Understanding Isn’t The Only Goal In Therapy
In psychotherapy, there’s an implicit bias toward understanding in a scientific sense. Through therapy, you come to understand some fact or set of facts that is hidden from view. The assumption is often, but not always, that through understanding, you will feel better. Sometimes, in my NYC therapy practice, this is true.
However, there are therapists–myself included–who are loosely called postmodern or narrative therapists that not only advocate a different way to relate to feelings talk, but have come to suspect that even when understanding is present, it too often undeservedly gets the credit. After all, in the process of doing a “figure out what’s wrong” conversation, a good deal of relational curiosity can be present. Perhaps the activity of doing curiosity together in an intimate, thoughtful way is more important than understanding as the ultimate end goal.
Good News! Understanding Is Not Absolute
Even though understanding too often gets the credit for healing, this doesn’t mean it isn’t healing or part of healing. The goal of understanding is wonderful. However, we tend to overemphasize understanding as a presumed endpoint (the point where the understander says, “Ah…I understand”). I don’t think anyone can be understood in an absolute, finite sense.
To me, this is great news. It means there’s always more to understand about yourself and others around you.
Understanding Is An Ongoing, Active Process
Understanding is an activity. The phrase “Do you know them?” is unfortunate since it casts relationships as products of knowing. For me, as an NYC therapist, I think the understanding of understanding needs to be shifted. We can “understand” in a non-Western philosophy sort of way like how you can come to understand someone by going on a walk with them, playing with them or living with them.
As with these examples, the process of seeking understanding and seeking to be understood are active ones. In other words, the object of understanding is changed through the very process of inquiry. What if we understood understanding to mean exploring together without an endpoint? Do we, in such a practice, come to better understand one another? No doubt. But, perhaps that’s less of a function of seeking knowledge than creating something together.
Seeking understanding together is deeply meaningful whether this understanding is between you and your partner, you and a friend, or you and your therapist. Rather than a final understanding, do curious. By doing curious, I mean ask questions as conversational offers rather than for the purpose of finding the answer. Like an offer in improv, questions like “Who are you?” or “How are you?” are invitations to play, usually with language. And, as I’ve written about previously, how we talk and listen matters tremendously.
For example, I frequently give an assignment to couples I see in couples therapy that are stuck in the challenge of talking about something difficult (whether a decision or something upsetting they can’t resolve). I ask them to lie on their backs–head-to-head–looking up (ideally at the sky). In this position, I tell them to talk in a solely curious way: “How come you did that?”, “What made you feel that way?”, “Why do you say this instead of that?” or “When did you start being mad at me about this?” The challenge in this assignment is that you have to suspend the desire to “get to the bottom of things,” which would inevitably shift back to the intractable place you started.
Who are you? What is your experience in the world? Who do you want to be? What hurts? These are all questions that can be asked in a non-knowing sense, meaning without the end goal of achieving a concrete understanding. Instead, through being curious and creating this conversation together, you move closer and closer and closer (as with the limit in calculus).