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The top 3 FAQs people ask about psychotherapy

1) Why do you therapists always seem to think everything goes back to childhood?

Perhaps the easiest answer to this is to understand that the human mind is often referred to as the “social organ” and the way it develops from our earliest years is dependent on the experience of the child in amongst its social groups during those years. Obviously the primary social group for most, but not all, children is their family.

When we’re born we have little cognitive capacity, and experience the world almost entirely through feeling, so that we may know there’s something wrong because we have a bad feeling inside but we don’t know what that feeling is or why we have it. We are dependent on a close adult, usually a parent and often our mother, at first, to identify what is wrong. Are we hungry or tired or maybe we’re wet and need changing? And then to resolve the problem for us. Hopefully they will then comfort us so that the discomfort abates and we learn what the original discomfort was and how it can be resolved in future. This process changes as we age, but we remain dependent on these experiences to tell us how we fit into the world and how the world works for us.

Between the ages of 7yrs and 11yrs we begin to form some pretty solid ideas from those early experiences and these become the foundational concepts on which future experiences build and by which new experiences will often be judged. Of course, when those experiences, and the ones that follow throughout our lives, are good enough (i.e., not all good and not too bad) our initial concepts can be reasonably modified over time and they mature with us as we age.

Unfortunately, when future experiences reinforce the original concepts too often, the base ideas become fixed and tend to stay little changed throughout our lives, affecting our choices in the present and perverting ongoing experience so that we might be much more aware of the negative experiences of life than those for whom things were generally good enough.

These underlying concepts and ideas are often held in our unconscious, which can make them invisible to ourselves but all too obvious to those around us, in our behaviours and relationships. Often it is those behaviours and relationship difficulties in the present that cause people to seek the help of a therapist.

Baby crying

2) Why do I have to talk about the past when I just want to move on with my life like others seem to do?

As I’ve said above, our experiences in the present are built upon our experiences of the past and it’s often the case that we can’t simply put things behind us until we understand what it is we’re experiencing and why. This is quite normal because the human mind is constantly trying to resolve problems that it finds in the world in an effort to feel safe and secure. Unresolved problems might be the ones that jump out and bite us again in future, so we tend to hang on to the experiences more than is perhaps necessary, especially when those early experiences have taught us that the world is possibly a more risky and/or dangerous place than some people, who’ve had more balanced or positive experiences of early life, might innately imagine.

The big issue here is often around loss. Life is full of loss; the loss of innocence, the loss of a pacifier, the loss of a favourite toy, the loss of a friendship, the loss of a love relationship, the loss of a relative or friend and many other losses. How we deal with loss usually depends on how we were helped to deal with these early losses as we grew. If it was done well enough, we learned how to go through the stages of loss, the denial, the anger, the bargaining and depression and we finally arrived at true acceptance of the loss. This working through of the loss is what allows us to process the experience and put it away as neatly as possible in our minds, so that we no longer need to ruminate on it or get stuck in the anger or depression of it. It takes work in the form of mental effort, often achieved through talking to someone else, to reach this level of acceptance and it is for his reason that simply saying you accept it frequently fails to resolve the loss in the long-term.

There can also be many conflicting feelings within losses and these are the sorts of experiences that therapists are trained to identify and work through with their clients for their long-term benefit.

Young woman looking at laptop screen with worried look on her face. Health anxiety

3) Why do you say I have to acknowledge my anger when people tell me I have an anger problem? Surely I need to stop being angry or control my anger more.

In my experience, anger is one of the most misunderstood of all our emotions. It is absolutely true that anger is also one of the most poorly tolerated of our emotions in modern life. You only have to walk into anywhere that services are provided to the public to see signs that say anger or aggression will not be tolerated and yet these are often in places where people are at their most vulnerable and it is in those moments that anger is most likely to arise in them.

It is also true that anger and aggression are not tolerated in schools and yet children are bound to get angry from time to time; it is a normal part of their development. How that anger is handled by the adults around them will have a huge impact on those children. Simply saying it isn’t tolerated makes the child feel bad for being angry and does nothing to help them resolve their anger as well as, curiously, increasing the likelihood of angry outbursts in future.

In fact, anger is just an emotion like any other and is there simply to tell us that something feels wrong. It’s an incredibly useful feeling and is often linked to that twisting of the gut that we sense at these times, although this may be bypassed if the problem is urgent and pressing. Think about a young child who has a bad feeling because they’re hungry. If that feeling is attended to by a caring adult then the feeling is abated and will pass. However, if that feeling is not met with care, then the child will become angry. This is often the point where a parent who is already struggling may find the child very difficult to deal with because they’re trying their best but simply can’t work out what’s wrong. When we are adults, it is up to us to work out what’s wrong for ourselves and to deal with it appropriately. If we can’t admit we’re angry for whatever reason, we have no chance of identifying what’s really wrong. It is the failure to deal with our own anger that leads to those angry outbursts that the signs in service providers are trying to avoid.

When you feel angry, feeling the anger and understanding why it’s there will give you control of the feeling and the associated aggression that goes with it. Aggression is energy and can be used to drive you to resolve the problems in the best possible way for yourself or whoever is affected. This may mean arguing more forcefully or appropriately, for instance, to get what you need but without the outward display of anger or aggression that puts fear in others and frequently creates a situation where your needs are no longer even heard.

So why not just shut the anger down?

I’ve met many people who’ve done this either consciously or unconsciously. The result is usually the same: a person who is anxious and/or depressed. They are anxious because they know they really are angry and fear what will happen if it gets out; and they are depressed because they are trying to force their anger down and with it goes all feeling and emotions whether good or bad. They have literally depressed their feelings and thus depressed themselves. We are what we feel and the more we feel the more alive we can be because we are open to all the experiences of life that enrich us in one way or another and allow us to live out our lives in the best way possible for us.

Gary Herrington, Psychotherapist

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