4 Ways For You To Think Like A Therapist

4 Ways For You To Think Like A Therapist

It’s not that difficult to think like a therapist.  A lot of it is just common sense.  It’s not about knowing who is right or wrong, it’s about applying critical thinking to situations, having a good understanding of contextual information, knowing the role of empathy, staying current and relatable and being naturally curious.  The art of doing psychotherapy, on the other hand, requires a lot of skill but thinking like a therapist can make a big difference right now in how you manage your problems.

1: The Power of Patterns:

Patterns predate situations and form trigger points that cause us to react in certain ways.  They exert more influence over situations than people think.  For instance, Bob had an authoritarian father who constantly told him what to do.  As he matured a behavior pattern emerged where he resisted being controlled by anyone or anything in his life.  Years later, Bob found himself not having enough money to pay his monthly bills.  Upon deeper exploration it was revealed, not surprisingly, that Bob didn’t like being controlled by a budget.  In this regard, the pattern informed the situation and what looked like a budgeting problem on the surface was actually a problem of handling the restriction of a budget on a deeper level.  The pattern of resisting any form of control was now controlling whether or not Bob paid his bills.  If a therapist just focuses on the situation the deeper impulses and implications of the pattern are lost, yet to wait to resolve the deeper patterns of authoritarian control may cause Bob to go bankrupt.  To think like a therapist it’s important to see the power or patterns and how they impact our ability to make rational decisions as we deal with life’s challenges.

2: It’s Not Either/Or, It’s Both! 

Knowing how unconscious patterns inform behavior is a key consideration in understanding the overall context of human behavior and interaction, but it isn’t the only way to think like a therapist.  Since surface behavior and deeper patterns of behavior are interconnected, when we effect a change on one level we also effect a change on the other level.  A good therapeutic tip is to forgo either/or thinking and take into consideration that both the obvious and the complicated, the situation and the pattern, are all interconnected aspects of human interaction.

Jenny, for example, is a 56 year old woman who was stunned when she realized that she spent her entire life trying to take care of men who could not take care of themselves.  Her insight was that she was filling a void left by an absentee father who was never there to take care of her.  Aha! moments like these are always followed by, “that was so obvious, I can’t believe I didn’t see it sooner.”  Her friends, on the other hand, wondered what took her so long.  We tend to skip over obvious insights for deeper explanations, unconscious motivations, and more complicated solutions.  Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt Therapy, called it the psychology of the obvious, noting there is an obvious interrelationship between the surface structure and the deep structure of human behavior and that by skipping over these obvious relationships we relegate ourselves to either/or thinking.  Jenny can change her relationship to men by learning how to let them take care of themselves or by getting in touch with the deeper emotional void she is trying to fill by chronically taking care of them herself.  Whichever level she chooses to focus on will effect a change in the other level since they are both interconnected.

3: Educate yourself.

The third way to think like a therapist is to know your subject.  Therapists are extremely well educated.  We are trained to know more about specific subjects than most other people and have every day work experience applying, modifying and adding to what we already know.  As in medicine, we can never be as informed as a doctor but once we are diagnosed with a disease we become experts at researching and understanding what we are suffering from.  The same level of investigation should be put into any symptom you have that you’re seeking counseling to help alleviate.  A therapist cannot do it alone; it’s a collaborative process that also involves the clients input and insights.  In the example of Bob, he could have read dozens of books on finance, self-control and budgeting if he wanted to attack the issue on the surface level, especially given there were not extenuating circumstances like job loss, health or divorce.  Jenny equally could have read countless books on family of origin influences on marital choices, including those on the attraction force, fulfilling unmet needs, and looking for security to better educate herself about her choice in men.  Without reading, researching and seeking information from others we limit our ability to understand ourselves and move beyond our restrictions.

4: Balance.

Balance is that elusive ingredient we’re all chasing.  We constantly try to balance work life and home life, self-interests and family interests, emotions and intellect, exercise and rest, indulgence and moderation, earning and spending, and self-discipline and desire.  I call it the “homeostatic seesaw” as we try to maintain our equilibrium while the teeter totter constantly sways up and down.  Sometimes we capture balance for a day or week and then find our momentum moving us away from the center point.  We’ve all had the experience of trying to stay calm, keeping a positive outlook, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle.  If a therapist does nothing more than to achieve some semblance of balance in a person’s life then therapy is a great success.   If nothing else, to think like a therapist you must think in terms of balance.

Clearly, this is a very short list of things designed to help you think like a therapist, but it’s a good start.  By looking at patterns and behaviors, understanding yourself and your symptoms and striving for balance in your life you can begin to appreciate how a therapist thinks about psychotherapy.

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2 Comments
  1. Barb Sherman says:

    Hi Larry,
    Just because i am a therapist, doesn’t mean i can’t personally benefit from your concise insights about how to think like one! Seriously, a number of the specific challenges you describe in the “homeostatic seesaw” resonate profoundly with my own ups and downs. Thanks as always for your wisdom.

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