One of my clients tells me that I should have a neon sign on the wall behind me that reads, “It takes time.” She says I could simply flip a switch and turn it on instead of saying those words myself, which I obviously do quite a lot … for example, when someone asks me, “How do I learn to deal with these feelings in a better way, then?” It takes time. Any kind of meaningful growth takes a long time. I don’t think I’ve ever had a client who liked this answer, but most of them come to accept it.
I have a friend, an accomplished tennis pro, who once told me that in order to become a highly skilled tennis player, it might take ten years of lessons. He didn’t see anything unusual or objectionable about that. In order to become highly skilled at anything, you have to work hard at it for a long time. I spent four years as an undergraduate and six years in graduate school. After earning a B.S., a would-be surgeon then spends four years in medical school, followed by a long internship and residency, in order to qualify. You’ve probably heard about the 10,000 hour rule: it takes that many hours of practice to become expert at something.
In my experience, it also takes many years in psychotherapy to learn a whole new set of emotional skills — ones that are usually acquired under the guidance of your parents throughout childhoood — and to become “expert” at them. I don’t view therapy as re-parenting per se, but surely a big part of the goal is to make up for one’s deficient “learning experience” as a child. Reasonably good parents take 16 or so years to teach you what you need to know in order to get by in life; why do we expect therapists to do their repair job in six months or less? The short answer, of course, is that it can be expensive and insurance companies won’t pay.
It’s appealing to believe a drug could rectify a chemical imbalance, or that CBT could teach us skills that would make up for the lack of emotional capacity we should have developed under the guidance of our parents. Those interventions have their value, and many people find them sufficient. For people who would like to enlarge their understanding of themselves (and other people) while developing new emotional capacities and skills, there’s long-term psychotherapy … many years and a lot of money. Nobody thinks it unusual to spend eight years and tens of thousands of dollars to earn an advanced degree, working extra jobs and sacrificing other sources of gratification to get there. Why do people object to making a similar investment in oneself and the chance to lead a fuller, more satisfying emotional life? The years and money I spent on my personal analysis were the best investment I ever made. How do you put a price tag on the quality of your life?
The fact that psychotherapy takes a long time doesn’t mean there are no rewards or benefits along the way; the “payoff” isn’t deferred until the very end but comes at different stages along the way. Often the rewards take us by surprise; we tend not to see gradual change as it’s occuring; instead, something happens which makes it seem as if we have suddenly changed, all at once. As I often do in these matters, I find the experience of learning to play the piano a useful analogy.
I practice every day; in addition to the pieces I’m learning, I do scales, arpeggios and cadences, as well as technical exercises. For long periods, I will seem to be plugging along without making a lot of progress but I keep working. Then “suddenly” (it seems to me) I will take a big leap forward. Sometimes, it feels almost like magic. I recently took such a big step forward; I feel as if “all of a sudden” I have much more technical mastery in my fingers, more control over my tone, enough speed and agility to play my current Beethoven sonata without massacreing it. The way I describe the experience, I feel “happiness in my hands.” I’ve worked very hard and now I’m able to enjoy this sense of well-being and accomplishment.
Yesterday in session, my client Anita (who sings in a chorus) was telling me about her solo at their latest performance. In recent rehearsals, Anita hasn’t felt good about her singing; she hasn’t been able to feel fully present for the experience. At the concert, by contrast, she settled into herself; as she sang, she felt the resonance of her voice within her body and was able to hear her own sound clearly without being distracted by the other singers around her, as had happened to her before. That physical resonance felt very good to her (it reminded me of my “happy hands”). On a related matter, she also stood up for herself with the choral director; he responded respectfully to Anita’s complaint and she felt good about how she’d handled it, in contrast to other interactions where she felt she’d been a “diva”.
Anita later went on to tell me about a disagreement she’d had with a friend, one whose point of view normally over-powered her own so that she would come to doubt herself and submit to her’s friend’s perspective. On this occasion, however, she felt able to maintain her own point of view and to challenge her friend in a non-hostile way. The friend heard her and ultimately came around to seeing the matter Anita’s way. Throughout this session, Anita clearly felt a strong sense of satisfaction and well-being — the reward for all the “practice” she has been doing.
This client has been working with me for years; she works very hard and especially of late, has been making particular efforts to take the lessons of her therapy and put them to use in her everyday life. For the past few months, she’s been struggling without a clear sense of moving forward, often with a feeling of discouragement instead. This past week, all of a sudden (it would seem), she could see the results of her hard work: a clearer sense of her own strengths, a greater ability to maintain that sense of self in the presence of others. Anita’s therapy isn’t over. We’re not finished yet, but along the way, there have been and will continue to be these gratifying moments when the progress is clear.
As for that 10,000 hour rule, it’s hard to calculate how many hours Anita has put in, both within and outside of therapy, practicing the lessons she has learned. Still a distance to go. Earlier today, I tried to calculate how many hours I’ve put in at the piano under the guidance of different teachers over the years. About 6,000 hours, I figure. Another 4,000 to go — six more years at the current rate of practice. Maybe I’ll be an “expert” player one day. In the meantime, I have this gratification that comes from application and hard work; I have a sense of achievement in playing Opus 10, No. 2 reasonably well, even if I will never have the skill of Alfred Brendel, that master interpreter of Beethoven.