When does therapy start?
I have been thinking lately about when therapy starts.
If I think from the therapist’s perspective, this happens when I have my first conversation with the person and then the main focus is on when we first meet. This perspective centers the person’s work on the therapist’s experience and not the person’s experience. And this has an influence on the work itself.
The beginning is when we meet, the middle is when we do our work, the end is when the person no longer has the problem and stops therapy. Simple, right?
But is this really how it is from the person’s perspective? And if we thought of it differently, centering the whole experience on the person, would it make a difference?
What if when we met with someone, we saw ourselves a part of the journey they are taking.
Is that cheesy? Maybe.
In this perspective, our work is not the main focus but is seen as a stopping point on a road of life. When a person then enters my room to meet with me, rather than emphasizing the here and now, I would pay attention to the steps the person took to get there.
Do we avoid this since we see that past road filled with unspoken failure? If we look at the past, we would just see many struggles and missed opportunities and attempts at addressing this issue.
If it is seen that way, I guess I would understand why.
As the new therapist, we convince ourselves we are better than those before us, or that we can provide something different. This gets back to centering the work on the therapist.
I wonder what the effect would be of seeing the past and the steps it took to get to the present as learning, as perseverance, of refining, of growth, of change?
This would change how I asked questions about the past. Rather than seeing the past as failure and asking about what didn’t work, I would ask questions about what did, focusing on the initiatives they took, who supported them, and how they aligned themselves with their values during these challenging times.
While appreciating the effects of the problems in the past, I would be focusing on how they persevered, and what made they did that made this possible. One of the first questions I might ask when I met them would be, “what did it take for you to get here, what hurdles did you have to overcome, and how did you do it?”
This reorientation to therapy would also affect the conversations I have with the person in the present. Rather than seeing my work as the beginning, middle and end, I would stretch time.
I would see my work with them as an honoring of what they have been through and how they have lived their life to this point. I would appreciate the ability to spend time with them in the present.
I would see that I have the opportunity to work with them for a period of time and then this will end, and they will carry on their life without me. Just saying this allows me to take a breath.
There is so much less pressure in that, and I don’t feel like I have to hold so much. The person is then centered and it allows me to ask different questions in the present. If I feel like I have to solve something, that the focus is on my work with them, then I end up directing the meeting how I see fit.
This is done with the best intentions but the result is that the person is second, and their experiences and abilities are not respected.
If I de-center the therapy itself, stretching time to view it in terms of the person’s life experience, I can ask respectful questions, honoring their knowledge and abilities.
I ask questions such as “what is important to you?” and “How does this struggle fit or not fit with those values?”
I step back and appreciate that they know this or can come to know it with some supportive inquiry. I can also respect that they can make decisions for their life and explore the implications of these decisions.
They can also choose what relationships they want to have influence and what relationships are not helpful, based on this exploration. And we can put the focus on the impact of cultural and societal norms and how these impact the direction they seek to take in their life.
This all becomes possible as the therapeutic process gets centered on them and not the therapist.
Finally, the future is influenced by this shift. As I mentioned, the pressure recedes in the present as the therapist isn’t responsible for the fix. And this influences questions that can be asked about the future.
It may be that problems last past the time that I have with people, but they have some different ways to approach them when they gain more influence. With this acceptance, I can ask questions that even predict these instances in the future and explore possible options.
We can also speak of hopes and dreams of what life can become with less influence from the problem while accepting that problems come and go and this does not mean failure.
This excites me because it expands the narrative principle of being centered on the person and not the therapist beyond the immediate interaction. It changes how the therapist interacts with the person, and how therapy is viewed overall.
Most importantly, it respects the person and centers it on their experience.
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