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The road to clarity

September 1, 2010
by Brian Duffy, LMHC, LADC-I
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Talk therapy and journaling help clients make sense of their thoughts

Has this ever happened to you? You're in a meeting (business, recovery, social, etc.) and you have an idea to share with the group. In your mind, the idea makes complete sense. It's relevant and insightful, and it clearly will impress your audience. So you share your brilliant idea, only to realize as you hear your words bouncing off the walls that it doesn't sound nearly as brilliant as it did when it was bouncing around in your brain.

This is a common occurrence (with me, anyway) and it demonstrates two things: 1) We think in words; and 2) Our brains tend to filter our thoughts-making it difficult for us truly to understand our own thoughts. Fortunately, talk therapy and journaling can help us gain clarity of thought.

“Thoughts and feelings disentangle themselves as they pass through the lips or the fingertips.”

This quote (author unknown), a favorite of mine, recognizes the difficulty we have in accurately “translating” our own thoughts and feelings. My role as a counselor is to help my client know himself-to get him to examine and challenge his own assumptions, values and behaviors. For many people, talk therapy offers an excellent vehicle for achieving these goals.

Talk therapy

Clients often have the unrealistic expectation that I can solve their problems-that I have the answers to their questions. Fortunately, they soon understand the limitations of my role.

Most clients “get” the concept of talk therapy. They learn the value of having a relationship with someone who will witness their journey in a non-judgmental way, and who will maintain confidences. Getting them to make effective use of sessions, however, can become a more difficult assignment. It can take many sessions with a client to overcome the awkwardness and uncertainty about the agenda.

Speaking of agenda, it is my client's responsibility to present topics for discussion. If a client struggles finding issues to discuss, I'll encourage her to make a list of things that have happened since our last session-to actually jot down things as they occur. I'll even provide a small notepad for the client to carry around for this purpose.

Some clients are prepared to talk, but are clever in avoiding the real issues, such as self-esteem, grief, shame, guilt, trauma, etc. This is where an artful therapist can trigger useful discussion by asking open-ended questions and by allowing awkward silences to “push” the client into self-reflection and relevant sharing.

I might never be comfortable with long periods of silence during a session, but this is not about my comfort, is it? It is about helping clients gain clarity of thought. Silence is a potent clinical intervention. It is a learned skill I must continue relearning.

Talking with one's sponsor and speaking at recovery meetings also constitute ways for a person to access true feelings. I often ask clients what they talk about with sponsors and at recovery meetings, exploring the discoveries made during these recovery-focused conversations.

On occasion, I'll let a newcomer share in my office as if at an AA meeting, just to help overcome the jitters related to public speaking. (Yeah, I know. One is supposed to share from the heart, without rehearsal. But some newcomers will never share without a “trial run.”)

New speakers often struggle to bring their remarks to a close. By showing the newcomer simple ways to end the talk, that person will have less anxiety about speaking at future recovery meetings.

Talk therapy also can take place when one is working any of AA's 12 Steps. It can happen with one's sponsor, at a “step” meeting, and certainly while working Steps Five and Nine. The more a person can open up, the clearer his thoughts will become.


The aforementioned quote also mentions fingertips, undoubtedly a reference to the power of journaling, of writing down one's thoughts. Just as talk therapy allows a person to hear her own words, journaling enables the person to see her words on paper (or on the computer screen).

By seeing our thoughts, we can challenge the language used and more effectively identify the thoughts associated with a certain event. Clarity is achieved when we engage in that internal dispute, questioning the appropriateness of our words, our feelings and our behavior.

Unfortunately, most of my clients won't keep a journal. They'll promise to do so, but they never seem willing to devote the time to it. However, e-mail has become a very useful tool in my practice. For some reason, clients who refuse to keep a journal are comfortable with the idea of sending e-mail to their counselor.

I invite clients to communicate via e-mail, and they are surprisingly willing to do so. Those who don't have Internet access at home are able to use computers at the public library. This electronic dialogue allows clients to write about events as they happen and to examine the emotional consequences during our next session. Of course, e-mail security issues should be discussed candidly with clients.

If a client demonstrates being in distress over a certain relationship, past or present, I'll suggest that he write a letter to that person, but not send the missive. The process of writing the letter and then revisiting its contents (with me or alone) can be quite revealing-and healing. Often, confusion and anger yield to acceptance. Inflexible thinking gives way to more balanced expectations. Regrets or embarrassments become minimized.

Brian duffy, lmhc, ladc-i
Brian Duffy, LMHC, LADC-I

A common journaling technique that focuses on gratitude is to write down five things for which one is grateful. These items can be profound (