Many years ago, I read a poem about washing dishes. The poet, Al Zolynas, made this ordinary task sound like a fascinating exploration. His poem offered an opportunity to look at something we have seen and done countless times, yet experience it in an entirely new way.
Thoughts and Feelings
I think that psychotherapy is a lot like this poem. In therapy, we take the events of our lives and their accompanying feelings and embark on an exploration in the hope that we will find a new way to see. We consider the content—the moments that have caused us grief or sadness or disappointment—and allow these buried thoughts and feelings to come to the surface. Some of what might emerge may be painful feelings that seem almost unbearable, but in the safety of working with a trusted person, we can stop keeping them in the darkness and allow them to be seen.
Like vampires who can’t bear the light of day, many of these old feelings will dissolve under our gaze while other feelings will find a way to tell us that they are reluctant to emerge. Even if it is not yet possible to look directly at some of our buried feelings, we might be surprised to find that they can often lose some of their energy and power in the course of our exploration. Just like light illuminates our path even though we don’t look straight into the sun, we can often change how we think and feel about things without looking directly at the source of the pain.
“Therapy is what happens when you are doing something else”
How does this happen? I like to say that “therapy is what happens while you are doing something else.” The conversation between you and your therapist looks like, well, like a conversation. I am often asked “what should I talk about in therapy” and I always respond that the answer is to talk about whatever you want, whatever matters to you. While you are talking with your therapist, the quiet and often mysterious work of therapy is happening in the background.
Helping you understand your partner
Some of this is simple and straightforward: for example, if you are having a problem with your partner and you talk about it with your therapist, you are thinking it through, formulating the words you would want to use, and practicing how you will say them. You might not be consciously thinking that this is what you are doing, but it is happening in the background. When you and your partner are together, the words come more easily and you are able to talk rather than retreat or become angry.
…and your boss
Some of it is more subtle: your boss keeps making you mad and when you talk about him with your therapist, you are not in the heat of the emotions and you can suddenly see how he reminds you of your alcoholic father. With this insight, you can be more compassionate with yourself when you are triggered, get grounded more quickly, and move on with your day. Underneath all of this is a sense of being deeply understood that helps you build more confidence to handle whatever life throws at you.
Seeing things in a different way
Psychotherapy is often called “the talking cure,” but, as you can see, talking is just what we are doing while something else is taking place behind the scenes. Our ever-increasing knowledge about how the brain works shows that our brains can actually “rewire” themselves: the neural pathways can change when we start to see things in a different way, potentially leading to feeling less triggered and to a quicker resolution when things get bumpy. So even though it seems like you are just having a conversation, what is actually happening is far deeper and more beneficial!
 Addonizio, K. & Laux, D. (1997). The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry. New York, NY: W.W. Norton and Company, Inc.
Also available online by searching “The Zen of Housework.”
Questions about psychotherapy or about my approach to psychotherapy? Please see my website at www.marlacass.com and contact me at my San Francisco psychotherapy office: 415-218-2442 (phone link works from smartphones only) or at email@example.com.