Psychologist? What for?

How I do therapy
Paradox in therapy
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   You do NOT need to be crazy to benefit from seeing a psychologist.

   Everybody has problems. Sometimes, these problems are terribly serious, and yet the person copes: finds solutions that make things better, or learns to live with the situation.

   However, sometimes the problem stays unbearable, or even gets worse and worse. That's when a highly trained helper is invaluable.

   OK, so you have a problem and can't cope. Will a psychologist fix it for you? What kind of advice can you expect?

   I'll answer a question with a question. If advice worked, would you need to pay for it? I am sure you've had advice, asked and unasked, from everybody and his dog. They all know how you should do it. It's their own issues they can't solve. The psychologist is unlikely to make this mistake.

   The medical model may suggest that this is exactly what happens. After all, suppose you have a persistent abdominal ache. The doctor will diagnose whether it's appendicitis, or gallstones, or constipation or whatever, and apply a suitable treatment. You might expect the psychologist to do something similar: to diagnose your problem, and apply an appropriate treatment.

   The first thing wrong with this is that it's disempowering. When you deal with physical problems, the healing processes of your body are largely out of voluntary control. The doctor can put a plaster cast on your broken leg. Then the fracture heals, and there is not much you can do about it either way. However, say you have a recurring anxiety you know to be unrealistic. You are the only person who can make it reduce. You need the inner conviction that you can defeat this problem. So, someone else taking charge will actually get in the way.

   The second issue is that the problem you are struggling with is the result of some inner processes: your thoughts, beliefs, long term habits. The way you see the world actually shapes the world you live in. And since everything in your experience is coloured by your perceptions, beliefs, thoughts and habits, you are stuck. No amount of outside intervention is going to change anything. You need to find inner resources that will change the way you see the world. Advice might be, "If you weren't so scared, you'd be all right in this situation." Right. Now tell me how I stop being scared.

   Instead of being a mind mechanic, a psychologist works in a way that a great deal of scientific research has shown to be highly effective. Psychologists have about the same success rate in relieving anguish as doctors have for physical ailments.

   The first tool is a special kind of listening. Often, I have a client who talks non-stop for an hour or more. I sit there, thinking that I ought to do something to help this person. At the end, the client says, "Oh, thank you! I feel so much better!" -- and returns the next week, either for a repeat performance or progressing to making changes.

   Fifty years ago, the pioneering work of Carl Rogers showed that if you set up a completely accepting, warm, non-judgmental atmosphere, a person can talk in a way that leads to an increase in inner strength. If you are listened to -- truly listened to, unlike what happens in normal conversation -- you can learn to accept yourself. This kind of listening needs to be learned, and is easier for some people than for others, but it's the most important tool in a psychologist's kit. It is the opposite of 'fixing' the client.

   Second, as I listen, I make occasional statements that reflect what the client had told me, and I ask some very carefully designed questions. These can have the effect of completely changing the client's perceptions. For example, a recent client was a young woman whose father has said for many years, "I've got three wonderful kids and a stuffup." (Only, he uses a ruder word.) The question that made her see her self-destructive actions in a new light was, "How long do you think you will continue to join your father in abusing you?"

   Finally, a psychologist may need to be a teacher. Many people lack information ("No, your son does not have ADHD. Little boys are meant to have high energy like he does.") or missed out on having learned certain skills ("It is possible to protect your space without having to be aggressive. Here is an example of how to do it...") or have acquired habits they now find distressing, and need to learn a new way of doing things ("Identify all the rewards smoking gives you, then we'll find ways of getting those rewards without lighting up a cancer stick.")

   A few sessions with a psychologist can give you a lot more than enabling you to cope with a specific problem. It can also convince you that you have the power within you to achieve whatever you want to do.