It is a given that a person comes to therapy to seek relief in symptoms psychological stress, relationship tensions and/or physical pain/discomfort not treatable by medicine alone. Usually a patient comes to a therapist to present a problem or a chief complaint after having suffered it for a considerable amount of time, while trying alternative/self-treatments.
It is not unusual that the decision to come for psychotherapy and the meeting of the therapist alone can diminish the symptoms. This is due to the relief the client usually feels after having let go of the need to control his/her own symptoms.
Despite this, psychotherapeutic treatment usually lasts months and often years. This is because as the therapy progresses the client and therapist uncover areas underlying the symptoms that need to be addressed, along the way setting new therapeutic goals. The work of therapy goes beyond the swift removal of disturbances.
Uncovering root causes of symptoms are often painful processes. The client needs to feel safe and trust the therapist enough to go deep into the work. For example a young woman with anorexia comes to terms with her feelings of betrayal and entrapment within a perfectionistic family only after 6 month in treatment. She needed another year to come to terms with inner rage against her care givers in order to overcome feelings of disgust for having food in her stomach.
Other examples include the man who comes for short- term couple therapy to “improve his communication” with his wife turns out to have a secret lover who is rearing his unacknowledged child; or the little boy referred for “acting up” with authorities has a private habit of torturing small animals (McWilliams 1999).
Clients usually need a lot of time in order to have the courage to open up their most painful emotional experiences– first to themselves, than to the therapist. Through the trust built within the therapeutic alliance, can revelations of negative emotions like fears and shame be grasped. Through coming to terms with these feelings of vulnerability can the client learn to master his/her feelings and behavior with understanding, knowing that he/she has choices and has the capacity to reach for resources.
The man who is compulsively unfaithful to his partner wants not just to stop having affairs but to be relieved of his constant preoccupation with fantasies about them. The woman with an eating disorder wants not just to stop vomiting but to get to the point where food is merely food to her, not a repository of desperate temptation and wretched self-loathing. A man or woman who was sexually abused in childhood wants to change internally, subjectively, from feeling like a sexual abuse victim who happens to be a person to a person who happens to have been a sexual abuse victim (Frawley-O’Dea, 1996).
Psychological symptoms (and psychosomatic symptoms as well) are the result of an individual’s survival strategy, otherwise known as creative adjustment to unpleasant experiences usually encountered in childhood. Hence the problems clients come to the therapists with,( e.g eating disorders, panic attacks, depression, relationship problems, addictions… ) are superficial signs (or tip of the iceberg). Looking at the experiences and emotions that lie within to keep these symptoms going is what the therapy is about. It is through uncovering these that the client gets to fully understand the root of his/her symptoms, and gradually find their own resources to relieve themselves of the effects of these symptoms and live better.
McWilliams, N. (1999). Psychoanalytic case formulation. Guilford Press.