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As a psychologist in London Ontario, I’m often asked to describe what I do. There appears to be a certain mystery to the psychotherapy process that leaves those who have never experienced it quite curious. For those who have seen a psychologist, there is often a desire to know how others practice. While my response is usually a simple answer relating to my goal to help clients identify and meet their objectives for healthier emotional, psychological, and relationship functioning, the reality is that the simple answer does not really answer the question.  To understand what a psychologist really does, it is important to understand something about the different models that exist in therapy.

Psychotherapy – Different Approaches

Estimates have suggested that there are several hundred different psychotherapy approaches available today. While many of these approaches are offshoots of more traditional models, that still leaves many more therapies than any one psychologist will ever practice.  As such, most psychologists and psychotherapists specialize or practice within a subset of this greater group. The rest of my article will focus on the models and theories that guide my own treatment approach.

One model that informs my work as a psychologist is cognitive behaviour therapy and theory or CBT as it is often known. This approach examines the dynamic interplay between an individual’s thought patterns and behaviours and how these two areas of functioning affect our experience of ourselves, others, and the world around us. Thoughts and beliefs have a tremendous effect on our perceptions of reality and help to determine our choices.  In return, the consequences of our behaviours are reflected back to us and further guide our reality.  Take for example someone who has a spider phobia. This person may believe that spiders will harm him, which in turn causes distress at the thought of encountering this type of critter.  The distress that he feels leads to avoidance of situations that may involves spiders which further prevents this individual from learning or experiencing that comes with having contact with harmless spiders. Appling a CBT model provides two areas of possible intervention. We can change the thinking patterns about spiders allowing the person to make different choices as a result of different thoughts or we can address the behaviour itself and create opportunities where the client can encounter spiders safely so that they learn not think of them as scary beings. Both changes will lead to a similar outcome, which is that the client will have a learning experience that assists him to overcome his fear of spiders.

While the CBT model has an excellent track record for helping individuals with anxiety, some types of depression, and behavioural change in general, it does not necessarily help us understand all of the complexities that make up human experience. In particular, a different model is needed to achieve insight into interpersonal aspects that guide and influence our development of self and our responses to our world and to others. The psychodynamic approach, helps us to achieve a greater depth of insight into ourselves. As social creatures, we begin life seeking contact with others, and with few exceptions, continue to seek interaction with others throughout our lifetime. It is through interactions in our earliest relationships such as with parents or other caregivers, that we begin to understand ourselves, including how we should see ourselves, feel about ourselves, and what to expect from others. We learn what feelings and experiences are valid and which ones we must avoid or suppress. We learn how to communicate and how to respond in relationships. We develop the mechanisms that guide our deepest and most automatic reactions to people and experiences. Along with contributions from the field of child development and attachment theory, this comprehensive model can help us understand the building blocks of our deepest selves. This awareness and insight in turn provides a road map for change.  When a client understands why she does what she does or why she feels what she feels, than she is liberated to make different choices. One of the reasons we often keep repeating the same unhealthy patterns in relationships or in our lives in general, is because we do not have a good understand of what triggers the behaviours, choices, or feelings that we experience.

Psychologist – Theoretical Orientation

As a psychologist I am often asked how I would describe my theoretical orientation; my response is that I am an integrative therapist. While some may see the two comprehensive psychological theories described above as largely different, I see them as inherently complementary. Understanding the deeper motivations behind human behaviour helps me to better understand how a person’s thoughts or beliefs have formed and may serve their sense of self.  In therapy, we then have many options in creating change and optimizing functioning because intervention can occur at many different levels.  We can challenge maladaptive behaviours or irrational beliefs, we can gain insight into what drives these illogical actions or thought patterns, and ultimately help the client become more aware and empowered within themselves and their relationships.

Beyond these two remarkable and comprehensive approaches to understanding and treating clients, there are several other theories that inform my practice. I see emotion-focused couples therapy as an integral part of my work with couples along with solution-focused perspectives.  Interpersonal and communication based models are also utilized.  Finally, I believe strongly in the role of the therapeutic relationship as an agent of change and so am aware of client-centered dynamics that are so critical in building a strong and comfortable rapport with individuals and couples.

I hope this article has demystified some of the elements that go into the practice of psychotherapy. If you as a reader would like to learn more about my approach or would like to meet with myself or an associate in my practice, please contact the office by email or phone.