It has been said that the value of therapy is largely in the relationship you have with your therapist. Sure, your therapist is well-trained in how to alleviate mental health issues like anxiety, stress and depression, how to navigate life changes that may produce grief, and can offer you relationship advice, but the real treasure in therapy is in the real and deep relationship you may have with a therapist.
According to research on the healing factors in therapy — what makes therapy work — the quality of your relationship with your therapist is at the top of the list. And it’s not only because you might open up more if you trust your therapist, or listen more carefully to advice if you have a good relationship. It’s primarily because a deep, trusting and close relationship with someone who cares is healing.
Therapy relationships are often some of the deepest and most meaningful relationships you can have in your life. If you are suspicious of therapy relationships or worry that they may be ‘fake’ because the professional is being paid for their time, keep in mind that therapists enjoy forming real, meaningful relationships with their clients, and aren’t just ‘on the clock.’ Because you share yourself deeply with that person, and they are with you in tender moments as you explore thoughts and feelings, therapy relationships can be as real and as close as family or friend relationships. And because therapy is a private space where you get to be fully yourself, sometimes the therapist knows you better than even some people in your personal life!
In therapy, you get to explore your mind in a safe, supportive space. While it’s true you don’t take your therapist home, or take them bowling on Saturdays, the real relationship you develop with a therapist can help repattern old wounds and ways of relating that help you have more success in your relationships outside of counseling.
Most of us know the value of a close friend relationship — the ability to call someone, talk about how you really feel and what’s really going on, and feel that person really cares. We know the value of partner relationships when they’re going well — the sense that someone in the world has your back, no matter what you’re going through. Therapy relationships, once deepened, can have elements of both, with the added benefit of that trusted confidante being trained in mental, emotional, and relationship health optimization.
When there is a good fit between therapist and client, the relationship deepens similar to a close friendship and begins to pay dividends to your healing and growth beyond just the topics you discuss in therapy. In the context of a close and trusted relationship where real feelings of care, interest, and connection are present, therapy tools are just one part of the healing process. In the context of a close, caring relationship with a trained professional, attachment traumas from childhood and other traumas can surface, and you can better understand the forces that programmed your mind and govern some of your actions and decisions today.
Because traumas are stored in the nervous system, it takes more than conversation and insight to heal them. The nervous system doesn’t care much about academic understandings of development and childhood or theories about why our minds are the way they are. What the nervous system pays attention to is how safe it feels opening up with another person and whether we can really let others in. If we have the courage to trust someone to care, not judge, and to keep our secrets, we can form a meaningful bond that gives us needed emotional support in life.
The brain is very relational in the way it learns. We learn most efficiently by observing and connecting with others. In adolescence, we emulate those we admire and try on new identities. And in young adulthood, we seek out role models that can help pave the way for us and guide us toward success and the life we want to have. With a therapist, you can play with ideas and thoughts about life and get feedback, and test out parts of yourself to develop more strength, compassion, empathy, boundaries, or any other qualities you need more of.
Even if you have close friends, they may not be well trained in depression, anxiety, grief, and self-esteem issues. But in many cases, we don’t open up in a full sense with many of the people in our lives. We may have a best friend, but do we really share everything? Most people have a few friends they talk to, but it gets harder as people get older with responsibilities, work, parenting, the demands of partnership, and maintaining appearances in our communities. We understand that as therapists, which is why we know that it can take a little time for people to fully open up, and why giving a therapy relationship time to deepen can then allow the investment in the process to pay off.
Therapy groups are a popular type of therapy that allows you to explore yourself with others, build relationship skills, get feedback, and bond with others. They are social but also challenge you to grow and mature, to be more authentic and connect better with others. Therapy groups are fun, rich, complex and a way to rehearse skills after working with an individual therapist to identify growth areas. Therapy groups are popular across the country in cities such as New York, Boston and Chicago. Austin has a special affinity for group therapy ever since the encounter group movement of the 1960s that spawned many decades of deep, introspective growth work in groups around town. While you can form a close relationship with your group therapist, the relationships you form with group members can be just as close.
Allowing yourself to invest in therapy enough to develop a close relationship with your therapist is a way to get the most out of counseling and learn and grow as deeply and as quickly as possible. Using the relational channels of learning that allow the mind and brain to heal is the difference between therapy that gives you some tips, and therapy that can change your life.
About the Authors
John Howard and Leah Cummins are psychotherapists at PRESENCE, an integrative wellness center supporting your mental, physical and relationship health so you can heal, grow, and thrive in life through science-based psychotherapy and medicine.