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What is Psychotherapy?

Psychotherapy may be understood as healing of the mind and can be seen as a healing process by which a psychotherapist helps a client learn about the 'self' that he or she has perhaps been unconsciously and unsuspectingly concealing, primarily from himself or herself. The process involves a confidential and mutually trusting relationship between the person and the therapist. It is an intimate relationship but not a social one. In other words the therapist makes his or her mind available for the client to recover. An aspect of psychotherapy which tends to distinguish it from social relationships is the attitude of deep curiosity, interest and seriousness which both client and therapist bring to the sessions. Essentially it means that all aspects of the client's life are relevant and needing to be treated with respect and concern.

The person approaching psychotherapy is in emotional pain and conflict and shares his or her deepest concerns with someone who listens. This listening does not involve just the content of what the client tells the therapist but all the aspects involved in the telling. It is a listening which involves a sense of the quality of connectedness with the client and importantly what the client means by what he or she says. This kind of listening attitude can be understood as listening with the third ear, which is a dynamic listening, a listening for the unconscious elements which may fuel the client's thoughts and behaviour.

This process involves a non-judgemental attitude of the therapist which does not mean condoning or countenancing behaviour. The therapist's role is to work with the client towards gaining insight into the meaning which underlies certain behaviour. The therapist hopes that humanly speaking, through an empathic understanding and non- judgemental attitude, he or she harnesses the client's reflective awareness about what he or she is doing and the effect that his or her behaviour may have on himself or herself and on others, in order to resolve it and let go of certain attitudes and inclinations.

Essentially a person seeks psychotherapy because of feelings of what we might want to call psychological unease such as anxiety, depression, sadness or dissatisfaction that have been irresolvable. This unease, like physical diseases, can be chronic or acute. It can be extremely serious or it can be rather ordinary and mundane. Basically a person seeks help from professionals in order to feel better and improve his or her own mood which can result in functioning better and leads to the enjoyment of a more satisfying way of life.

Psychotherapy encourages self-awareness. Self-awareness here has a particular meaning that we need to distinguish from introspection; introspection is looking inwards only at me, whereas self-awareness involves how I interact with the world around me. Self-awareness is attentiveness to my way of relating to people and things. In particular it involves how my outlook affects the way I see the world and how it affects the world itself.

A question not infrequently asked is does the work of psychotherapy necessarily mean that a client has to recall and relive his or her past? The therapy only goes back to the past in order to make more sense of the present. However thinking about past life experiences in order to understand how they influence the person's outlook, attitude and ways of thinking is not the same as using these memories in order to merely rationalise and justify the present. Rather it is to reappraise and reconsider views which may have been appropriate in the past but have now outworn their use in order to review the here and now differently. In this process a person becomes less fearful about their past as he or she finds genuine answers to his or her present dilemmas. This has a knock-on effect in that the person becomes more open, receptive and alive in other important spheres of his or her life. In other words he or she becomes less repressed.

This brings us on to the role of transference which is what distinguishes psychoanalytic and psychodynamic psychotherapy from other therapies. (Psychodynamic meaning: the interrelation between unconscious and conscious mental and emotional forces which influence a person's thinking and behaviour). Transference is often caricatured and much has been written about the complexities of it. Put simply it is an expression in the therapeutic setting of the ways in which all of us tend to have typical responses to one or another situation. Each client brings the events of everyday life and shows how they are internally experienced. Each brings his or her own central anxiety situations and lives them out in the therapy which gets lived out in the transference of the therapeutic relationship.

In the therapeutic relationship the client transfers his or her typical ways of relating and reacting which may largely but not only construct and be constructed by the client's own autobiographical story. The way we have of transferring patterns of behaviour and feelings from one situation or person to another, which characterises both our everyday lives and the clinical relationship, does not necessarily doom us endlessly to repeat these same behaviours and responses.

All our relationships are in some sense transferences in that they transfer our earliest feelings, wishes and attitudes, with all the subsequent accumulated experiences we have had of love or hate, caring or anger, frustration, loss, and so on, onto new relationships in new situations. For most of us this ability to transfer thoughts, feelings and reactions from one situation or person to another is a necessary tool of survival. This is extremely valuable in the therapeutic relationship because the recognition of the repeated pattern brings essential insights which can help the client to transform himself or herself in fundamental and significant ways opening up to a new sense of different future possibilities.

Psychotherapy is concerned with healing not just the symptom but the underlying cause; not just to rectify the problems but also to allow the person to utilise their full potential. As persons we are dynamic and able to change.

Suggested Reading

Symington, N (1996) The Making of a Psychotherapist

Ed Beutler, L Shurkin, J A Consumer's Guide to Psychotherapy

Kaiser,T. A Users Guide to Therapy

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  • What is Psychotherapy?

  • Free Psychotherapy Articles

Psychotherapy may be understood as healing of the mind.

It can be seen as a healing process by which a psychotherapist helps a client learn about the 'self' that he or she has perhaps been unconsciously and unsuspectingly concealing, primarily from himself or herself.

The process involves a confidential and mutually trusting relationship between the person and the therapist. It is an intimate relationship but not a social one.

In other words the therapist makes his or her mind available for the client to recover...


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