of the field of therapy, Sigmund Freud, the idea was that insight alone can lead to healing. Freud believed through exploration of the past, dream analysis and unearthing the unconscious, that naturally, change in emotions, behaviours and thoughts, would follow.

Behaviourists believed (if you haven’t guessed already) that focussing on behaviour change was more important than continuously learning about one's self and their past. This led to therapies that focussed on identifying target behaviours of change, and using different methods such as exposure therapy, behavioural activation and reinforcement/reward scheduling.

Cognitive theorists believed that one's problems in psychotherapy could not be alleviated through insight or behaviour change alone, but through changes in thinking. Aaron Beck was a pioneer of this model (later the Cognitivists and Behaviourists joined forces to bring CBT to the forefront). This therapy focusses on identifying, analyzing and re-shaping the negative thoughts, assumptions and conclusions that we have drawn about ourselves and our life.

All of these mechanisms certainly play some role in the therapeutic process, however, the most consistent finding of research has been the role of the therapeutic relationship. Do you feel heard? Do you feel like your therapist cares? Do you feel you are working towards some concrete goals? Do you feel safe? (If you're answering no to these questions, time to find another therapist). The answers to all of these questions, it turns out, seems to be one of, if not the, best predictors of positive outcomes in therapy.

That being said, therapy shouldn’t last forever, and so how can this safety, this feeling of empathy, being heard and seen without judgement, be carried forward once therapy is complete? This is where the mechanism of self-compassion is a game changer. Self-compassion is a way of accessing our inner resources to provide that same level of compassion that we can sometimes more easily feel towards others, and applying it to ourselves. It is taking the ingredients of the therapeutic relationship, bottling them up and having them as a resource for ourself, always.

What if instead of criticizing yourself for being too quick to anger, or procrastinating, or overly placating others, you sought to understand these behaviours as parts of yourself all doing their best to prevent you from experiencing further hurt? Maybe the placating part learned to do this when it was younger because it was the only way to stay safe from their quick to anger father? Perhaps this angry part came later as a way to assert your needs, because the placating part was neglecting them (for understandable reasons). What if we treated these parts of ourself with compassion and understanding for how they needed to adapt back then, to keep you safe? To protect from further harm? Maybe this understanding and compassion could lead to a deeper kind of healing, both in ourselves, our relationships, and even the world.

You may be thinking: “But Dan, won’t showing care and understanding towards these behaviours just make them more likely to continue?” Well, as with my previous blog, the adage “What we resist persists” applies here too, and the research seems to bear this out. Individuals who are compassionate towards themselves, often experience greater symptom alleviation, greater focus and greater ability to move towards their goals.

“There is no force in the world but love, and when you carry it within you, if you simply have it, even if you remain baffled as to how to use it, it will work its radiant effects and help you out of and beyond yourself: one must never lose this belief, one must simply (and if it were nothing else) endure in it!”

-Rainer Maria Rilke

For an exploration in to self-compassion through meditation, check out the links below!

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