I sat down with a parent who was enrolling her son at Resolution Ranch Academy after years of turmoil within her family. After all that time, she just wanted peace of mind. Understandably, she had a question for every potential scenario and over time her anxiety began to drop…until she asked me, “So how often do you have sessions with [my son]?” and I immediately responded with, “Once a week.”
Her face dropped. In seconds, her expressions changed from fear to shock and then to anger. This is how wounded people respond to fear, and who would blame her? In her mind, this situation was WAY past the point that one therapy session per week could help.
Whether you are reading this as fellow therapist, a total stranger to therapy, or someone who has been working with therapists for years, I’d like for you to ask yourself a question: “What exactly is therapy?” Do you picture an elderly man in an outdated suit with a clipboard, talking to a distressed person lying on a couch? Or maybe you picture a very kind-looking woman listening intently as a vulnerable couple sits across from her, discussing their hurt. Maybe you picture more progressive forms of therapy that utilize animals or musical instruments, but are any of these formats the “correct” form of therapy?
How I spent my time as a therapist today might seem strange to some. I walked through our lodge area while the residents were eating lunch just in time to see a very irritated resident call for a group meeting. I was finishing up some paperwork and returning some files and then I was planning on having a traditional therapy session with a resident, but I was also very curious about this situation. I followed them to this group, and watched this young man struggle with every word as he described his “overwhelming frustration towards the community”, and their “constant disrespect towards [him]”. Then it got worse. To sum up their responses, the residents this teen was confronting said that it was all actually HIS fault.
Maybe you’re like me, and your reaction would have been, “This young man’s bravery should be rewarded. It must have taken guts to stand up to other teen boys like that!” and honestly that is an accurate thought. I stuck with my curious mindset, though, and followed these boys out of their group and back to lunch where I heard something remarkable: I heard a young man say, “Hey dude, come sit here and eat lunch with us.” I turned in time to see that he was talking to the boy who had just interrupted everyone’s lunch to gripe about “disrespect”. I smiled. Then I wasn’t smiling anymore. The frustrated resident, so concerned with everyone else’s mistreatment of him, turned to look at this peer’s warm invitation, rolled his eyes, sighed loudly, and rejected the invitation with a flick of his wrist.
At this point, I decided to step in to help bring some perspective, however the focus should be on what I witnessed. What if, instead of following this boy around for 20 minutes before ever saying a word, I had simply said, “No, don’t call for a group, let’s go have our daily therapy session.” We might have talked about social skills, family life, emotional regulation, deep insecurities, meaning and purpose, or anything therapeutic. And it might have helped him, but I would not trade that moment of real, practical understanding that he was able to experience for any number of sessions per week.
Earlier the question was about how to define therapy. No matter how you explain therapy, a necessary component is the application to a client’s real life. Who cares if they can succeed in an office or in a hospital? If the client cannot extrapolate their new knowledge to something in their day-to-day experience, then everyone is wasting their time.
I explained myself to the anxious mother from before, and she decided Resolution Ranch Academy was definitely the place for her son. Her reaction was almost commonplace, simply because it can be so easy to forget that EVERY moment can be a therapeutic moment, and the job of a therapist is not to create growth in an office but rather to help the client create growth everywhere else.