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Why Healing Takes So Much Time

To an onlooker, one of the strangest aspects of therapy is the sheer length of time it requires. This is especially puzzling because an experienced therapist can typically diagnose the essentials of a person’s troubles in one session. And yet a course of therapy can last two or three years, sometimes five or six, at a rate of one appointment a week. 

As therapy sees it, the chief difficulty is not to identify someone’s problem, it is to help them see, feel and accept it properly. Were the truth to be baldly laid out before most clients, they would leave at once in a mood of incensed fury: we have only limited strength to hear that, for example, our levels of confidence might be connected up with our father’s behaviour towards our sister during the early teenage years or that our anxiety relates to a trauma that occurred before we were three. The trick is to cut up a diagnosis into such small portions that it can start to sound like common sense and be benevolently absorbed over a lengthy timescale. 

Photo by Philip Myrtorp on Unsplash

Therapy knows that trust is essential too if the truth is to be rendered bearable. We have to like our therapist very much, and have experienced them across a range of topics and developed a comprehensive faith in their personality, in order that — when it comes to truly confronting ideas — we can (on a good day) maintain a belief that they are on our side and that they are not simply putting certain thoughts before us in order to cause us pain and bewilderment. 

Likewise, we need a partner to have shown us repeated kindness and forbearance before we’ll listen when they tell us important but confronting things that our best friends never dared to raise with us — not because they were any kinder, but because they didn’t care enough.

Therapy is a school of patience. It changes our notions of plausible time-frames. In a therapeutically-minded relationship, we’re not going to be outraged that after a few weeks with us and two long conversations, our partner still shirks certain responsibilities, still has a wayward notion of punctuality and stilll can’t shed certain sexual inhibitions. These challenges are conceived of as deeply embedded in emotional dynamics that might — quite reasonably — take years to dislodge themselves. With the example of therapy in mind, we will in our own relationships look for tiny signs of progress rather than rapid, radical change around all those behaviours and thoughts that we so wish could vanish at a stroke.

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