John's Blog

The Blog of John Gibson, PhD

What Therapy Really Is

A therapist cannot change you. He can listen to your deepest concerns; clarify your wishes and wants; help you understand your emotions; challenge your thinking; be objective about your situation; invite exploration; support good efforts; coax you to try, just try; nudge you to stand up for yourself; confront your inconsistencies and irrationalities (gently); ask hard questions; appreciate your strengths; applaud your successes; provide information; teach new skills; worry about you; make direct suggestions; help you understand how dysfunctional beliefs are not serving you; and welcome your presence. But he cannot change you.

Only you can do that.

If you change, it’s because you took action. Maybe a small step here and there, a shift thinking or behavior, a risk, a new pattern. If you change it’s because you experimented with the idea of doing things differently. Maybe instead of fighting your truest, deepest nature, you made peace with it (and yourself). Maybe you treated yourself with love instead of criticism. Maybe you came to believe you were enough, just as you are.

If you change, it’s because you made it happen. You were willing to experience the discomfort that comes with resisting old habits and building news ones.

If you change, it’s because you made it happen, not your therapist.

Spiritual Issues

We all need a sense of meaning, direction, and purpose in our lives. This is what I mean by “spiritual issues.”

Take, for instance, the so-called “mid-life” crisis. What is this if it’s not a crisis of meaning? Questions that were once thought to be settled –- Who am I? What do I stand for? Where I am going? Why am I going? –- come flooding back. When that happens, the result is usually instability. Life keeps moving forward, but for a time, we try to make it go sideways.

(By the way, the mid-life crisis was once thought to universal. But researchers now believe this is no longer the case. Some people sail through mid-life without any stormy weather.)

Or what about the person who struggles to find a true vocation, a “right livelihood” as the buddhists might say. Good work –- meaningful work –- gives a sense of purpose. A job is one thing, but a job that employs our unique talents and strengths is a source of fulfillment, a reason to get up every day. It just feels “right.” But what if you fail to discover your vocation? Where do you fit in the world?

There are probably many different kinds of spiritual issues, but what they all have in common is a concern with the big questions in life. But when these questions go unanswered, or when the old answers have worn out, it’s not uncommon for people to feel distressed.

Therapy can help. Many people mistakenly believe that therapy is only for clinical problems like depression or anxiety or post-traumatic stress. But therapy can actually be quite helpful to the person who is struggling with spiritual issues. Therapy is about creating a narrative of your life, and it’s about finding or rediscovering your soul. In fact, these are the very things that therapy does best.

Looking for a Change? What's holding you back?

Maybe you want to feel better or do better or make some personal habit change. Maybe you’re fed with the emotional or behavioral status quo, whatever it is, and you tell yourself you want to change, but something -- something almost as powerful as a magnetic force -- pulls you back. What is that something?

Could be any number of things. Here are some possible candidates.

• Awareness
• Motivation
• Willingness to tolerate anxiety or discomfort
• Know-how
• Support from others
• Willingness to exert effort

Awareness. Obviously, changing anything about yourself starts with awareness. First you must be aware that you have a problem. Of course, it’s not awareness that holds you back so much the things that block awareness: minimization, rationalization, blaming others, and denial. These things are like veils that keep you from seeing the true consequences of the problem or issue. First step: lift the veil. See reality clearly.

Motivation. Recognizing that something is a problem doesn’t necessarily mean you’re motivated to do anything about it. Indeed, many people wait until the consequences of having the problem outweigh the discomfort of facing it before they embark on change. But it doesn’t have to be this way. You can make a list of the consequences to build motivation. And you can make a list of the benefits of change.

Willingness to tolerate anxiety or discomfort. Almost of any change generates anxiety or discomfort as you move out of your comfort zone and experiment with new thinking and action. Human beings are nothing if not self-consistent. Stepping out of old grooves, even grooves that are ultimately not in your best interests, will trip the alarm in your psychological system. Anxiety or discomfort is an uncomfortable state. To make it go away, you revert back to old patterns. But this is a trick. This is what keeps your stuck. If you’re serious about change, you must be willing to bear a bit of discomfort.

Know-how. Knowing how-to lose weight is not the same as knowing how-to get undepressed or how-to conquer agoraphobia. Problems vary and solutions vary. Do your homework. Study the strategies that others have used to solve your particular problem. Don’t re-invent the wheel if you don’t have to.

Support from others. Change is something you can do alone, but it’s probably easier when you have someone in your camp who is willing to root for you. Someone who knows not only what you’re doing, but why you’re doing it. Someone who cares enough about you to pick you up when you stumble. Never underestimate the value of supportive relationships. Conversely, be wary of those individuals who have something to gain if you fail. (e.g., domestic violence).

Willingness to exert effort. If only the infomercials were correct: that there really was such a thing as effortless change. But real change -- change that endures -- requires hard work. You must focus on the problem, think about it, feel the discomfort associated with it, come up with strategies or solutions, and start anew when lapses occur, as they most certainly will. If a problem is really a problem, you must be willing to throw some effort at it to make it different. Maybe that means reading books, tracking progress, attending therapy sessions, or just keeping the problem front and center for a while. No one will do for it; indeed, no one can.


If you are trying to change, don’t be discouraged by lapse, relapse, or resistance. To the contrary, expect these things. They’re simply part of the process.

If you are trying to change, know that change is seldom linear. It’s two steps forwards, one step back (or maybe sideways). Learn to look at the trend, not the moment.

If you are trying to change, celebrate your victories. We never outgrow our need for praise. Being an adult, however, means that sometimes we must provide it for ourselves.

If you are trying to change, but you are not there yet, give yourself the gift of self-compassion. There is little be gained by treating yourself badly when you aim at a target and miss. The rule of change is always about successive approximations, not absolutes.

For so many problems, the secret to real change is not in the strategies but in the persistence. You must try and then try some more. Persistence, along with the belief that you can change, wins the day.

Behavior change (part I)

Often, when people want to resolve a personal problem, they ask me how to go about making a change. Unfortunately, the answer to the question may vary with the problem, the person, and the circumstances.

And yet, here’s one tactic you might try: as your first step, make a list of all the ways the problem is costing you. This doesn’t mean you’ve committed to change yet, it may only mean you’re getting ready.

Example: Let’s say you want to lose weight. (And who, in our culture, doesn’t?)

What’s the “price-tag” of this problem?

1. You find yourself squeezing into your jeans. Uncomfortable.
2. You find yourself worrying about your health. (Blood pressure, anyone?)
3. You find yourself spending too much money on food.
4. You worry about whether your partner or spouse finds you attractive.
5. You’re more easily winded going up stairs.
6. You don’t sleep as well.
7. ( get the picture. )

Why do this? Simple. Making a list of what the problem costs builds motivation.

Even if you’re not ready to make that change, this is a great way to start. In fact, while you’re working up your courage, review your list every day for a while.