bulls eye

Psychotherapy: What is the Goal of Therapy?

Good psychotherapy is not about offering solutions to people’s problems. It is about helping people understand what their problem really is… 

Meet Joe…

Joe is depressed. His wife just declared that she is going through with her divorce. Having built his past 20 years around the idea of being her husband, Joe now feels as if he is left with nothing. His entire psychological existence feels empty, and it is hard to face this brave new world of bachelorhood without a sense of hopelessness and despair. Can he ever re-find the sense of comfort and acceptance he had with his wife? Will he forever be alone? Can he ever reestablish himself in a life with meaning and purpose? Joe finds himself in the midst of an existential crisis, so he does what most people would, he decides to go to therapy…

To Joe the goal is clear: He wants to not feel depressed, to regain passion for life, to want to live another day… In short, he wants to feel better.

With this goal, most therapists would probably agree. Where they won’t agree, however, is how to get him there…

Therapy Goal A: Fixing What is Broken

If Joe were simply broken, there would be a way to fix him. Maybe his thoughts have gotten a little out-of-whack, maybe he has stopped taking good care of his physical health, maybe he is keeping himself from dating because of his unwillingness to mentally let go of his wife. These in fact are all practical problems that could be solved.

And many therapists would be happy to help Joe battle his own insufficiencies by helping him find rational and practical ways to solve these problems…

However, the efficacy of a person’s problem-solving ability always rests on the accurate definition of their problems. If you are trying to solve the wrong problem, no solution will ever really do the trick!

The reason why Joe is not dating is a logical consequence of a problem, which Joe himself has not quite adequately understood. Sure there are good arguments why he should be dating: It will maximize his chances of meeting another partner, and if he meets another partner maybe he will have someone new to fill the void in his life. But if his therapist had not been so busy helping him solve this problem, Joe might have discovered something else beneath it that might be even more valuable…

Therapy Goal B: Getting to the Root of the Problem

What Joe might have discovered is that he is afraid to let go of his wife for a number of reasons that may not seem logical to someone who is not in Joe’s particular shoes. He might have been helped to realize that he is afraid that once he lets go of loving his wife, he will never be able to feel that sense of love again.

This realization is not a problem to be solved, but a problem to be curious about.

Instead of jumping in to solve Joe’s problem, Joe’s new therapist instead helps Joe reflect on why that is.

Well, before he got married, Joe spent most of his life feeling rejected by other people. As a way of coping with the rejection, he became astute at shutting down his own need for affection. He developed a lifestyle where all his emotional connections were rather shallow and where he never truly allowed himself to depend on anyone.

His wife changed all that, but now that she is soon to be gone, Joe is faced with becoming his old lonely self again. His wife leaving him is thus only really the problem in some superficial sense.

Her departure is merely the occasion that reveals a series of others problems, which Joe had not had to face until now: Maybe he was not as emotionally available in the marriage as he could have been? Maybe he is still a hurt and rejected adolescent at his core, and the divorce is re-inflicting an old wound? Maybe his strategy of shutting down his emotions as a means of survival is now exposed as the devil’s bargain?

And this is where Joe’s real therapy begins…

A Better Therapy Solution…

The problem, it turns out, is not really his wife wanting a divorce, or Joe wanting to hold on, but rather Joe needing to come to terms with unresolved issues related to rejection, dependence, fear, and loss.

Had Joe continued with his old therapist, he would never have arrived at this more intimate understanding of the real issues involved. Instead of delving deeper into his problem, Joe would then instead have been implementing solutions to a problem he had not fully understood.

Finding a solution to a problem is easy, finding the right problem to solve is hard…

To discover the real problems is the goal of therapy…

About me: I am Rune Moelbak, a psychologist in Houston, Texas. I aim to provide a more thoughtful kind of therapy that will help people get to the root of their problems…

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