What is psychotherapy?
We cannot see across the river
to the other side.
But darkness does not destroy
what it obscures.
Psychotherapy and the psychotherapist
The word "psyche" comes from the Greek psukhe meaning breath, life, or soul. Today, the word is also used to refer to the spirit or mind or whole self. The word "therapy" comes from the Greek therapeuein to attend, to hold in attention, to stretch towards. So a psychotherapist is one who attends, holds their attention with, stretches their attention towards the whole self, body, mind and soul of the patient.
The importance of the body
Here I want to emphasize that I am including the body as a source of wisdom and focus of attention. When people think of the mind, self or soul, they often think of cognitive, abstract, or mental aspects of being. But here, the focus is on the whole self, which cannot be separated, or divided, from the body.
Psychotherapy then, is a process of bringing attention to, and holding in awareness, the whole self, body, mind, and soul. It is a process that both patient and therapist engage in, each cultivating the ability to bring that attention and awareness to the self, body, mind, and soul. The psychotherapist focusses their attention on the patient, but also sustains their self-awareness. In the presence of a psychotherapist who is so attuned, the patient can more readily develop their own self awareness. This is part of how psychotherapy works.
There are many situations that are simply hard to endure, and times when nothing can be done to change what is happening. This is when you may especially need help and support to bear what is going on, and to find relief despite how hard things are. This is when you may need help to draw on all of your wisdom and resources so that you can cope and find a way through
Curiousity and being non-judgemental
The importance of attention and awareness can not be overstated. The central quality of both attention and awareness here, is non-judgmental curiosity and acceptance. Part of psychotherapy involves developing the capacity to be curious and reflective, without being shut down or ruled by judgments and self-criticism.
Client or patient?
While the words “client” or “patient” can both refer to people who see a therapist for psychotherapy, I usually think of people as patients rather than as a clients. The word patient comes from the Latin pati which means to suffer, bear or endure. The word “client” comes from the Latin cliens which means one who leans, depends on another for support.
In most depth psychotherapies there are times when a patient does indeed lean, or depend for support on the psychotherapy and on the psychotherapist. For some people this is the hardest part of therapy, to allow themselves to depend on another person; it can be tremendously healing to find that depending does not mean loosing oneself but deepening in strength, self-acceptance, the ability to relate with others.
I think of people in therapy as patients however, because whatever symptoms a person has, underlying any decision they make to enter and remain in psychotherapy, is their sense of suffering, or of bearing something difficult. More importantly, one of the keys to healing is developing the resilient capacity to endure experience without minimizing, denying, or shutting yourself down. When experience can be born, reflected on and assessed, it can inspire choices, and lead to ways forward when all had seemed blocked.
What someone is enduring may be losses, depression, or life having lost its flavour and meaning. It may be anxiety, panic attacks, or fear of going crazy, or of being crazy. It may be helplessness about relationships or patterns in relationships. It may be a sense of being stuck, stagnating, being bored, not living up to their hopes or potential, or feeling out of touch with their soul. Or, what someone is enduring could be facing aspects of his or her life or self that are very painful to encounter.