When I tell people I'm a therapist, I typically get one of two reactions. I hear "Oh, that's nice," followed by the quick get-away. Or, "Well maybe you can tell me why I'm/we're so screwed up," followed by nervous laughter.
I interpret both reactions as a misunderstanding of what therapists do, or what we are "supposed" to do.
Many people assume that seeing a therapist is an admission of weakness or character flaw. Others tend to view a therapist as some kind of guru, a person with all the answers who can solve their problems.
In the age of managed healthcare, therapists can feel pressured to focus on symptoms and provide a diagnosis within the first few appointments -- something clients may feel nervous and hesitant about. We can take an authoritative stance and begin doling out advice, missing the opportunity for clients to discover their own strengths and answers.
All therapists operate from a certain perspective or theory that guides their work, leads them to ask specific questions over others, and directs them in their time and focus. Because of this, one client could receive very different responses and guidance from different therapists. One therapist may focus on brain structure, neurotransmitters, or hormone levels as causes of certain thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Another therapist may want to examine a client's family and childhood experiences for clues. Others will look at relationship patterns, coping skills, or evidence of trauma or abuse. And many will take all of these factors into consideration.
This leads us to what research shows is the most important aspect of therapy: the "therapeutic alliance" or relationship between the therapist and client. Like all good relationships, it requires time, patience, and trust to develop. When the therapeutic alliance exists, clients are safe enough to share their deepest feelings, explore their painful questions, and find their own answers with a skilled helper.
I have seen how this kind of relationship brings healing in people's lives through my experiences as a client, and as a therapist. Walking alongside someone as they struggle through the challenges of life is a sacred and humbling experience, and one that takes time, purpose, and compassion.