Socrates said “the unexamined life is not worth living,” yet we seem to have lost touch with the importance of inner exploration and self-discovery. Or perhaps, with the exception of a small minority, humanity has never placed enough importance on such a worthy endeavor. This is clear in our modern culture, where so much attention is directed outward toward appearances and forms. Paradoxically, today more than ever, we have available many methods with which to examine our lives. One of the very best ways is psychotherapy.
Most of what goes on inside of us goes on without our conscious awareness of it. We follow whatever patterns of thought, feeling, and action were conditioned in our early development, without question. We live our lives according to such patterns, missing the potential for new ways of being and knowing ourselves. This is true for most of us, not just people exhibiting obvious psychological symptoms. However, psychotherapy can be a process that goes far beyond the treatment of symptoms. It can take us to deep fulfillment and wellness.
"the unexamined life is not worth living."Socrates
Here are just three of the many reasons anyone can benefit from therapy.
1. Therapy Helps Us Mature
What does it mean to be mature? What does it mean to be responsible? Simply put, it means to be able to respond in appropriate ways to what is needed at any given moment. Most of us don’t respond objectively to what is arising in the present moment. Instead, we project old beliefs, ideas, and imprints into whatever the current situation is. In other words, we carry around outdated templates of thoughts, feelings, body patterns, mental images, etc., that we overlay on the present moment. These templates are unconscious and partly make up who we think we are
Danny grew up with a mother who could not tolerate difficult emotions such as anger. As an infant or a toddler, any time Danny felt anger or a stronger emotion, such as rage (which every infant and child experiences), his mother would react very negatively. Instead of helping him understand and cope with his experience, he was left alone with very difficult emotions for a child to tolerate. As a consequence of the overwhelming sensations of the emotional experience, he had to repress his emotions, adjusting to his mother’s needs. After all, he was completely dependent on his mother. After enough times of this happening, he internalized his mother’s response and grew up with a tendency to repress his anger. As an adult, he never questioned this pattern. He simply adjusted his life’s decisions to avoid conflict. He also lacked assertiveness and self-sacrificed a great deal. More on Danny later.
The truth is that we all carry unconscious patterns that are particular to our own rearing environment. As long as these patterns are unconscious, they limit our ability to respond appropriately to the present moment. Being able to see them requires a great deal of sincerity and introspection. Relationships tend to bring them forward, and if we are open and undefended enough we can actually see them and work with them consciously. However, the majority of us simply defend against them because we are not willing to get out of our comfort zones. Not to mention the fact we are not even aware the patterns exist. When we begin to see and challenge these patterns, our tendency is to resist the process and try to keep things as we comfortably know them.
Here is where therapy comes in. With the help of a skillful clinician, we can develop the inner resources and insight needed for real maturity to happen. A good therapist will gently challenge us, but at the same time provide a great deal of support, maintaining an optimal balance for growth to occur.
2. Therapy Helps Us Truly Know Ourselves
Let’s face it: Knowing who we are and what we really want is not a given. It takes a lot to work to understand and tease apart what is more intrinsic to us versus what is conditioned by our history. Again, depending on several factors, including our upbringing, we may live life based imprints or templates that are not truly ours.
Years later, he began feel his repressed anger during therapy. After processing and understanding his relationship to this emotion, he became more comfortable with it. This was not a simple process. In fact, it was rather messy. He often went from one extreme of repression to the other of acting out angrily in inappropriate ways as he developed his capacity to manage the energy of anger. The process, however, opened up for him a great deal of inner strength that propelled him to take more risks and even change careers. He began doing something more aligned with his truth where he could express his creativity. He found himself experiencing a deeper sense of satisfaction, meaning, and fulfillment.
When we start making our unconscious patterns conscious, we can begin to tease apart what is conditioned in us versus what is more authentic. Good therapy can help us drop what is not ours, little by little, and reclaim what truly belongs to us. This is not a linear “quick fix.” It is a rich and complex process of self-discovery that takes time and commitment. However, the sense of personal satisfaction we experience when we live life from the depth of our being is beyond words.
3. Therapy Helps Us Integrate Conflicting Parts of Ourselves
Have you ever felt torn inside? Have you experienced conflicting emotions or desires? Of course you have. As humans, we tend compartmentalize different aspects of ourselves as a way to maintain a coherent sense of self. In other words, we tend keep separate and out of our awareness conflicting images and ideas that do not support our self-concept. For example, if our self-concept includes being strong, we may tend to minimize feelings of vulnerability, helplessness, weakness, and so on.
In therapy, we develop the capacity to hold together in our conscious awareness opposite emotions, such as feeling both strong and vulnerable, at the same time, or feeling both love and anger toward someone. The more we are able to be with these apparently conflicting emotions, the more they integrate and the easier it becomes for us to tolerate the complex ways our humanity shows up. Real strength and courage are not the absence of difficult or vulnerable experiences but the capacity to be open to them and to feel them.
Therapy can also help us integrate thinking, feeling, and action into a more cohesive, meaningful flow. If we are honest with ourselves, we can see that many times our thoughts, feelings, and actions are not very congruent. In the case of Danny, he would feel angry toward his coworkers when they would dump their work on him. Instead of setting boundaries and saying no to their unreasonable requests, he would smile and comply while feeling anger and thinking he needed to complete his own work.
By honestly looking at how we function in the world, we can begin to see the many places in our lives incongruence shows up. The combination of a skilled therapist, our own sincerity, and the desire to know ourselves helps bring closer together our feelings, thoughts, and actions.
In sum, although psychotherapy is perhaps best known for providing relief for apparent psychological symptoms, it can also be an adventure of inner discovery. It can illuminate the hidden treasures of our being beyond what we could possibly imagine. Find a trained therapist, take the plunge, and be ready to be transformed.