I have a pretty basic question about therapy, and I am hoping you can answer it for me. I went through something difficult recently and a few people have told me I should go to therapy so that I could “process” it. I have heard that word from a couple of people and no one has really been able to tell me what exactly that means. What does it mean to “process” something? To talk about it? I have been talking about it. It’s like one of those things that became part of the vernacular and people make it a thing without knowing what it really is or how to do it. If you could explain it to the readership, I’m sure we could all appreciate it. Thank you for your weekly informative columns.
As with many terms—and perhaps popularized psychological terms in particular—meanings can vary depending on the person and the situation. However, I would say that there are two general descriptions of “processing” that I think will serve. One refers to the general ways in which we experience life. The other focuses on the underlying factors that contribute to how we handle traumatic experiences.
From a simplistic perspective, we all have different ways of processing stimuli. That is to say, we all experience life differently. On a very basic level, this is true for something as simple as experiencing a specific color. Do we all see the exact same thing when we see the same blue item? Are we all affected in the same way by that color? From colors to household items, to social experiences, to trials and tribulations, we all process experiences differently.
This individualistic experiential process begins at or before birth. This is the reason that a few siblings raised in the same home, apparently having the same experiences, can have completely different views of—and feelings about—their childhood and family. Just as our thought process affects our singular perspective on our experiences, these experiences (and our cognitive and emotional responses to these) continue to influence our thought process. This is largely what makes each of us so unique.
As children, defense mechanisms are a normal part of how we process experiences. When something is perceived as too difficult to process, children employ these unconscious defenses in order not to be overwhelmed. Some defenses with which many of us are familiar are denial, repression, projection (of our emotions onto others), rationalization, and intellectualization. Theoretically, as we mature, we would slowly discontinue use of these as we develop the understanding and wisdom necessary to process experiences from a more conscious place. In reality, none of us completely does away with these defenses.
When we experience a traumatic event, our normal processing is often disrupted, causing us to rely more heavily on our childhood defenses. (This explains why the first stage in the mourning process is typically denial.) Since we experience traumatic events at least partly in an unconscious manner, our normal way of processing life experiences can be suspended.
As discussed, traumatic events are experienced differently by each of us. There are no two people who process the same trauma in exactly the same manner. In addition to the normal variations among people in terms of how they view experiences, old childhood defenses are being used in very unique combinations.
Thus, in order to “process” a traumatic experience, our goal is to move past our reliance on defense mechanisms to a more adaptive, mature experience of the situation. Moving past the denial stage in mourning all the way to the acceptance stage would be an example of this. For many of us, this is a normal process in most “typical” traumatic circumstances (though the exact process and timeline differs).
There are times, however, when our defenses are so strongly triggered or become so deeply embedded in our thought process that we have trouble getting back on course. These are the times when the assistance of a professional can help to address these defenses and the trapped feeling that we can experience.
-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW
psychotherapist in private practice
adjunct professor at Touro College
Graduate School of Social Work
author of Self-Esteem: A Primer
www.ylcsw.com / 516-218-4200
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