What is the purpose of therapy?
Why do people even need it?
Therapy is important usually because of trauma, though not always — see What about non-trauma?
In the process of living one’s life, everyone has trauma.
Trauma is any kind of event that causes distress. Falling out of a tree; being caned; being mugged; injury in a car accident; being bullied; getting cancer; being told that you were useless by a parent or teacher; living in a war zone; having a loved relative or friend die; being the victim of sexual abuse; and so on.
As you can see, some trauma is deliberate, and others not. Some is purely physical, some purely emotional, and some a combination. Some trauma is as a consequence of upbringing, some through sheer bad luck, a misfortune of birth, time or place. Some trauma happens in childhood, and some in adulthood.
For a lucky few, traumatic incidents are rare, hardly ever serious, and never long-lasting. For far too many unlucky people, childhood was a long series of trauma, and adulthood seems to continue the pattern. Most people fall somewhere in between these extremes.
The effects of trauma
Infrequent and mild trauma, especially if you’ve been lucky enough to have a safe, stable and loving upbringing, is unlikely to cause long-term harm to you.
On the other hand, chronic trauma can have far-reaching effects, even to the extent of causing physical changes to your brain. For example, the amygdala can grow larger than normal in people who had chronic trauma during their formative years, and it can affect their heart. (The saying, “a broken heart,” is sometimes literal.)
People who had unstable, unsafe or loveless childhoods enter adulthood with unhelpful thought patterns and dysfunctional behaviours that unfortunately serve to reinforce and worsen their state.
In some cases, people can appear completely normal on the outside, but might suffer from constant self-criticism, low self-esteem, and a need for approval, and they might tend to sabotage themselves. They might make decisions based on fear rather than on careful objective reflection.
In more serious cases, people can have long-term physical or mental health problems, and even full-blown character disorders. Such people often cause distress not only to themselves but also to others; not always deliberately, but some of them are deliberate. I have come across cases where people were unaware that they were the cause of all this distress, believing that the world was conspiring against them.
Curiously, many people who grew up with chronic trauma don’t recognise it as such. If everyone around you is being mistreated (e.g. at a dysfunctional school), you might internalise that sort of upbringing as normal and natural. As an example, you might have come across someone who says, “Well, I was beaten as a kid and I turned out OK! It’s healthy to hit a child!” Such a person may genuinely believe that sentiment, oblivious to the fact that it’s never healthy to attack someone.
Symptoms of trauma
A traumatic upbringing or severe trauma as an adult could lead to several ongoing problems.
The following list is not a medical diagnosis, nor is it complete. These are simply examples of what could happen after chronic or severe trauma. They could also happen for other reasons.
- Unhelpful and critical thoughts about yourself
- Judgementalism, i.e. frequently judging yourself or other people
- Feeling as though you are not good enough
- A need to prove yourself to others, always worrying what others think of you
- Sabotaging yourself
- Addiction of any kind — legal drugs (alcohol, nicotine, pain killers…), illegal drugs, behavioural (gambling, kleptomania…)
- Frequent or inappropriate anger (think of road rage)
- Suicidal thoughts
- Inappropriate guilt, or the opposite, no guilt and a lack of empathy
- Tolerating when other people treat you badly, or the opposite, treating others badly
- Certain personality disorders
This brings us to the original question…
What is the purpose of therapy?
Left unresolved, these problems can wreak havoc on a person’s life. Even when your life seems great on the outside, if it’s still a bed of unhappiness inside, that’s a problem. I’ve known people whose lives seem all in order, secure, happy, complete. But when I learn how they talk to themselves, how they think, and how they view the world, I realise that these people are in fact deeply unhappy, and have no idea how to find peace.
The purpose of therapy is to undo the damage; to replace unhelpful and critical thoughts with helpful and healthy thoughts; to change unhelpful and damaging behaviours with helpful and productive behaviours; to replace harmful automatic and unconscious responses with helpful ones.
Change is possible
Have you ever taken in (or known someone who has taken in) a rescue pet that is fearful, constantly alert to danger, and jumpy; but, over time, the pet has calmed down, become friendly and loving, and more at peace?
People are just as capable of change as pets! Even though your brain might have been changed through chronic trauma, the good news is that your brain is “plastic” — your brain can rewire itself with the help of therapy.
Although you can’t change the past and what has been done to you, you can change the future. You can change how your brain responds and reacts to life. As long as you are free of the environment that caused the distress in the first place, you can change a life of unhappiness and fear into one of peace and joy.
When people talk of inner peace, this is how I understand it. Your brain, your mind, your soul, your spirit… they are all in harmony. A life more happy, more fulfilled, a harmonious part of society.
This is the purpose of therapy.
Although you can’t change the past and what has been done to you, you can change the future. What happened to you in the past might not have been your fault, but it’s up to you to change what happens to you in the future.
What about non-trauma?
Is therapy only about fixing the consequences of trauma?
No, not at all. It happens to be the major part of my practice, but there are also people who don’t have traumatic backgrounds and yet who weren’t taught the best way to grow and live. That’s hardly surprising — do you know of any school that teaches this? How many parents do you suppose were taught this so that they could pass the wisdom onto their children?
Depending on a person’s needs, therapy or life coaching can be a great way to take someone who is already quite OK but wants to be amazing! Some of the work that we do is the same type of work that, say, an athlete will do to improve their performance, or an executive will do to raise their success to the next level.