There are many factors that contribute to a feeling of inner well being as we experience our lives in an ongoing way. Work is important. Seeing our lives as meaningful is important. And, of course, relationships are important. From the perspective of human development, psychological conflict, and psychotherapy, relationships are the most important. This is because our experience of ourselves is strongly influenced by the reactions of other people to us. Those reactions represent a kind of mirror or reflection that helps us know ourselves.
Earlier reflections are more powerful because they are first and they are not competing with lots of other reflections. Naturally, it is important that the reflections we pay attention to are accurate representations of who we are. As time goes on, however, we begin to think we know ourselves well, and we only accept reflections that agree with what we already believe.
The inner sense of ourselves underlies our experience of every minute and also our motivation and actions. If we believe we are strong, we are more likely to engage in tasks that require strength, and so on. The problem comes in when our inner sense of ourselves has been distorted by reductionistic reflections or by inaccurate reflections. If I grew up in a household where I was the nice, but not so smart, kid, that might be how I understand myself. I wouldn’t choose intellectual challenges, but I would see it as my responsibility to be nice to everyone no matter what. Perhaps.
The therapist comes in because in therapy, we look in a mirror that argues back. No matter how much we try to revert to our comfortable and familiar personal stereotypes, the therapist disagrees. Sometimes this is uncomfortable or irritating or, in rare moments, infuriating. We hope, however, that over time we can come to a more accurate understanding of ourselves in a way that is convincing to us and sticks to our ribs.
The trick is that the therapist has to be patient and accurate and active sometimes. This is the art of relating, and it happens between two people in inexplicable ways. The therapist is the instrument, or crowbar, because through the therapist’s own human experience of us and of relationships in general, we get a different picture of ourselves. Because no one is perfect, the therapist will get off base at times. What can be perfect, though, is that motivation to be helpful, to be accurate, and to be patient. And this motivation on the part of the therapist, in addition to our own, over time, is what cements our sense of being valuable and competent.