Seeing the Forest for the Trees: How to think like your therapist

By Kyle Shiver, MA

You’re sitting across from your therapist, pouring out and sifting through your inner experiencing, hoping that your collaboration will awaken some miraculous insight into what’s been ailing you for so, so long. As you continually reveal more, they scrawl notes on the legal pad in their lap, and the two of you attempt to dig toward the root of the issue at hand. After what seems like dozens of open-ended questions and encouraging validations from your therapist, they reflect your experience back to you, building associations between your disclosures, and connecting what had seemed like fragmented pieces of an impossible puzzle, and somehow – finally! – a light bulb. You feel relieved, exhilarated, and wonder how the two of you arrived at a satisfying conclusion that you felt you never could on your own.

Though it can seem like it, therapy is not magic (magical! But not magic), and your therapist is certainly no magician. They are just as human as you are, and they carry with them just as much joy, pain, sorrow, confusion, and dread as you do – and (brace yourself!) many therapists have therapists! In fact, the best therapists have been clients, themselves. How else are they supposed to empathize with how it feels for you to be on ‘the couch’? Therapists also fall into this trap in the midst of their own life’s problems: trying to find ‘the cause’.

When we are haunted by the same old emotional, cognitive, or behavioral loops in our lives and plagued their consequences, it is downright seductive to find a single cause. We think to ourselves, ‘if only I could find what’s making me feel this way, think this way, or do these self-destructive things, then I could be free!’ This can lead to more frustration and feeling like we are chasing our tail. When we look for a single explanation for a problem, we miss the nuances of the world and of ourselves. We sell ourselves short, ignoring our own beauty in its three dimensions and in its interaction with the three-dimensional world around us.

One of the most basic lenses through which your therapist likely peers is that of the bio-psycho-social-political-spiritual model. This is a framework that helps open our eyes to the complex layers of our challenges without cheapening our experiences and attributing our obstacles to one single cause. This model considers how our unique biology, psychological makeup, social environment, political climate, and sense of spirituality influence our challenges. Here’s a brief guide through the bio-psycho-social-political-spiritual model we all can apply to our problems to garner deeper insight into our uniquely human problems. Ask yourself these questions and see what light might poke through the dust as it settles.

BIOLOGICAL: Do my parents, siblings, or extended family members experience similar challenges? Does this particular problem tend to show up throughout my family tree? Do any of my chronic illnesses or medications impact the way I think, feel, or behave (when’s the last time I saw my doctor and made sure my experience doesn’t have a medical cause)? Am I using any illicit substances or drinking more than usual in a way that might be impacting my thoughts, feelings, and behaviors? Have I been eating healthy, exercising, and sleeping enough? Is my body taken care of? How do any of these biological factors influence how I’m feeling right now?

PSYCHOLOGICAL: Is any of this bringing up painful memories of my past? When have I felt like this before? How has my self-esteem been lately? Have I gone through any recent changes? What happened to me before I felt this way? Do I have any developmental demands happening in my life right now like marriage, divorce, aging concerns, births, deaths, kids leaving the house, etc.? Have any of these influences left me vulnerable to feeling the way I do right now?

SOCIAL: When’s the last time I hung out with my friends and confided in them? Do I have a confidant? What’s my relationship status and how might that be impacting how I feel? What’s the quality of my relationships with key figures in my life like parents, teachers, significant others, my siblings, extended family, etc.? Is someone else’s opinions and judgments influencing the way I think, feel, or act? What’s going on in my vocation and how do I feel about it? What about my cultural experience – what expectations are placed on me by my culture(s)? How does any of this impact the way I feel right now?

POLITICAL: Is my identity (sexuality, race, gender, creed, etc.) met with acceptance in this political climate, and is that impacting the way I feel in this challenge? How much news have I been watching? Do I feel empowered to make change or sustain my life in this climate? Is my financial situation influencing my current challenge? How does this climate and these factors influence my current problem?

SPIRITUAL: Do I feel like I belong and am connected to something larger than myself? Do I have a community that makes me feel loved and encourages me to be my best self? Am I accepted or rejected in my own or my family’s faith practices? Could any of this be influencing me in this challenge?

You may have heard your therapist say at times, ‘everything affects everything’. There is some truth to this. We are not beings made up of stacked boxes – compartments in which to neatly store our individual experiences and challenges. We are organic beings – tiny universes within the universe – little microcosms reflecting the complexity of the world back into the world itself. So why then would we fall into the trap of attributing our problems to a single cause? Start assuming that all (absolutely all) your challenges are influenced by your biology, psychological makeup, social environment, political climate, and spiritual experience. When we open to this notion, we may feel we will get lost in the complexity. But we know better. We humans have an innate ability to heal ourselves. And while we may certainly benefit from the guidance of a therapist at times in our lives, when we fully embrace the complexity of our nature, we just might see the forest for the trees. To a degree, maybe we can think like our therapists!