When the going gets tough in life, though we may have close friends or family by our side, there are generally limits to what we feel comfortable confiding. These limits, arising from concerns about ourselves and our confidants, may cause us to wonder:
“Is what I have to share too sensitive and revealing?”
“Will I get too emotional?”
“Will they really listen?”
“Will the information I share become a burden?”
“Will this shared knowledge result in awkward social situations?”
“Can I trust what I share to be held in confidence?”
Questions such as these may prompt us to seek an impartial person who is emphatically not friend or family, and yet supremely trustworthy. Someone who will listen empathically, validate our experience and refrain from judgment, while not shrinking from being straight with us. Someone we’re not likely to meet at a dinner party and, even if we do, someone whom we know will hold our secrets in absolute confidence. For all these reasons and more, when we are feeling the most acute need for understanding and support, we sometimes look to a psychotherapist.
Yet, in spite of all of the above considerations, it is easy to overlook the therapeutic relationship itself when choosing a therapist. Instead, we may think that a therapist is a specialist who will “analyze” us, “fix” us with exotic methods, or give advice. With this focus in mind, we might prioritize technique when selecting a therapist. Yet, in spite of all the psychological theories and therapeutic approaches that abound, a considerable amount of research has shown that it is not technique but the therapeutic relationship itself that is the single most validated aspect of successful therapy (known as the “Dodo Bird Verdict” or “Common Factors Theory,” first put forth by Saul Rosenzweig in 1936).
So, if a therapist is not friend, not family, and not a technician and yet the therapeutic relationship is the most vital aspect of therapy, what is it about this strange relationship that makes it work? The answer to this question is that, precisely because of the things the therapist isn’t, therapy has the possibility to be what it is. Because our relationship with a therapist is unlike all the other relationships that populate our lives, it has the potential to offer a level of support, insight and honesty that seldom exists in the typical relationships most of us have. Yes, it may seem odd to spend hard-earned money to talk with a person for 50 minutes when we could speak with anyone else we know without cost or time limits. But for those 50 minutes, we are our therapist’s sole agenda. During that precious time, we have our therapist’s rapt attention and profound desire to care fully focused on us. This relationship, uncluttered by other demands, holds the potential to let us know that we are “seen” as we may have never been seen before. In this clarity, the sources of our life challenges, as well our goals and sense of meaning, become more clear.
Yes, therapy is a strange relationship. Yet it is a rare and wonderful strangeness that holds the power to help us heal. To strangeness!