The Potential Usefulness of Psychotherapy

by Dwayne E. Smith, Ph.D.

It has been a little more than a hundred years that professionals in medicine, psychology, and related fields have been practicing this thing we call psychotherapy. When I was in my twenties, and was in college, and later graduate school, I began to develop the idea that doing counseling or psychotherapy, two terms I use interchangeably, might be interesting and meaningful. I was even hopeful it might be useful to those with whom I worked (my future clients). Now that I am thirty years into the practice of psychotherapy I am convinced that counseling/psychotherapy has substantially more potential to be honestly helpful to people than I had earlier hoped. I believe that psychotherapy frequently proves useful to those who invest their time and resources into the endeavor and that it sometimes offers great assistance. So what is it about the process of psychotherapy that has the potential for being helpful? There are, of course, many potential answers to this question. In the following I endeavor to offer a few.

I doubt that I will lose too many readers by making the statement that everyone has problems. Life is not simple and sometimes the decisions we make, or the actions we take, no matter how honorable our intentions, lead to unexpected and often complicated results—problems. My first point is that problems occur in patterns. This may seem very basic as to almost say nothing. However, the reality that problems occur in patterns means that if a person speaks with a concerned professional who is trained to identify and understand problem patterns, it allows for the person with the problem to receive feedback from the professional as to the pattern that s/he perceives. Such feedback can prove quite useful in part because with problem patterns, if you change the pattern even in a small way, it is frequently possible to significantly change the problem. Such feedback can also prove useful because of my next point.

Humans play a role in the creation of the reality in which they live out their lives, and the way an individual perceives or views his or her reality is very important. Why would I speak of reality in such a flexible manner? Precisely because I believe, as I just stated, that we all play a role in the creation of our own reality in which we live—through our definitions, our meanings, our values, and our interpretations and judgment calls. For example, I grew up in and around Wichita, Kansas, an area known for tornadoes and big time thunderstorms and I have lived through many powerful thunderstorms. I have heard many people through the years speak of how frightening they find such experiences, and a number of years ago I remember treating an individual who displayed a phobic reaction to thunderstorms. Yet my reaction to thunderstorms is very different from what might be expected and from what many people report. My reaction is that powerful thunderstorms are one of the most terrific experiences on the planet. As a child, severe thunderstorms were for me a time of excitement and family togetherness. When the tornado sirens blared, the members of my family would rush to the basement and turn on the radio and we all “knew” mom and dad would take care of us. The same experiences that cause fear and panic for others, cause excitement and passion and even relaxation for me, primarily because of my historic associations with thunderstorms and my interpretations about the reality that I perceive about what I am experiencing at such times. Is my reality wrong? I would argue no. Is the reality of the phobic person incorrect? S/he has good reasons to react in a fearful manner to such powerful and sometimes dangerous forces. The way we view reality is very, very important. Psychotherapy can be very useful because it provides an opportunity to make some changes in the way we are viewing some of the important events or experiences in our daily living.

Another point that seems relevant for this brief article has to do with the sense of self. The sense of self, in my opinion, is the most important construct in the practice of psychotherapy, and psychotherapy is useful largely because it can assist an individual in developing her/his sense of self in more reasonable, useful and appropriate manners. The sense of self has to do with all of your beliefs about who you are and your personal worth. I mentioned earlier that problems occur in patterns. Many people get into patterns of thinking of themselves that are much less than helpful—for instance, very self critical patterns. In our culture, it is my observation that most of us are taught when we are young that we should not be overly defensive toward authority figures such as parents, teachers, etc. An example might be a daughter who hears from her mother, “Don't you be defensive, young woman. I told you that your attitude with your father was out of line and I need for you to listen to me.” In my view, such feedback from parents and others can be important and useful. However, it has been my experience that within our culture we frequently do not emphasize to young people growing up that there is another side to truth as well. That there are also times when it is quite appropriate to be defensive of oneself and one's viewpoints. I think it is not often enough that a parent pauses in the midst of an intense discussion with a young person about a problem and says—“I don't like some of the things you have just said to me, but I also detect that you are being pretty hard on yourself right now. You might want to reconsider just how harshly you are judging yourself about this matter and your behavior at this time.”

The issue of defensiveness that I am referencing is best understood from a perspective of balance. If you are overly defended, you can create turmoil in your close relationships and cannot then benefit enough from the feedback of concerned others. This is because others find they cannot easily speak honestly with you; that they have to walk on eggshells when speaking to you. However, if you are under defended, you can live with an unhealthy amount of self criticism. If you live with a great deal of internal self criticism, it is easy to create an internal world in which you become your own worst enemy. In the words of Pogo—“We have met the enemy, and he is us!”

Psychotherapy presents an opportunity for an individual to look at some of the internal interpretations and thought processes that make up the sense of self—and it can become an invitation to think of things a little differently. And, thinking of such important things even a little differently can prove very important and helpful. I invite you to consider using psychotherapy, with the provider of your choice, to provide opportunities to interrupt some of the unhelpful patterns in your life, and also to think of the self (your sense of self) a little differently, thereby changing your reality (your view of the world) and thus changing your life.

*If you would like to respond to Dr. Smith about this article, you can contact him at: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

**This article listed on 8/13/2015

Compassion in a Time of Need

by Dwayne E Smith, Ph.D.

I like good stories and I heard this one from a business person in my community recently. This individual is I presume in her forties, and comes from a large ethnic family from one of the urban areas in our state. She told me of what must have been one of the most difficult days for her family when she was growing up. It was the day that her mother told her father she wanted a divorce.

From what I understand, she grew up in a family like many large families—lots of needs but never quite enough money to go around. Life was quite the grind for both of her parents. Her mother got to a point in her life that she was simply unhappy. Life was hard, and was not getting easier, and she decided she was not all that happy with her husband and his role in the family. In golfing terms, she decided she needed a “Mulligan.” Thus, she made the decision that she wanted the marriage to end, and she met with an attorney, and arranged to have the Sheriff deliver the divorce papers to the home.

When the Sheriff arrived with the divorce papers that day, this action caught her father very much unaware. This is something that he simply was not expecting. When the Sheriff arrived, dad was in the bathroom shaving. He retrieved the papers at the front door, and returned to the bathroom. Mom was wanting dad to leave. Dad was very upset and was not coming out of the bathroom. The kids were crying. It was a very difficult and challenging moment in the life of the family...The next move came from Grandfather—mother's father.

In terms of background, the story that day actually began with my acquaintance talking about her grandfather. He lived near her family and they saw him frequently. He was an integral part of their family life—someone on whom they could always depend. There were nine children in her family. Each month, grandfather would take one of the nine grandchildren to the store and would purchase new shoes for that young person. Thus, each of the children would get a new pair of shoes each year. Sometimes, the young person would also get a shirt as well, or a pair of shorts—not insignificant items for someone from a large family with very little money. Grandfather was the Rock of Gibraltar for this family.

Grandfather must have received a call from someone in the family that trouble was brewing. Mother (his daughter) had surprised father (his son in law) by telling him things were done and she wanted him to leave. Father was very upset, was in the bathroom, and was not coming out. Grandfather soon arrived and did not take long to act. He said to his son in law through the bathroom door, “Come on, Gibby, now you come and stay with me.”

This man, who over the years had already done so much for the family, and who had no responsibility to care for the man his daughter was asking to leave, had compassion on his son in law, and told him that he was welcome in his home. He had another place where he could belong at this very difficult and vulnerable moment.

My friend said that in the end her father decided to stay elsewhere. He spent a few days at the local YMCA, and then went to the home of another family member. Mom was able to get the divorce she felt she needed. Dad understood that he had options. The family moved forward.

I was touched by this story, and later communicated further with this individual about this life experience, the impact it had on her family, and its impact on her. She said she didn't realize it at the time, but she believes it was this period of time when her essential character was truly developed—during what she described as a “rough time. “ She explained that eventually her father returned home, and her mother left. She was the middle child in the family and she and dad took over the household duties—cooking, cleaning, laundry, shopping, etc. She said she had to grow up fast, and learned from her father that you don't walk out when times get rough. You stick by your family and persevere.

As I heard the story, I was impressed by the act of kindness from her grandfather. What an act of compassion in a time of need. What insight into that which was most needed at this time of crisis. When an unsuspecting person learns from his/her spouse that the s/he is no longer loved, the marriage is over, and it is time to be done, this can be emotionally devastating. Though the spouse who has made such a decision to break up the marriage may not have an intention to cause emotional harm, moments such as these can put people in very dark places. Her grandfather in my view did an amazing thing that day. I can understand why she shared with me her story.

Having worked with people in psychotherapy and family therapy for the past 30 years I have learned to listen for stories of exceptions. When I speak of exceptions, I mean stories where people do creative or dramatic things in situations where creativity is very much needed but would not normally be expected. I think what her grandfather did on that day of family crisis was genuinely exceptional.

*If you would like to respond to Dr. Smith about this article, you can contact him at: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it .

**This article listed on 11/05/2015