Can psychotherapy feel good? Or is psychotherapy all about swimming in the muck of shameful impulses? “Getting help” has come to mean exhibiting one’s dysfunction in front of a stranger. What if there was another way to think of psychotherapy? I believe that psychotherapy can feel good. It may sometimes even be fun -- and maybe it’s more effective when it’s fun.
Freud and Shame
What are the origins of this aversion to psychotherapy? Let’s go back 100 years or so. Remember Sigmund Freud? It seems that we as a culture can’t forget him. And we shouldn’t. But we may want to question some of his biases. At the root of Freud’s theory is the idea that our Id -- our impulsive, untamed “inner bad-boy” (or girl), is continuously in conflict with our Superego; our conscience. We wish we could get rid of our mom and marry our dad, and we feel miserable because our superego tells us No. Our desires and drives get us into trouble. In this worldview the human condition is fundamentally unworkable. We experience a never-ending conflict between what we want to do and what we “should” do. What would a therapy session be like in which the therapist perceives the human condition as unworkable? What would it be like to talk to a therapist who believes that he has to fix you? How would the therapist interact with a client whom he/she believes is inherently dysfunctional? I’ll call this psychotherapist Therapist 1.
Our Parts Love Us
Now imagine a therapy session in which the therapist believes that the human psyche is innately functional, maybe even sacred. This therapist (Therapist 2), believes that our impulses are good. She may ascribe to the Internal Family Systems model -- a model that identifies “subpersonalities” that help us cope. She knows that all our subpersonalities or “parts” want the best for us, that each part is valuable and lovable. What Freudians call the Id, Therapist 2 might call an inner child. What Freudians call the Superego, this therapist might call a taskmaster. Therapist 2 would listen to the inner child, hear out the taskmaster, call on the inner nurturer, bring forth the Wise Self. She might encourage the inner parent to calm the child. She might listen while the Wise Self counsels the taskmaster. Therapist 2 would facilitate a dialogue among parts, knowing that all want the best for their person. In other words, our inner wisdom, under the right circumstances, (and sometimes with a little nudging), can gracefully ease us towards health. Humans are not inherently neurotic. We are inherently wise. Healers like Therapist 2 can help us access that wisdom and honor each part of ourselves. That kind of therapy session feels good!
Here’s an analogy that might help. Most of you have probably received a massage. As psychotherapy aims to improve psyche functioning, massage therapy aims to improve body functioning. Using the model of two hypothetical massage sessions is a good way to compare the two psychotherapy approaches described above. Massage Therapist 1 believes that bodies can’t self-regulate. She may bully the body in order to bring it to her vision of health. Massage Therapist 2 believes that bodies have inner wisdom and the capacity to self-heal. She will approach the client gently and respectfully. She may give a little boost to the body’s self-healing ability. Massage Therapist 1 would probably (unintentionally) inflict pain, while Massage Therapist 2 would playfully partner with the body to facilitate equilibrium.