My clients often ask me what I'm thinking during sessions, or what I am doing to "make therapy happen". I always answer them truthfully when they ask. Therapy isn't a secret, snake-oil, voodoo form of healing. It is a well-researched, clinically sound treatment method for mental health issues. Not to say that therapy isn't both an art and a science. Human beings are complex creatures and your therapist won't always have all of the answers. But, she will show up week after week to sit in the discomfort with you until your truth and your path to healing become clear.
I can't speak for all therapists of course, and there are many different modalities and schools of thought within the psychology world, but for my clients in Summit County and Denver, here are the 10 things I am most often "doing" during sessions:
I am looking for thought patterns that are negatively affecting your life. Our mind is an all-day loop of repeating thoughts and ideas. Some of them are useful, some of them are not, and most of them are not even thoughts we are consciously choosing. Learning to change our thoughts can change our life, our moods, and our relationships.
I am looking for your strengths. Most of my clients cannot take an accurate inventory of their strengths. They don't know how resilient, intelligent, and lovely they already are.
I am looking for patterns of behavior. Always dating the same type of jerk? Always getting into the same argument with your partner? Always starting a practice of working out, making art, or meditating that you never stick with? We all got patterns sister. I am trying to understand and reflect yours back to you so you can break negative patterns and replace them with positive habits that move you towards your goal.
I am trying to understand your upbringing. Your childhood, and the relationships that you formed during that time, have a powerful impact on your current life and mental health.
I am paying attention to daily habits. The basics-food, sleep, water, exercise, downtime-are key for mental health, yet we neglect these things on a daily basis. My clients are constantly (probably annoyingly) being encouraged to improve their self-care game.
I am listening for trauma. Some of my clients can name their trauma, some of my clients don't even realize they have experienced it. My job is to understand how trauma affects your brain, body, and spirit, and to help you heal from past experiences.
I am providing empathy. Every woman deserves to be shown empathy and unconditional regard, especially in the times when she is hurting most.
I am thinking about our relationship. The relationship between a client and her therapist can be, in itself, a healing tool. Use this relationship to practice taking risks, receiving support, being assertive, and expressing yourself.
I am looking for humor. Humor is powerful, and it can help us manage the difficult situations in our lives. My therapists laughed with me, and I laugh with my clients.
I am enjoying your wisdom and your insights. I am so often struck with the profound wisdom and courage that my clients share with me. I learn from them and I let them inspire and instruct my own mental health journey.
Not only is it sound practice for a therapist to help her clients understand what is happening in the therapy process, it is also required by law! If you ask your therapist for information on the nature of your treatment, they are required to provide that to you. If they refuse, or make the process seem mysterious or secret, I would think about interviewing a few other therapists in your area, and making a switch to someone a little more transparent and a little less snake-oily.