Never been to therapy before? Wondering how it can help? Curious about the therapeutic process? Each year, tens of millions of people seek therapy for a variety of reasons. Not all therapists are the same, though; there are many different schools of thought. Even within the same school, each therapist is unique in their approach to the therapeutic process. Philosophical therapists were arguably the first therapists in history, but are relatively few in numbers of practitioners today compared to the mainstream schools like behaviourism, psychoanalysis, and gestalt, just to name a few. Because philosophical therapy is different to most of the other schools, I have written this article to cover the most basic process of the philosophical therapeutic process.
Questions, Questions, so many Questions
The role of the philosophical therapist is to ask you questions about yourself. They might sometimes provide you with some terminology and jargon and this is merely to help improve your ability to understand yourself and to communicate better in the sessions. These questions will often appear obvious. Sometimes the therapist might ask you if you feel angry, to which you might respond with, “Well, of course, I am feeling angry!” You might be thinking at the time that this is a silly question, but for the therapist, this is a very important question to ask. On the topic of anger: some people do not know if they are experiencing anger. I have come across people who have been red in the face and shouting, but later on, when questioned about this, said they did not feel angry at all. So sometimes obvious questions like this will be asked just so the therapist can get an idea of how self-aware the client is.
This is the first part of the therapeutic process: developing self-observation. Self-observation is a wordy way of saying listening to yourself. Singers who want to be professional in their career have to learn to listen to themselves sing, just as dancers must practice in front of mirrors so they can carefully observe their body movements and know where they need to improve. Independence requires learning to pay close attention to one’s body, feelings, and thoughts, so that you do not have to depend on other people telling you what is happening. The first step towards mastering your thoughts and feelings is learning to correctly observe them. While the therapist is asking you questions, they are demonstrating to you a healthy attitude of curiosity and interest in yourself. It may feel awkward at first to pay so much attention to your body, thoughts, and feelings and we will discuss that in detail the next section.
Have you ever listened to your voice played back to you? For many people, this is an eerie experience because the voice they hear when they speak and the voice on the recording do not appear to be from the same person. Often these people will reject the recorded voice as not being from them; often they don’t want to listen to the recording and will avoid hearing their voice on playback if they can. This distancing of oneself from something one does not want to recognise as coming from oneself is called “dissociation”. This is the biggest problem people have with gaining self-knowledge: wanting to dissociate from the aspects of oneself that one feels embarrassed by.
Some examples of dissociation can include denying that one is angry, denying that one needs help, denying that one feels needy, denying that one feels afraid, denying that one has problems, denying that one lied or acted dishonestly, denying that one physically assaulted someone, etc… The things that people will dissociate from are all things that a person perceives as being ugly or disgusting about themselves. Sometimes it is something small like how they sound on a recording, other times it is something big like committing a violent crime. It is common for people to want to disown parts of themselves they feel ashamed of.
The purpose of the dissociation is an attempt to protect themselves from feeling the remorse and grief that comes from acknowledging the unsightly aspect of themselves. In a sense, some people would rather cut off a limb than deal with the truth about themselves and, in extreme cases of dissociation, people actually do engage in self-harm and bodily mutilation.
For this reason, the philosophical therapist will ask you questions, lots of very small and simple questions, about yourself, your feelings, your body, your family, your friends, your values, your relationships, about everything related to you. These questions are probing for sensitive spots that, when pushed, might get you to flare up defensively. Repeated exposure to these aspects of oneself helps move onto the next phase of the therapeutic process.
Learning to Feel Calm in Your Own Skin
Just like how you might feel uncomfortable listening to your voice on playback the first time, the next time you hear it, you might feel almost as disturbed by it, but by the tenth time you will probably be feeling calmer about it. The first time the therapist raises some questions about yourself, shining some light on a part of yourself that you find ugly and disgusting, it is completely normal to flinch and even get angry and defensive. People often report feeling attacked during this process. There is a strong temptation for many people to stop therapy at this point and leave. Sadly, many people do.
However, the more one is exposed to the unpleasant facts, the more comfortable a person becomes acknowledging it and talking about it. This is called “desensitisation”, which refers to the process of gradually becoming less sensitive to a stimulus over time, much like how when testing bath water, it initially feels too hot, but after having your feet in there for a few moments, you soon realise it’s actually just the right temperature for you. I personally prefer not to use the term “desensitising”, although other therapists do; my preferred term is acceptance.
Acceptance is learning to respect reality. This means appreciating that it does not matter how you feel about something, the facts do not change. A man might feel threatened being told that his tendency of shouting obscenities at people while drunk is harming his relationships. He might insist that the problem is not with him, it is with other people, and that they need to loosen up and appreciate the humour of him screaming at them while drunk. He might well believe this to be true, however, it will not change the facts that no one enjoys having obscenities shouted at them in their face and they will eventually decide to abandon this man. If this man has any chance of changing his behaviour, he first needs to accept that it does not matter how angry he gets with the facts, the facts are not going to change: Shouting obscenities at people while drunk will decrease his popularity.
It has to be stressed that this is the single most difficult part of therapy. No one likes having their dirty laundry exposed and paraded in front of them and this is what it often feels like to be in therapy. Clients often describe this part of therapy as being “attacked” by the therapist because it appears as though the therapist is somehow “making” them feel hurt. The therapist is not making them feel anything, he or she is simply pointing out the truth and the discomfort they feel is their response to this truth.
The questions coming from the therapist are essentially digging up your past and any skeletons you might have in your closet. However, consider how difficult it is when you start exercising after a long period of inactivity. Your first push up when you’re overweight and out of condition can feel overwhelming if not downright torturous. However, what happens when you persevere with more exercise? The effects are not immediate, but over time you grow fit and strong. Constant philosophical questioning of yourself is exercise for your mind and spirit. If you were out of shape mentally expect it to be quite taxing and challenging at first. However, just as you might sometimes accuse your personal trainer of being a sadist, you know they are trying to help you; you may also want to accuse your therapist of being an emotional sadist who takes pleasure in attacking you, but you must recognise that this, like exercise, is for your own benefit.
Once you feel more comfortable being questioned and accepting unpleasant facts about yourself and the world, you can move onto the last phase of the philosophical therapeutic process.
Taking Responsibility and Acting!
This sounds like it might be a scary part, but actually, if you can work your way through the acceptance part, this will be far easier by comparison. The reason why I think some people often find this part so scary is that they have been conditioned to believe everything is their fault, so when a therapist like myself talks about responsibility, they’re afraid of a lecture and a guilt trip. The irony is that I spend more time doing the opposite. Most people take on responsibility for things they aren’t actually responsible for or do not need to fix. It is still true, though, that everyone does neglect their responsibility for some duties which are clearly for them and no one else.
Responsibility is about taking the actions needed to fix the problems in one’s life. This typically means saying or doing something that one has been avoiding or putting off for some time. Getting a new job, moving house, talking to one’s family about a problem, confronting a bully, getting enough exercise, etc…
Many people have been raised with a victim mentality where they are taught they have no power to fix their problems by themselves, that they must depend on charity or sacrifice from other people in order to survive. For these people, personal responsibility might seem scary, but in reality, it is often the opposite: the exciting realisation that they can take control of their own lives and live a life they can be happy with.
One of the areas that is most important for assigning responsibility is with emotions. Emotions are like everything else one produces. If you produce work, you are responsible for your work and ought to be appreciated in some way for it. If you produce words, you are responsible for what you say; if your words are pleasant, you will be rewarded, if they are ugly, you may well suffer for them. If you produce feelings, you are responsible for what you feel. Blaming other people for what you feel is literally attacking the messenger for doing their job properly. However, many people incorrectly think other people are responsible for how they feel (link of feelings article). The “you made me feel sad, so you now have to fix it” idea leaves people dependent on other people to look after them. Why can’t you make yourself feel better instead of relying on them to fix it for you? When you have lived your life around the idea that other people need to make you feel better, it is challenging to learn a new way of relating to yourself and the people around you. Here, a philosophical therapist will help you to understand how this works and how it can be applied to your life so that you can at last live your life on your terms.
Philosophical therapy can be a bewildering and challenging experience, especially if a great deal of things one does not want to acknowledge come up during the session. It is a tried and proven method for gaining emotional and intellectual strength, though. The strength one will develop from this method can be used to build better relationships, families, careers, and attitudes. Everyone who finds themselves avoiding something important can benefit from some therapy, especially if they are avoiding therapy when they know it is something they need!