If you’re doing therapy or personal development right, you’re developing skills that will, hopefully, generalize.
Many people get into therapy to work on a specific challenge in their lives. They might be recovering from trauma; or they might be trying to improve their functioning at work; or they might be trying to establish or improve a relationship.
The primary skills psychotherapy teaches— reality testing, constructive self-communication, emotional regulation, and goal setting— will help you improve most situations or challenges you find yourself struggling with. They WILL help you recover from trauma, they WILL improve your functioning at work; they WILL make it possible to establish new relationships and make existing relationships better.
That’s the good news.
But the better news is, they will probably help you do a lot of other stuff, too.
The reality testing skills you learn in psychotherapy, for example, will hep you ANY time you’re experiencing thoughts and fears that feel overwhelming, depressing, and anxiety-provoking. Once you learn to identify cognitive distortions and talk back to them, thus cutting their consequent emotions down to size, those skills will help you ANY time your brain tries to mess with you by making situations seem bigger and scarier and less manageable than they actually are.
Similarly, the self-communication skills you learn in therapy will help you ANY time your brain falls back into the habit of playing “old tapes” that contain voices from the past or the world that do not serve you. Once you learn to tell the difference between your “true” voice, as opposed to voices from the past or voices from “out there,” you’ll ALWAYS be able to design and reinforce an internal script that works TOWARD your values and goals, not AGAINST them.
As well, the emotional regulation skills you learn in therapy will serve you ANY time you feel as if what you’re feeling is out of proportion to what you can handle. Once you learn how to change your breathing, change your focus, and manipulate your brain waves and central nervous system so that your limbic system is no longer running the show, you’ll NEVER AGAIN be one of those people who is ruled by their feeling states as opposed to their goals and values.
And it goes without saying the the goal setting skills you develop that enable you and your therapist to actually carry out your therapy plan will be useful to you ANY time you’re faced with a multiple-stage, long term process. Once you learn how to set realistic intermediate goals and stay focused on achieving milestones you can easily visualize and accomplish, no goal will EVER AGAIN feel like it’s outside of your grasp.
If you’re doing therapy right, you’re not just hacking away at or solving one particular problem.
If you’re doing therapy right, you’re learning a new way of being in the world— and a new way to approach problems and life challenges generally that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
It’s a pattern with several of my longer-term patients that they came to me for help with a specific area of their lives. My area of therapeutic expertise used to be serious postrauamtic and dissociative disorders, so many of my first patients came to me because they were struggling with serious dissociative symptoms (up to and including Dissociative Identity Disorder, the condition that we used to call Multiple Personalities ) and/or serious self-injurious or suicidal ideation.
So we set about solving those problems with the tools I emphasize in therapy: reality testing, self-communication, emotional regulation, and goal-setting. And, because therapy works (and my patients work really, really hard), they got better. I’m proud to say that I have a very positive track record when it comes to the recovery rate of the trauma patents with whom I’ve worked— mostly because of their hard work and perseverance in therapy.
But then, after they’d recovered from their post traumatic crises, something interesting tended to happen: life went on.
My patients went on to do other things with their lives, rather than be professional victims. Several got married. Several went on to get graduate degrees and jobs in their fields. People who thought their lives were effectively at an end went out in the world and designed the “second acts” of their lives, and it was a beautiful thing.
But, as often happens when life goals on: challenges popped up. Sometimes they were challenges that were related to their previous life circumstances; most often, they were brand new challenges related to life, health, finances, or something else.
The thing is: because they had worked so hard to develop reality testing, self-communication, emotional regulation, and goal-setting skills, these patients were in a much, much better position to handle these new challenges than they would have otherwise been.
In fact, in every instance in which I’m aware, my patients have NOT had to develop entirely new tool boxes to deal with their new life challenges. In most every case, they’ve used variants of the very same tools and skills that they used to recover from trauma, to make their new lives work.
That’s why I can’t emphasize enough: therapy isn’t just for fixing specific problems.
Therapy is for learning how to fix problems and live life, period.
Keep this in mind when you’re discouraged by how difficult it is to develop the tools and skills of therapy.
You’re developing tools and skills that will serve you for the rest of your LIFE.