How Do We "Process" Our Experiences in Therapy?

What does it mean to "process" your experiences in the context of counseling? First, it might help to learn the differences between what we mean by content and what we mean by process in the therapy room. Picture this: you find yourself sitting in the therapist's office, pouring out your heart about the  problems that you're facing. You’re unloading on what happened to you and the deep injustices of the interactions. You’re not even halfway through your story and you have so much more to say but when you pause for a moment to catch a quick breath before continuing your therapist interjects: “right now, what’s going on in your body as you tell me this?” 
“What? Who cares; I haven’t even gotten to the best part!” 
“No, let’s check in with your body. Just check in…” 
If you’re wondering why your therapist does this, welcome to the wonderful world of “content”  vs. “process.” Learning about this important distinction can help you see behind the curtain of what your therapist is likely doing, help you to get more out of your therapy in the future, and even bring this helpful distinction into your life.  

What is “content” in therapy? 

Content is an important starting point in your therapy session. These are the specific details you share with your therapist about your life, relationships, and feelings. It's the “what”: the events, people, and experiences that have happened to you and, perhaps, even led you to seek therapy in the first place. Put another way, it’s “the stuff that happened this week.” Imagine recalling a heated argument with a friend. You walk your therapist through the words exchanged, the  emotions felt, and the setting it all took place in. That's all content. 

So, what’s this “process” stuff? 

“Process” is the stuff that’s under the stuff. It goes beyond the “what” and even the “how” and into the important “why” of your reactions and feelings regarding your experiences. It's peeling back the layers of your emotional response and examining the underlying patterns and dynamics. The beauty of therapy isn’t just the catharsis of recounting events to a compassionate and fully present listener (although, that’s great in and of itself); its real beauty is in finding the patterns in your life and, by seeing them, have an opportunity to change them.  
To give another example, imagine you’re in therapy discussing a recent breakup. The content revolves around the specifics – when it happened, what was said, how it felt, and what  happened after. And this is important in setting the stage for the real work to come. The process is delving into why it felt the way it did, how it's now affecting your view of relationships, and the patterns it's revealing in your emotional world. Was this an outlier unlike any other experience, or are you noticing a repetitive cycle in your relationships? Are you finding yourself in new emotional waters and unsure how to navigate them, or have you traveled this trail so many times that you could draw a map?
That’s understanding process and, as it works its magic, you begin to uncover the deeper currents beneath the surface story. 

“Okay, but why does this distinction matter to me?” you might wonder. 

It’s because understanding the difference empowers you to save tons of time in the therapy room and learn to become your own therapist outside of it. By seeing the difference in content and process, you begin to see your experiences from a slightly more detached perspective. It allows you to begin to separate “this is the stuff that happened,” from “this is the way I tend to  respond, and this is why I do it.” Once you’ve made that distinction, you then have entirely new autonomy to decide how you want to act from here. It allows you to see the events you  experience as the individual threads of your life, while the process shows you intricate emotional tapestry woven by them. 
Remember, you’re not just passively drifting on the sea of therapy. You're the pilot, sailing to deeper understanding, emotional growth, and effective patterns of relating and reacting. And, in the therapy room, you have a highly skilled navigator there to help you chart your course. By viewing content as your map, laying out the terrain, and process as your compass, guiding you to explore the intricate landscapes of your inner world, you become far more effective at creating change both in and out of the therapy room. 
If you’re looking for someone to help you chart your course to a more vibrant life, Lifeologie Counseling is here for you. Meet our many specialists and find out which therapist in our practice is right for you.

About Richard Aab

Richard Aab, LCMHCA, has a BFA in Theatre from NYU and received his Clinical Mental Health Counselor, M.Ed. (Master’s in Education) from North Carolina State University. He is a Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor Associate (LCMHC-A) and Nationally Certified Counselor (NCC). Richard has a deep commitment to working with individuals overcoming developmental and childhood trauma, and he combines cutting-edge, neuroscientific research with traditional existential and behavioral therapeutic modalities. He is supervised by Elizabeth Grady, LCMHCS, and sees adult clients by telehealth.

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