By - Sep 1st, 2003 02:52 pm
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By Eric Francis

For those of you planning to learn Chinese, or read War and Peace or dive into the Harry Potter series this fall, I have another idea for a project: Therapy.

I have a friend who sometimes tells the story of a difficult period of his life, back around his college years. He is an educated and sensitive person. “I was so messed up I needed to see a counselor!” he sometimes says, still amazed after all these years, and speaking as if it were some great shame to need help.

His perspective reveals the bias that we don’t need therapy unless we’re messed up; messed up is somehow shameful or wrong, as if we should not be this way. In that context, any form of needing help or desiring growth can be viewed pathologically, as a sickness, and thus wrong, instead of the desire to live a more full life.

I speak from the viewpoint of having had very good experiences with therapists, which isn’t the case for everyone. But when you hear those stories, it’s worth checking whether the client went in seeking to learn about their own healing process and empower themselves, or to have someone else run their life.

The starting point and the original intention have a lot to do with the outcome. In my own therapy process, I learned how to set the priority of taking care of myself. I learned to assess my relationships with my parents, and their impact on me, very honestly. I learned to ask for what I need in my intimate relationships. And most of all, I learned that I have the power to make choices.

Disaster isn’t a necessary precondition.

Most people opt for therapy when their life gets out of control, or when their pain is very intense, such as when they are getting divorced and things are falling apart. This is typical, and we are fortunate to have help available at such times (this was not always the case) but disaster is not a necessary precondition of working with someone. Therapy is an excellent growth tool and a process you can put to work for realizing your potential.

Going into therapy involves acknowledging that you do need or desire some assistance, which is a tremendous step in itself. It also involves a commitment of your time and resources — both. The money is part of the picture, and so is having the dedication to show up for each session.

The most important thing people learn in therapy is awareness. This is the same as learning how to be ourselves. In process, we talk a lot and eventually learn to listen to ourselves. This is worth paying for. You might ask why you can’t do this with a friend, and my response would be that a friend has other interests in you, and is unlikely to give you the objectivity, the room to change, or the opportunity to challenge yourself that you need.

Perspective is worth paying for.

Your therapist provides you with a few basic services. One is a safe refuge where you can bring up anything. If you feel you can’t, discuss this with your therapist to make sure you’re in the right place. Speaking of place, it’s a good sign if he or she has a dedicated space for their therapy practice (rather than in the living room). It’s a sign of good hygiene, and of success. Your therapist also provides you with consistency, that is, he or she will be the same person from week to week with reasonable predictability. Your therapist provides you with feedback: the collective wisdom they have gained from living, studying and from having heard the stories of many, many people. In a word, they provide perspective.

Choosing a practitioner is worth the investment of your time. Ultimately, you’re likely to be guided by a sense that you’re with the right person, which is intuitive. But it’s worth getting a few references, and considering the source of the reference and whether the referring person has had actual experience with the therapist.

Therapy is best paid for in money because this minimizes the relationship between the practitioner and the client outside the therapy session. Less contact is better because it’s important for you to know that your therapist has no interest in your life besides the fee, and the best way to eliminate the potential for manipulation.

These days, you can get therapy sessions for $50 to $100 per session, and many practitioners have a sliding scale based on your income. This may sound like a lot, but the cost of a cigarette habit can get you a good therapy session every two weeks, and a moderate drinking habit can get you another two to four sessions a month. We find the money to pay for these things, so accepting the cost of a therapy process is a matter of values.

My last suggestion is that your therapist has a healthy attitude about sex. It’s difficult to discern what a “healthy attitude” is in a world where sex is viewed as bad and shameful, but a positive viewpoint (that pleasure is good) is a wholesome starting point. Your therapist needs to be able to work non-judgmentally with your feelings, desires and experiences. You don’t need yet another person in your life to give you moralistic lectures, you just need someone who will help you figure out how to be free.

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