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The 5 Life-Changing Insights Experienced In Therapy

Lara El Ghaoui worked for 14 years in the humanitarian sector helping people affected by disasters in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. She always wanted to be a therapist but was never encouraged to follow her heart, given the stigma associated with mental health.

 
Executive Contributor Lara El Ghaoui

There are times in therapy when everything suddenly makes sense. There is a pause followed by silence, sometimes a deep breath, and then the client’s eyes wander as if they’re gazing at something in the distance, far yet so close. Some call it a Eureka moment, others a realisation or an insight. In this article, I share 5 insights that helped many clients change their thoughts, feelings, or behaviours. 


 Senior psychologist interviewing his depressed patient.

To learn that fish can capture an insect on land is almost unbelievable. But that’s exactly what the archerfish does. When it spots a terrestrial insect overhanging the vegetation above water, the archerfish spits jets of water aimed directly at the insect and just like that, it shoots it down. 


In therapy, the client and the therapist are like archerfishes, attempting to capture as much clarity as possible about ‘how’ and ‘why’ clients think, feel, and behave in a certain way. While sometimes the answers come gently, sometimes they can be intense, more akin to a sudden realisation. Getting to this place of absolute clarity is like hitting a target and this is what I’m calling ‘insight.’ 


What is an insight?

The term insight has different meanings across therapeutic modalities:


  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT): increased awareness of negative thoughts. 

  • Person-centred Therapy: gaining a new perspective based on our individual experiences. 

  • Psychodynamic Therapy: increased awareness of repressed emotions and memories and increased understanding of the link between our past and present experiences. 

Insight is not just about ‘knowing’ but is also about ‘feeling’. Therefore, the person’s rational mind and emotive world must be in sync. 


Why are insights important?

A meta-analysis of 22 studies found that insight is correlated with therapeutic outcomes and that it helps clients understand themselves better by:


  • Understanding the connection between their history and their psychological distress.

  • Understanding their role (and responsibility) in shaping their own experiences. 

Therefore, insights increase clients' capability to find solutions and adopt helpful behaviours.


Five life-changing insights experienced in the counselling room

There are probably more insights than there are people in the world. The ones I picked are the ones I and many of my clients resonate with.


1. Taking responsibility: ‘No one can rescue me except me’ 

Many people come to therapy expecting too much from the therapist. They want her to fix them, tell them what to do, and rescue them from their emotional pain. Soon enough, people realise that this is not how therapy works. The therapist is neither an oracle nor a magician. Person-centred therapists like me believe we all know the solutions to our problems, but it’s hard for us to access the answers due to stress, trauma, depression, and overwhelm. Therapy is the vehicle that enables those answers to be accessed. It’s only when clients realise they have the power to change their lives, that transformation can truly begin. 


2. The ability to change our narrative: ‘I can use my inner voice to my advantage’ 

In a previous article about practising self-compassion, I refer to a book by Michael A. Singer, The Untethered Soul, in which he talks about the inner voice. If we stop to notice what happens inside our minds, we hear an inner voice that is often very negative. Recognising that we have a powerful inner voice means we can use it to our advantage. Recently, a client of mine managed to break a cycle of negative thoughts and self-loathing while she was gardening with her children. She immediately recognised the voice that told her ‘You are useless’ and decided to challenge it by saying ‘I can do it.’ The client continued gardening and noticed her energy level increasing when she finished. The client said to me: ‘I didn’t know that I could make myself feel good.’


3. The power of acceptance: ‘I can only change what I can control’ 

Because we don’t live in a vacuum, clients often bring much more than just themselves to therapy – for example, the people in their lives, or just life itself, with all its existential dilemmas. In their book Skills in Existential Counselling & Psychotherapy, therapists Emmy Van Deurzen and Martin Adams talk about the 4 dimensions of existence which are:


  • Physical dimension: e.g. our bodies and physical environment.

  • Social dimension: e.g. our culture.

  • Personal dimension: e.g. our views.

  • Spiritual dimension: e.g. how we make sense of our existence.


There are challenges we face in every dimension, such as death, failure, rejection, loneliness, and pain, which can cause a lot of anxiety. As clients explore their inner and outer worlds, they realise that sometimes the only way to move forward is simply to accept the things they can’t change. This realisation is filled with sadness but also relief, because clients no longer must fight to change everything. Some elements of our existence, such as suffering, are simply inevitable and must be accepted as is.  


4. Allowing people to take responsibility: ‘I am not responsible for other people’s feelings and behaviours’


Our mental state often depends on what people think and feel about us. Sometimes, one word from them can change our moods in seconds. Most of us ‘know’ that we can’t control other people, yet intellectual knowledge alone doesn’t seem enough to liberate us from our emotional pain. For example, we wait for a parent to validate us by recognising the pain they’ve caused, but many never do. Change happens when we finally understand that we are not responsible for other people’s reactions. They can think and feel what they want about us, but that doesn’t mean they are right. Spending our lives waiting for others to change is pointless. To feel better, we must: 


  • Let go of that urge to wait for other people’s validation and validate ourselves instead by practicing self-compassion.

  • Accept that people may never change in the way we want them to and allow ourselves to grieve the missed opportunities that we could have experienced together. 

  • Start drawing boundaries.


5. The cultivation of self-worth: ‘There is nothing wrong with me’


Many people come to therapy overwhelmed by a deep sense of unworthiness and a core belief that something is inherently wrong with them. Unworthiness can manifest itself in clients’ thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. Here are some examples:


  • Thoughts: statements like ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I don’t know if I deserve better’.

  • Feelings: inadequacy, self-doubt, guilt, shame, and insignificance. 

  • Behaviours: self-sabotage, self-blame, and self-punishment.


Believing we’re unworthy can be hard to shake off because it is often rooted in past traumas. We grow up in environments that create their own rules about what is worthy and unworthy. An example is: ‘If you don’t get straight A’s on your exams, you’re not good enough.’ As a result, we spend an incredible amount of time trying to meet other people’s expectations. We force ourselves to be someone we’re not, to fit in and be loved. When clients finally understand that their feeling of unworthiness stems from their environment, and not from them, they begin connecting with their worthiness. 


How to facilitate the process of gaining insight? 


  1. Talking and writing: You can go to therapy, talk to a friend, or write. The key is to communicate and process our thoughts and emotions. 

  2. Taking breaks: Research shows that if you’re working on one task, for example in your daily job, taking breaks to perform a completely different task facilitates the process of creativity and problem-solving. This is known as the incubation period

  3. Being present: Activities such as breathing, meditating, practising yoga, or any activity where you feel completely immersed in the present moment are helpful to our mental health. 

  4. Trying new things, especially outside your comfort zone: A few weeks ago, I participated in an outdoor activity I had never experienced before. It was a forest adventure consisting of various challenges to overcome such as zip lining and walking on ropes. When I completed the challenge after 2 hours, I realised that all the thoughts preoccupying me that day had completely dissolved. In the long run, engaging in new experiences exposes our brains to new information and signals. This, in turn, expands the language of our bodies and brains which helps us react to the world in different and richer ways. 


Follow me on LinkedIn, and visit my website for more info!

 

Lara El Ghaoui, Counsellor and Psychotherapist

Lara El Ghaoui worked for 14 years in the humanitarian sector helping people affected by disasters in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. She always wanted to be a therapist but was never encouraged to follow her heart, given the stigma associated with mental health. She was a client herself twice and knows how transformational therapy can be. Lara kept longing for a path that aligned with her true self until she finally answered the calling she had buried for years and became a person-centred therapist. She now owns the private practice ‘Route To Self’ in North Wales and helps people reconnect with their authentic self. She offers online, in-person, and Walk & Talk sessions outdoors, to harness the healing power of nature.

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