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What You Need to Know About Psychotherapy

In order to recover from many kinds of mental distress, there’s really no alternative but to get acquainted with psychotherapy. 

Though often dense and complicated, the central ideas of psychotherapy can be summarised as follows:

1. Every human is in part neurotic. A neurosis is any pattern of thinking or behaviour that blocks the full flowering of our personalities and potential. We may be neurotic in love or at work, in our friendships or in our attitudes to creativity or politics. It should be part of every evolved human’s mission to seek to understand and unpick the neurotic elements of their own personalities. The enquiry ‘And how are you neurotic?’ should not be taken as an insult, but rather a sensible and kindly request for more information on our particular share of humanity’s warps.

2. The origins of most of our neuroses lie in our childhoods — before we were old enough to deploy adult mechanisms to process events. What causes neuroses are incomprehensible, cruel and intolerable frustrations and pains that we can collectively refer to as traumas. A trauma may be as immediately shocking as a rape or as seemingly innocuous as years of continuous petty criticism or emotional neglect; something qualifies as a trauma because of an unmasterable dimension, the child is not able to make sense of the agony it faces — and so suffers a grievous blow to its sense of self and command of trust, intelligence and love.

3. Every parental inadequacy tends to give rise to a neurosis. Where there is an over controlling parent, there will be a child with problems around autonomy. Where there is a belittling parent, there will be a child with difficulties of confidence and self-esteem. Where there is sexual rivalry or seductiveness, there will be issues of guilt or shame. Every character defect on the side of the parent necessarily imposes a toll on a child. 

4. There is no such thing as an un-neurotic parent. Rather than deny that they could have done anything ‘wrong’, all parents must simply put up their hands gracefully, perhaps humorously too, and then assist their child in figuring out the particular difficulties they will have bequeathed to them. 

5. Trauma leads to repression which over time inspires the formation of neurotic symptoms. Neuroses that have not been understood continue into perpetuity: time never weakens them. 

6. Healing comes through self-awareness. To improve, we need to dynamite the concrete of repression and recover contact with the original trauma. And in order to do that, we need to accept — before anything else — that doing so would be a good idea. We have to agree that self-knowledge will be what can save us. 

7. It won’t be enough to know the past, we will need to feel it too. We may have a workable sense of the central details of our childhoods, but an intellectual grasp won’t be enough. We need to viscerally re-experience (rather than merely intellectually know) the past so as to free ourselves from its hold. Our neuroses will weaken or dissolve once the traumas that fire them are finally known — and, even more importantly, felt.

That is the challenge — and the promise — of psychotherapy.

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