By Doni Joszef

In our previous discussion we addressed the “who” of therapy–who absolutely needs it, who may benefit from it, and who gets not one iota out of it.

Here we move on to explore the “why” of therapy. What’s the point? Is it merely a matter of pursuing happiness or is it, perhaps, a bit deeper than this?

There is no shortage of self-help gurus out there, and the familiar sales pitch tends to go something like “Discover the secret to happiness and everlasting bliss.” Like most sales pitches, they overpromise and underdeliver. Therapy was never meant to be a formula for perpetual peace and unyielding joy. And yet we can’t help but notice just how saturated the field has become with such plastic promises. But if therapy isn’t about pursuing happiness, what exactly is it designed to achieve?

Undoubtedly, the majority of those seeking psychotherapeutic guidance are doing so to improve the emotional terrain of their respective journeys. How exactly this may be achieved is really dependent on the clinical approach of each particular therapist, and will be the subject of a forthcoming article (“The HOW of Therapy”). Here we center our attention on the why, and closer analysis reveals a slightly different picture than our general assumptions tend to paint.

The external symptoms which land us on the couch will vary from case to case. Some people struggle with depression. Others suffer from anxiety. Some people are perfectly healthy, but their marriages are anything but. One person comes into therapy to work on his gambling habit, while another comes to readjust her skewed body image.

Then there are those who don’t exactly know why they’re coming, but subtly sense their need for help. They’ll usually confess “I’m here to figure out why I’m here,” which is as good a way as any to embark on the therapeutic journey.

While the surface of each case carries its own tale, the underlying drive stems from an innate yearning for balance, stability, and personal wellbeing. And to access these invaluable ingredients, we need to first become aware of what’s swarming through our minds and hearts. We look inward, and in doing so, we gain a whole new perspective of who we are, what makes us tick, what moves us, what stalls us, and what we can do to make the most of our lives. As Jung put it, “Looking outward, we dream; looking inward, we awaken.”

But why do we need therapy for this? Can’t we just sit down with ourselves and look into the filing cabinets of our own minds? Unfortunately, we cannot.

It’s been said that you can’t fix a broken tool with a broken tool. An expert surgeon–no matter the extent of his expertise–lacks the ability to operate on himself. The same holds for psychotherapy–even the most insightful therapist can’t practice on his own psyche.

It takes an outside, unbiased, fresh perspective to help us untangle the twists and knots which our thinking invariably winds within us. This is not to say solitude and introspection have no function. Their function is just different than that of therapy. In conjunction, both functions serve to instill within us a sense of emotional awareness and psychological maturity. They are two sides of a common coin, a coin we may call “the examined life.”

I don’t believe the purpose of therapy is to pursue happiness. Happiness is a feeling, and like all feelings, it is fleeting. It comes and it goes. It’s here today, gone tomorrow. Instead of pursuing happiness, we pursue self-awareness.

Awareness is a state of mind, a way of being, an ownership of our inner lives and psychic blind spots. If we stumble upon happiness along the way, so be it. But there is more to life than laughing out loud. And one of the deepest gifts of therapy is the personal discovery of this basic truth. Looking outward, we dream; looking inward, we awaken. v

Doni Joszef, LMSW, works in private practice with adolescents and young adults in Lawrence. He blogs at and is pursuing a Ph.D. in media psychology. For more information, call 516-316-2247 or visit DoniJoszef.Com.

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