As a young NYU student majoring in psychology, I fell victim to a particular misconception about my dream profession, psychotherapy.
The most challenging part was that I unknowingly chose a psychotherapist who reinforced this misconception.
So what am I talking about?
The misconception is that it’s enough to gain insight and understanding by revisiting the past and finding meaning via our origin stories, which are rooted in childhood. In other words, understanding our psyche’s journey from childhood to the present is enough to heal from overwhelming experiences, to recover from trauma, and ultimately to change the story for a better future.
I discovered through my training and research that most traditional psychologists, clients, and non-clients (who may or may not be interested in psychotherapy) hold this same mistaken belief.
Let me explain.
My first psychotherapist and I had meaningful, impactful discussions that were useful in connecting the dots between the past and the present. There’s no doubt in my mind that I was able to gain insight and understanding about my experiences.
I will be forever grateful to her because, more than anything, I was able to experience safety and intimacy through the process of sharing my deepest vulnerabilities with a caring, responsive therapist for the first time.
However, I’m more grateful today because I can look back and know from the point of view of both client and therapist the tremendous limitations of this type of approach.
As a client, I realized that knowing my origin story did not make me feel any more safe, alive, or connected to myself or others. It did not make me feel any less stress, anxiety, or depression. If anything, I felt even more frustration, helplessness, and shame because although I was consciously aware of the past cycles I was repeating I still could not break free from them in the present!
As a therapist, I realized that the underlying assumptions of this traditional approach do not align with the latest neuroscience research.
I’ve learned through my training and my greatest teachers, my clients, that being in session while neuroscience research on the mind, brain, and body is left outside of the room is like being operated on with tools from the Middle Ages.
My therapist, like many traditional psychologists, was not well-informed in neuroscience research that shows insight and understanding are not enough to recover the self, aliveness, connection, and lasting change in the present.
As humans, we love stories with a beginning, middle, and end.
The misconception assumes that creating stories with meaning about one’s own experience is necessary to create lasting change and healing. But this process is not enough to change automatic physical reactions and hormonal responses that keep us in a hyperaroused, hypervigilant state ready to act on potential threats to our physical and emotional well-being. This is also known as the innermost, visceral experience of stress.
Most of the time my clients come into my office with a cover story meant for public consumption.
It is a version of an origin story whose author is their rational brain. This cover story has a beginning, middle, and end but it’s largely disconnected from their deeper present experience of themselves and their relationships.
For example, they may have a conceptualization of the problem: (1) when, where, and why it began (beginning), (2) how it’s affected them (middle), and (3) what they would like to change to put an end to this suffering (end).
Their insight and understanding is usually very rational and impressive. However, the storytelling is done in a mechanical, disconnected, and dissociated manner. They share the story with no feelings or with feelings that directly contradict the emotional charge of the content they’re sharing.
In other words, their insight and understanding is not enough to be in their bodies in the here-and-now and to experience awareness of their innermost sensations of their physical reality, their sense of self.
Underneath this cover story lies a spoken or unspoken wish to avoid reliving the past and confronting the emotional baggage that was developed as a result of an overwhelming event or prolonged experience, a toxic relationship, and/or painful loss. I assure them that revisiting the past is not necessary.
I don’t need to know details about the past because the past is still very much alive in the present.
Trauma has a way of altering the nervous system and imprinting the past onto the mind, brain, and body in the present.
This is the case even when my clients are not consciously remembering.
After trauma, the human organism is reorganized in a new way.
Here are only a few examples:
Parts of the brain meant to organize experience into a logical, cause-and-effect sequence go offline.
Parts of the brain that are meant to put feelings into words are deactivated.
Parts of the brain that are meant to maintain awareness that they are re-experiencing or reenacting the past are not properly functioning.
The body is bathed with elevated stress hormones that are still present long after the overwhelming experience has taken place.
After returning to baseline levels of stress hormones, the emotional brain quickly overreacts and disproportionately responds to stressful stimuli, sending signals to tense muscles for fight or flight or to immobilize and collapse in order to freeze.
The mind, brain, and body are already in a constant state of reliving the past.
In this state, it’s very difficult to gain insight or understanding, especially when the pathway to insight and understanding takes place via the parts of the brain that are deactivated.
In fact, most psychological problems are not the result of a lack of understanding. They are the result of living in a mind, brain, and body that is frozen in the past.
Neuroscience research now shows that it is far more likely that altered deeper regions of the brain that drive perception and attention underlie psychological problems.
As a result, what’s most important in healing is not knowing and sharing the details of the origin story but using perception and attention in the here-and-now to build the trust and security necessary to bear the emotional weight of the past’s imprints, which are very much alive in your mind, brain, and body today. With practice and proper holding and guidance, you can learn to tolerate and withstand what you feel and know in the present moment.
In a way, this is the telling of a different kind of story.
It's a story whose language is grounded in awareness of an ongoing process that’s constantly unfolding in the present. It is a complicated and multi-layered story that taps into:
how you perceive and attend to your innermost sensations
how you respond to your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors
how you contain your physical reality and sense of self
how your present symptoms help you survive being “stuck” in a stressed, hypervigilant mind, brain, and body
how you experience or don’t experience intimacy with others
how you use or don’t use your imagination and mental flexibility to envision a future
Notice that it’s not so much a story of WHY.
It is the story of HOW.
Once these layers of "hows" are experienced in a safe environment and secure therapeutic relationship, a sense of self, aliveness, and connection can be established in the present.
The mind, brain, and body are released from the burdens of reliving the past because the present is differentiated from the past.
Your nervous system can acknowledge that you are now safe and you can begin to tolerate and withstand being in your own mind and in your own body.
Imagination and hope can be utilized to break free from the stuck-ness of trauma and create new visions for the future.
Healthy intimacy is established because you can stay in your mind and body and, from this place of self-embodiment, you can not only bear but also relate to and connect with someone else’s needs and desires.
There is a world of a difference between just surviving the past versus feeling alive in the present.
Gaining insight and understanding is enough to survive the past but not enough to feel alive today. We need to embrace the mind, brain, and body and what we now know from neuroscience research on how to reclaim aliveness and connection in the present.
Fortunately, you don’t have to make the same mistake I did when I first started my psychotherapy journey as a client. If you’re ready to start psychotherapy, make sure you find someone that you can trust to be well-informed in neuroscience research and its clinical applications.
You don’t want knowledge on the inner workings of your mind, brain, and body to be left out of the session, especially when traditional approaches are still so prevalent.
If you’d like to get started today and see what all this talk is about, I’m currently accepting new clients online or in-person. You can go ahead and book a free initial consultation (again, online or in-person) to learn more and explore if this approach is a good fit for you and your therapeutic goals.
If you’d like to book a free initial consultation, you can reach me here.
Comment below! I would love to hear your thoughts on the most common misconception about psychotherapy. How do you feel about revisiting the past and gaining understanding from your origin story when it comes to healing in the present? Can you relate to my story of insight not being enough to break free from old cycles? What would you like to know more about in terms of neuroscience research and recovering from overwhelming experiences or trauma?
Thank you, as always, for being here and sharing your voice, thoughts, questions and support.
If anyone you know — family, friends, students, daughters, sons or anyone else struggles with recovering a sense of self, aliveness, and connection as a result of trauma, please share this blog post. It could be a game-changer for both their physical and mental health.