It’s important to remember that progress is rarely, if ever, found in momentary flashes of brilliance or insight— but rather in the daily grind of habit and incremental gains.
There is a large subset of people who think that therapeutic progress is made in the room with the therapist. That in therapy sessions, things will be said or done that will suddenly make everything “click,” thus enabling huge leaps of progress all at once.
It almost never works that way. I WISH it worked that way.
Important things are said in therapy sessions, no doubt about it. In fact, part of the point of therapy sessions is to create an environment in which it’s more likely that important, helpful things are said and talked about.
But no matter how important or profound anything that is talked about in a therapy session may be, the therapy session still has to end, and the patient has to return to the real world.
It’s out there, in the real world, where 99.9% of the actual work takes place…and the actual progress is made.
Why do people keep persisting in believing there is “magic” in a therapy session, or on the inside of a therapy office, that somehow doesn’t exist in the outside world?
I think part of it is, it’s not interesting or sexy to contemplate that real “progress” is actually the work of minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day, of grinding, grinding, grinding away at our lives, working to change our habits and patterns. We like the idea that there are shortcuts to making changes in our lives, that shift the focus away from that daily grind.
Thinking there’s something “magic” about therapy or a therapist is a way of making the progress seem less boring, less tedious, less centered on nose-to-the-grindstone work.
It’s not that people are lazy, understand. To the contrary, most of the people I’ve known who have had the courage to honestly engage in psychotherapy are some of the most industrious and motivated people I could possibly ever HOPE to meet.
It’s just that, when given the choice, people prefer the idea that there’s some sort of magic or mystical answer to their problems, rather than an answer that signs them up for day after day of hard work. Hard work that is often unrewarding in the moment.
Believing that there is “magic” in a therapist or in the therapy session is also, I think, for some people a hopeful thing. They’re hoping that the answer to their problems lies in some bit of obscure knowledge or expertise a therapist has, that can only be revealed within the sanctum of the psychotherapy session. It’s the same impulse that draws some people to mystical gurus on mountaintops.
They want their answers to be found somewhere just outside of their understanding, because we’re conditioned to believe things that eclipse our understanding have the power to transform us more profoundly than things we already know.
The truth— that we will mostly be transformed by applying, day in and day out, in sustained, habitual ways, things we already DO know— seems prosaic and uninspiring by contrast.
I’ve seen some therapists and hospital programs take advantage of the belief of their patients that there is something special and sacred that happens within their clinical space that cannot happen without it. It’s an unfortunate fact of the mental health field that some providers really do cultivate an air of mysticism about how and why they work, without which patients would be at an existential loss.
Spoiler alert: no matter how much you like your therapist, now matter how attached you are to a particular program, your ability to recover is only incidentally related to how good your therapist is or how effective a particular program is.
A therapist and/or a program can teach you things you need to know. A therapist and/or a program, ideally, can also provide you with an environment in which it’s safe and effective to learn and refine your ideas about what what works and what doesn’t. Therapists and programs absolutely have their place in recovery.
But in the end, it’s not about the therapist. Its not about what happens in session. It’s not about what happens in group.
In the end, your recovery is about what happens when your therapist, group, or program ISN’T there.
Your recovery is about how well you can take whatever insight you derive from your therapy or program into our everyday life and USE it.
In the end, if your therapist and/or program isn’t equipping you to function without their everyday support in your life— or if you find yourself developing a belief that you can’t function without the “magic” of a person or program— it might be worth looking at what’s really going on there.
None of this is worth thinking about in black and white terms, incidentally. I think the role and effectiveness of all of our supports and tools— therapists, programs, groups, philosophies, whatever— should be in a constant state of evaluation and revision. I’m not a fan of making hard, black and white decisions about “I don’t need this support” any more than I’m a fan of making hard, black and white decisions about “I do need this support.” What supports you need at any particular time should be determined at that time, and should be determined by looking at the evidence. There are plenty of shades of grey involved.
That said: remember where the “magic” really is.
It’s in your everyday habits.
It’s in your everyday routine.
It’s in the work that goes in day in, day out, when nobody’s watching.
The magic, always and only, is in YOU.
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