Reach Out

What Do Therapists Do That We Don't?

conversing holding space listening psychological safetey Oct 20, 2019

I am fascinated by the question, “Why do people see therapists?” 

I mean — most of what you do with a therapist is talk. But we talk to our friends all the time. What gives? 

Let me first say — I am a huge proponent of therapy. I’m lucky to have a fantastic therapist that I have worked with on and off for 17 years. I am NOT dissuading anyone from seeing a therapist. I encourage it.

But have you ever stopped to wonder…

Why are most conversations that we have with friends not as therapeutic as the ones we have with therapists? 

It’s an unsettling question. 

But as people who care about our friends, shouldn’t we be very interested in the answer? 

We seek therapy because we suffer inside. But despite the ubiquity of inner suffering, most of us are not educated about it — where it comes from, how to handle it, and how to help others with theirs. Therapists undergo intense training on the topic, but the lay person is never schooled on these matters. 

Every year in high school, I studied a physical science (biology, chemistry, physics), math, history, English, and a foreign language. There were no classes on, say, “Why people get sad and how to help.” Even the subjects most relevant to our inner world, like literature, focused more on the number of syllables in a poem than on how it touched your heart. 

I remember reading The Great Gatsby in 11th grade. We talked a lot about Fitzgerald’s use of imagery. But as Enneagram 3, I wonder how much later suffering I might have avoided if the lesson plan had asked me to consider whether I, like Gatsby, was ever dishonest in order to impress others — a topic that surfaced much later for me in therapy. 

The point is, in our culture we are groomed to attend to the outer world more than to our inner world. I believe that we need to rebalance and that basic psychology and listening training should be part of formal education. 

I keep reminding myself that psychology wasn’t even a field of academia until a little over a century ago. For most of human history, our inner world was the province of religion, which wanted to understand the mental preoccupations that distracted us from God. (See, for example, Evagrius’s writings on the originally 9 deadly sins from ~300AD.) Freud only began writing about the subconscious in the 1880s, and Jung didn’t hit stride until the early 1900s. 

Because of psychology, religion, and wisdom traditions, we know that the human inner world is utterly worthy of our attention. All of the ways we “miss the mark” and all of the paths toward lives of love, meaning, and right action are hidden therein. It is not as tangible as physics, but it is certainly as important. 

Given that, the question seems even more puzzling: what stops us from unpacking our inner worlds and working through our suffering with many of our friends?

There are too many reasons to list exhaustively, but here are two big ones: 

1. The rhythm of default conversation is not conducive for inner exploration. In most conversations with friends, we banter, we joke, and we switch topics on whim. Also, we usually converse at the rhythm of the more dominant person on the topics of their choice. This is true one on one, but can be seen even more clearly in group settings where extroverts claim the most airtime, and some introverts do not speak at all.

2. We only unpack our inner worlds when we feel psychologically safe. Most friendships are not such environments. 

In Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer writes, “The soul speaks its truth only under quiet, inviting, trustworthy conditions.” 

Yes. The most sensitive and soulful parts of ourselves, with all their deep wounds and deeper wisdom, hide behind vaulted doors that do not open unless conditions are perfect.

What are those conditions? 

Broadly, I see these two:

  1. You are radically assured that the person you are talking to loves you completely, authentically, and without condition (see: Carl Rogers on “Unconditional Positive Regard”)
  2. You are radically assured that the person you are talking to will pay attention to you with warm, genuine, continuous interest for the duration of the conversation, will honor your truth as sacred and confidential, and will dialogue with you at your natural rhythm without dismissing, interrupting, or steering you

The ability to create these conditions is the foundation of being a good therapist. 

I am proposing that we adopt it as the foundation of being a good friend. You may be humbled to find that it takes a lot of work to cultivate this ability.

Of course, I’m not saying that every conversation with friends needs to be “deep.” Fart jokes are great. But your heart knows: the kind of sharing that occurs in conditions of psychological safety is the stuff of true friendship.

I often ask myself, “How can we help each other heal, individually and collectively, so that we can solve our planet’s biggest problems?” Creating more psychological safety is a major part of the answer.

I want to acknowledge the subtle and beautiful work that therapists do and the rigorous training that they undergo to be able to do it. I am not suggesting that, as we become better listeners, we begin to think of ourselves as amateur therapists or that being a therapist simple. Actually, I expect the opposite will happen — we will see how subtle the art of listening is and have even more respect for skilled therapists. What I’m suggesting is that we can, if we so choose, become the kind of people with whom others feel psychologically safe.  

The rising number of life-coaches and people I hear talking about “holding space” for others gives me hope. I admit to being incredulous that all of these well-intentioned folks are doing the inner work required to “hold space” well. But the growing interest is a beautiful indication that, on the whole, we are growing in our awareness that psychological safety is important for healthy humans and a healthy world.

Thank goodness. 

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