Q: I am new to the idea of psychotherapy or counseling. I am used to just resolving things within myself or the family. I think that if you are an understanding person and willing to see another’s side, you shouldn’t need a professional. Besides, how can someone who doesn’t even know me or my family, and then sees me for an hour a week, help me with my personal problems? I don’t think it’s worth paying for that kind of service.
A: There are a lot of issues that people do work out without any kind of help from a psychotherapist. Some people are naturally empathic, communicative, and compromising. Others have families that are supportive and skilled at dealing with conflicts. Even within positive families, certain lifestyles and issues are not understood. Close-knit families often do not offer as much space for difference and individuality. Or one member is non-communicative, stubborn, or even abusive. Families with more freedom are often more estranged from each other. People often come to therapy when there is an extra-marital affair, verbal or physical abuse, drug or alcohol problems, sexual orientation issues, or religious or spiritual differences. It is a rare family that can actually deal with these issues without professional help.
Even though psychotherapists do not have long-term history with you, they have significant knowledge and experience with human personality and dynamics within individuals, couples, and families.
Western psychology has grown tremendously in the last 50 years. A therapist is trained to ask specific questions and offer reflection that helps you get to know yourself more deeply. A professional listens to everyone, avoids taking sides, and without blame or judgment, names the patterns that are causing things to get worse. This brings more objectivity, which feels safe and fosters openness and honesty among people.
It is difficult for couples or families to create such a space in their home. When people are hurt or have strong preferences and needs, which family members do, it’s not easy to be calm and understanding of a partner who seems disinterested, doesn’t care, or lives very differently.
Most people or families are not growth oriented. They are invested in keeping things comfortable, although dysfunctional. Psychology is about dealing directly with relational problems and supporting each individual, partner, or family to break out of limiting ways of relating. It offers perspectives, alternatives, and other tools that lead to change. Thus, there is a lot a person encounters in that process: previous hurt, lack of confidence, fear of rejection, anger, and other feelings.
This is not an easy endeavor and requires significant interest, commitment and skill. Nor can it be done alone. It is best encountered within a relationship. A psychotherapist offers such a collaboration and partnership. He or she has personally traversed some of this territory and enjoys getting to know another person’s inner world and helping people know and live their potential.
Alzak Amlani, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist in Palo Alto and San Francisco. (650) 325-8393. www.wholenesstherapy.com