What do you have stored in the back of your closet, the corner of the attic or the remote room in the basement? If you imagine venturing into these dark recesses, what do you begin to feel? Dread? Excitement? Both? Maybe you’ll find some gold coins given to you by a favorite uncle, or precious Valentine’s cards made by the kids. Maybe there will be an old folder of tax papers that you never filed, or photos of an old lover who broke your heart.

Consciously, you might have no awareness of what you’ll stumble across. Maybe you forgot, or maybe you never knew what was there. But unconsciously, you might have a sense of what’s there and this might inform how you feel about the process of exploring and unpacking.

I can see clearly now

Insight-oriented therapy works in a similar way. Here we explore and uncover not the material things we’re living with in our homes, but the psychological and emotional things we’re living with in our psyches and hearts. In therapy, we can discover what we’re doing, how we’re doing it and why we’re doing it. We might learn that in social situations, we tend to push people away by habitually being critical and judgmental as a way of protecting ourselves from rejection by essentially rejecting others first. This would be a powerful insight. Before therapy, we were doing all of this unconsciously; we just didn’t see it.

Gaining insight, we begin to see our behavioral patterns, ways we relate to others and ourselves. We become acquainted with our previously unconscious impulses, motivations, defenses, desires and fears. This awakening to our selves does not come without a price. Sometimes, there is a phase in therapy, just after gaining insight, which is quite uncomfortable. This is when we see, more clearly than ever, or perhaps for the first time, how we are contributing to a problematic behavior pattern and we don’t yet know what to do about it. 

Catch 22

“I was only trying to help you by trying to solve all these problems for you! Now I get it that you’ve always resented it because you felt like I wasn’t listening to your feelings and this added to the distance between us! Now I don’t know what to do because ever since I was a kid, fixing things for people I love has been the only way I knew how to feel good about myself!” 

At this phase, the key is to try to relax with the discomfort of the conundrum and have faith in the process. A transformation is happening. We need to see what was hidden in the dark in order to begin to work on it. Learn how to notice your previously unconscious impulses, motivations, defenses, desires and fears without panicking or judging them or yourself.

The cost-benefit ratio

Life before insight has the benefits of a certain innocence and perceived freedom from responsibility to change. “I can’t help it. That’s just the way I am.” But the disadvantages are that we keep doing the same things over and over and living with frustration and confusion over our unhappiness. 

The downsides of life post-insight are that we often do go through the shock of seeing the naked truth of our inner workings and we also have a new burden of responsibility to decide if we want to change the way we live. But on the upside, insight into why we behave the way we do presents us with options we did not see before. Now, we realize we have the option to work on being less critical of others, or to listen more and fix less in relationships, or any of the other strategies we use to protect ourselves and get our needs met. Insight alone does not make the changes for us, but it affords us the opportunity to choose which changes to work on and to create a new way of living.

Art Frenz, Ph.D.

Photo by Junior Ferreira on Unsplash