It is often said that what is most healing in therapy is the relationship — a real person connecting with another real person. In her revised book, Letters to a Young Therapist, Mary Pipher connects with her readers in a way that is both wise and compassionate.
Pipher, the author of several bestsellers, including the groundbreaking, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, doesn’t glamorize therapy, short-sighted techniques, or even results. Instead, Pipher draws upon her many years of successes and failures to describe therapy in the only way possible: a mix of poignant moments, fleeting clarity, small victories, and unforeseeable losses that are all anchored in tireless persistence and an unwavering faith in the healing capacity of the human spirit.
Written as a series of letters to her favorite intern, Letters to a Young Therapist is divided into four sections — Winter, Spring, Summer, and Fall — that connect everyday experiences such as a sunset, taking a swim, or playing with a grandchild, to universal truths that are not just indispensable for a young therapist, but insightful for anyone seeking a more meaningful and fulfilled life.
Pipher begins by telling us that conversation is arguably one of the most basic of all human behaviors, and while therapy is a way of exploring pain and confusion to produce meaning and hope, the best trick is to have no trick. Instead, memory is both constructed and reconstructed, and it is through an examination of our past that we come to know ourselves more fully. At their core, therapists must be motivated by a deep desire to help others. Piper writes, “Just as respect tends to be mutual, so does contempt. Unless your basic feelings toward most people are positive, therapy is not for you.”
And yet one of the luxuries of our work, Pipher tells us, is that it “sustains idealism.” Because therapists practice understanding the perspectives of others, tolerating the variegated, multifaceted, and uncertain nature of the human condition, they also come to see that, at heart, most people want to be good. However, therapists must also be wary of rudderless and indiscriminate acceptance. Pipher refers to this as “muddled thinking and mealy mouthed affirmations” which obfuscate the real connection that therapy depends on.
As many clients come to therapy because their “subjective truths are twisted in ways that distort their lives,” and therapists must help them replace these with more authentic reality, this often means regarding that just as relationships take time, so too does understanding them. When therapists rush in too quickly with radical advice and grandiose plans, they often overlook the client’s very experience. “Epiphanies,” Pipher writes, “burst forth when it’s quiet and slow.” To help slow down, Pipher recommends turning to Mother Nature.
And when therapists can help clients connect surface complaints to deeper issues, they can often uncover metaphors that describe their lives. But here again, Pipher advises caution: “We can be of great service to (clients) if we can figure out what they most need to hear and then tell them in a way that allows them to listen.” While that may include reframing, challenging, looking through the triple lens of the past, present, and future, and making connections, the most important and underrated virtue a therapist can have is persistence.
Therapists, Pipher reminds us, will encounter a lot of pain, especially if they pay attention to the world around them. Yet, being able to tolerate pain alleviates many things and ultimately allows a person to learn and grow from all experiences. On the other hand, Pipher explains, “Happiness bears almost no relationships to good fortune.” Instead, when people are engaged in the process of pursuing meaningful goals (as oppose to when they reach them), or spending time with friends, they are much happier.
Pipher also advises therapists to develop the ability for self-care. Pipher says, “Have relationships and interests beside your work. Do things that make you laugh and recharge your batteries. Snuggle with a baby, take a cooking class, or join a theater group.”
Yet therapists must also have a tolerance for making, and then correcting, mistakes. Here, Pipher points to the advice of writer Rosellen Brown: “show up, pay attention, and don’t be attached to results.” Pipher also draws many parallels between writers and therapists, such a exposing the unexposed, asking their subjects to react emotionally, using their experiences in their work, and lives lived intensely and fully. In helping clients create new stories, therapists may encounter many things: resistance, (which she tells us not to face head on), best case scenarios that seldom happen, mistakes we would rather have avoided, and systems of healing that we never knew existed. And ultimately, what we may find — and help our clients uncover — is a reinforced belief that although life is hard, we are not without adequate resources and wisdom to cope.
Letters to a Young Therapist, Revised Edition
Basic Books, February 2016
Paperback, 180 Pages