There are certain basic inventions in the world which help us get by. One of these is the window. Windows are regulators; they help us to regulate our comfort level while inside a building. The walls of houses shelter us from the elements, but we need some of those elements to get through the wall even as others are turned away if we are to be comfortable inside. Rain and cold should be turned away; light and air need to get through. We open windows to let in sunshine and breeze, and close them when the environment gets uncomfortable. In this way, windows offer an opportunity for us to regulate the comfort level of our interior living spaces.
People have 'interiors' that need regulating just as surely as buildings do. A person's interior is formed of their private feelings, thoughts and beliefs. And just as people build windows into their homes so as to let light and air into what would otherwise be dark space, there are also 'windows' of sorts that can be built into people's private feelings, thoughts and beliefs to let in new perspectives, new knowledge and to let out pain. Knowing how such 'psychological windows' work is important for understanding how psychotherapy works.
Traditionally (and particularly in the writings of the gestalt psychotherapists of the 60s and 70s) mental health has been characterized as a state in which people can tolerate a great deal of psychological openness. The idealized mentally healthy person doesn't accumulate a whole lot of emotional 'baggage' because painful feelings are expressed and let go of (through the open psychological window) as they occur. He or she also remains open to new experiences and continually embraces opportunities to create new relationships and to work on new projects throughout his or her lifespan, even in the face of great loss and grief. You might say that the 'air' in a healthy person's psychological house never gets too stale or stuffy because there is always the possibility of a 'breeze' to blow through their open psychological windows. This is as good an ideal definition of a certain kind of mental health (e.g., freedom from neurosis) that I've come across.
It's awful hard to keep your psychological windows open though – It is a polluted world; One has to be discriminating. The world has its share of bullies and tyrants and other psychologically un-toilet-trained, damaged folk, and you have to know how to close off your windows to most of what they produce if only to avoid the foul stink from settling into your carpets. More than a few people find their emotional surroundings to be unsupportive or even unsafe. Many people simply don't feel all that safe opening up wide their psychological windows and sharing their inner thoughts, feelings and beliefs with others.
So therein lies the tension. On the one hand, we live in a world that cannot be reliably trusted to be safe. On the other hand, we start to die inside when we cannot share our inner experience with others – particularly when that inner experience is painful. Psychotherapy is, in part, about reconciling these two truths.
Therapy starts to happen when people become comfortable enough to open up their psychological windows and air out their psychological interiors. Psychotherapy is a science and an art whereby one person can help another person to accomplish this opening. There are several senses in which this is true.
Change Creates A 'Window' Of Opportunity For Window Opening
People's emotional lives get stuck shut for a variety of reasons, but major reasons boil down to anxiety and fear and/or the need to avoid toxic people. Though people start life with an open psychological window, things happen that make it dangerous to keep that window open. The optimally healthy thing to do in a dangerous situation is to shut the psychological window for a period of time and then, later, to see if it has become safe to open it up again. Most of us don't end up doing the optimal thing however. We shut our psychological windows closed in response to a toxic environment, and then we keep them in varying states of shutness, forgetting to re-test the environment to see if conditions have improved. Years and months can go by with people barricaded behind closed windows, unable or unwilling to perceive that the world is no longer really as dangerous as they believe it to be.
The process of closing down happens for other reasons as well. While people often deeply want to be recognized and heard (something that requires psychological windows to be open), they also frequently cannot tolerate painful parts of themselves or painful experiences they have had. Some more 'fundamentalist' types become unable to tolerate the possibility that the living chaos of the world they see outside their psychological windows could be more real than the belief system they've aligned themselves with and so demonize the outside world not unlike the old medieval maps that populated uncharted regions with dragons. However, it happens, people stop interacting with living changing life.
Even when their lives have become shut down to a great extent, most people simply grin and bear it. It tends to take some sort of 'overloading' event (A death in the family, loss of a job, a failing grade in an important class, a divorce or significant rejection, a spouse's ultimatum, an arrest, what-have-you) to push people to seek out help.
Big overwhelming changes can cause a general disorganization of people's defenses and a period of resulting vulnerability during which they can become again permeable to learning. Grief and regret for lost opportunities, and existential fears (such as fear of being permanently alone) can power through fears motivating people to keep their defenses up and their psychological windows sealed. You can think of this process as a 'window' of opportunity during which psychological windows can become unstuck. A lot of therapy gets initiated during such times.
Open Windows Allow For Venting And For Support
One of the basic jobs therapists have is to provide a supportive and safe environment in which clients can open psychological windows and vent out their painful emotions, thoughts and feelings. Good therapists accomplish this task by guaranteeing to keep their client's confidences safe, and by being a receptive, attentive and supportive audience. Therapist's ability to be a receptive and inviting audience for their clients is tremendously important. People need to share their interiors; they need to be recognized and accepted. It is as though people doubt the reality of their existence if they don't have someone to share it with. Society being the messed up way that it is, there are few safe outlets for people to gain this recognition of their more private and painful experiences. A therapist can be an audience for private pain, and shameful thoughts and feelings, and in so doing, provide legitimacy to feelings and thoughts that otherwise seem illegitimate.
Between Engagement and Disengagement Exists The 'Therapeutic Window'
It is not enough that one's psychological windows become open. Merely being open to experience doesn't mean you will benefit from it. Too much open too fast can leave a person feeling very vulnerable and frightened (or angry or agitated, or any of the myriad ways that people express their fear). This is a particular problem for people who have been closed off because of abuse or trauma. Such clients can be quite unable to tolerate the emotions that surround their issues. Too much exposure to issues can lead to 'flooding'.
The same patients frequently avoid bringing up painful subjects – a sort of defense mechanism. Good therapists can 'ride herd' by keeping a running note of the flow of topics their clients bring up, noting quick dodges and bends away from topics and avoidance of topics and pointing these dodges out to clients in a non-threatening way so as to keep them focused on that which they would avoid.
Therapists find themselves faced with the sensitive balancing act of needing to engage their clients in talking about their issues, but also needing to avoid letting that talk escalate into a situation that becomes overwhelming. Another way to say this is that it is necessary to regulate the degree to which people's windows are open at any given time if they are to tolerate and thus benefit from venting, recognition and learning opportunities. A good therapist attempts to herd their clients so as to help them get into and stay in a 'sweet spot' (sometimes called a 'therapeutic window') in between engagement and disengagement with the issues that bother them. Too much discussion of a painful issue may do more harm than good, while not enough may fail to benefit.
My purpose in writing this particular essay was to express these ideas. I've accomplished this goal I think, but in a bit of an abstract way and there isn't time right now to fix that situation. I'd be pleased if readers who recognized a truth or two here from their own lives would comment and help me to flesh out how the opening and closing of psychological windows works in real life – how it has played out in their own experience or the experience of people they have been close with. Peace and happiness for the coming winter holidays.