Insight in therapy is more than being self aware. It is using that awareness to create a new relationship to one’s emotions. Maybe you have found yourself to be like the many people who have thought “I am aware of my issues but that doesn’t change anything?” Recognizing a pattern in which you may repeatedly respond to a problematic situation in an unconstructive manner is not enough. Developing a deeper conceptualization of that pattern can help us control our emotional reactions and shift our focus to observing the broader meaning of the moment. In this way, we can create the mental space to find alternative ways to engage.
Let’s take the example of anger. Using anger management techniques can be useful to contain anger. But they will be much more useful and sustaining by making them relevant to your personal experience and understanding why you experience the anger that you do. One could understand as unreasonable a husband’s repeatedly getting angry and yelling at his spouse for making a mess after he just cleaned, answering a different question than he actually asked, or not taking advice he has offered. However, understanding the greater meaning of these incidents in his life can create some space from the immediate anger by injecting higher level processing in a moment that has been short-circuiting from emotion to reactive behavior. For instance, perhaps these incidents tap into themes of feeling invisible in this man’s life, a possible wound from being raised by a narcissistic parent who did not see him for who he is but rather what the parent needed him to be. Much like when someone is repeatedly punched in the same spot, one develops a bruise; when this bruise is later poked, the pain can be as intense as the original punches. The insight into his original injuries can, therefore, help him realize that there is more to his anger than the immediate situation, while also creating a space in which he observes his anger rather than inhabiting it and reacting.
Knowing that his anger is more than what his spouse has inspired can also allow him to take some responsibility for the feeling and not simply blame his spouse for these perceived offenses. Working on communicating the meaning of his anger may also help his spouse to be more sensitive and empathetic to his issues and to not overly personalize his anger. If, in therapy, the husband elaborates his own understanding of his anger as shaped by larger patterns of injuries in his life, he will also recognize that his anger deserves a different kind of attention, such as compassion. More often than not, our anger can pit us against ourselves as we generally do not feel good about it or its consequences. These conflicts can contribute to the cycle and escalate the anger. A compassionate empathy for our own struggles underlying our anger, on the other hand, can be the right antidote and lead to repair instead of hurting others. In this way, insight can lead to actual healing and reparative emotional experiences rather than just managing our problematic feelings when they occur.
Drew McLeod, Ph.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist. He received his doctorate in clinical psychology at Loyola University and completed his clinical internship and postdoctoral fellowship at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine where he is currently on faculty. Dr. McLeod has over 20 years of experience providing therapy using cognitive, interpersonal, and psychodynamic approaches. He works with clients who are coping with depression, anxiety, trauma, psychosis, personality issues, relationship and professional identity struggles, marital or partnership conflicts, as well as issues related to sexuality and gender. He offers psychotherapy for individuals, couples, and families and works with adults and adolescents. Dr. McLeod sees patients at the downtown Chicago location. See all our providers here.