The Intangible Tools of Therapy
Updated: Nov 9
Often, we arrive to therapy with the quest to build a toolkit or a set of skills we can call upon to better manage our lives. Many envision concrete skills that can only be gained from worksheets or homework. Without a doubt, these more targeted skill-building activities can be helpful. However, I find the more intangible and abstract tools of therapy to have an impressive impact on our well-being, yet they don’t fit into our schema of what we imagine a “tool” is. In this blog, I’ll describe some of the tools that I hope to arm clients with. I’ll discuss the power behind understanding, accessing feelings and cultivating agency; all of which are tools that help develop the internal scaffolding needed to bear life.
Understanding is a powerful tool. Psychotherapy is a project between therapist and client that I often describe as putting together the complex puzzle of the client’s life. It’s a joint effort to develop a narrative that makes sense of the person’s subjective experience and personal problems. Many clients arrive to therapy with a sense of not knowing why they are feeling or acting a certain way or why they are experiencing certain hardships in life. When we jointly conceptualize their suffering, we give shape to their once unformulated internal experiences. Using words to organize what was once unorganized provides a sense of relief. Think about the young child who is experiencing a big emotion. When a parent puts words to that experience by labeling the emotion for the child, the child experiences relief at understanding what’s going on inside of themselves. Understanding not only helps us state and label what’s happening within us, but it’s also a way to understand what our internal experiences and external behaviors are connected to. Consider the gregarious and vivacious woman who suddenly becomes depressed and withdrawn on her 45th birthday. Initially fearful and disoriented with this sudden internal shift, she comes to understand this as an unconscious grief response connected to her own mother’s death at the age of 45. By making this unknown known, she becomes equipped to realize, state and emotionally integrate the experience and associated feelings. Furthermore, when we come to develop an understanding of how we’ve become who we are, we recognize that we aren’t, " just this way” - a sentiment can often leave us feeling disempowered to make changes. Instead, when equipped with understanding, we feel empowered to unlearn old ways of being and begin the process of relearning.
Accessing feelings is another important tool to be gained in psychotherapy. Many people limit their access to feelings by only allowing room for a narrow range of emotion. This narrow range leads to the world being muted, as we can’t successfully pick and choose which emotions to mute and which ones to amplify. Hence, when painful feelings are muted, positive feelings are also muted - an obstacle to enjoying a satisfying and pleasurable life. Many attempt to cut off access to feelings such as rage, grief, shame, and eroticism for fear that they somehow are condemnations of our character. However, by beginning to open up to the full range of feelings, we are able to realize on a deep level that feeling and behavior are two different things. We can have hostile feelings and fantasies, yet not be the depraved human who acts out such hostility. Additionally, we learn that different and even opposite emotional states may coexist. This is a valuable tool to break the common “black and white” thinking patterns so many of us fall victim to. And lastly, when we access feelings, we are accessing valuable data that is trying to signal something to us. When we ignore these signals, it’s as if we are choosing to forfeit a key sense that helps us navigate the world authentically.
The last tool I’ll discuss is agency. When we have a clear sense of identity that develops from both understanding ourselves and expressing ourselves, we realize on a deep layer we play an active role in shaping our lives.This experience of articulated self-hood enables us to have a sense of potency in life. We realize that we are capable of not only discovering our own answers, but develop the confidence to actualize our goals. This is counter to the belief many have of psychotherapy that it’s an exercise in complaining and blaming. Over the course of treatment, as disappointments have been mourned and accepted, the opposite attitude begins to emerge. We give up the wishes of believing we can resolve our own problems by somehow changing another and instead we learn to deal with our situation and the inevitable disappointing realities. We let go of the inclination to attack others, life, and most of all, ourselves and instead work to change what can be changed.
Therapy is often pursued in an effort to bear life. When we arm ourselves with the tools of understanding, the ability to access our feelings, and agency we become better equipped to manage the inevitable difficulties of life and in doing so, we often create more room for creativity, ease, pleasure, and fulfillment.