I’m often asked, what’s it like – being in therapy? It’s a good question. And the more you know about it, the more you see how it may be difficult to give a concise answer. One main reason, is that therapy is such a bespoke process. So it’s very hard to generalise – and I’m not sure whether you should even try. But enough excuses – the question’s also a perfectly reasonable one. So even if a nice, crisp answer is not something I find it easy to produce, here are a few – not very concise – thoughts.
To start with, being in therapy is about learning how to connect with, and how to communicate, our deepest thoughts and feelings. We learn to listen, to hear; to also hear ourselves and our own stories. We learn to be listened to, and to be heard without interruption or prejudice by someone who is on our side without any agenda beyond helping us to see how and where we may need to change in order to have a fuller and happier life.
Therapy creates a space in which we can heal and grow, in which we can check in with ourselves – and our therapist; explore what’s gone before, how it’s impacted our lives, and monitor how we’re doing on a week to week basis. We can feel good about the fact that we’re getting help, that we’re doing important work to make ourselves healthier, to possibly reconnect and understand ourselves better, become more self aware. It’s a space where we can examine our mistakes without judgement or criticism, and see what we can learn from them.
In our fast-moving world, which can sometimes feel too speedy and superficial, therapy is a deep process, not a quick fix. It’s also an investment – of time and money – and if you engage with it, it will start paying dividends almost at once, although it takes time to really profit from it.
Each person comes to therapy with a unique history, a unique presenting issue, unique feelings about themselves and how they are trying to do their lives. Sometimes there has been trauma in the past, sometimes the pain of loss. Some are living with the agony of addictions and mental disorders, some are recovering from breakdowns. Many are struggling with high levels of stress, anxiety, panic attacks and/or the draining dips and fogs of depression. Some have become socially isolated and suffer from loneliness and a lack of intimacy in their lives, others are overwhelmed by work and financial and family responsibilities. The emotional car crash of relationship breakdown carries with it shock and confusion, anger and sorrow. There are those who are suffering from past rejection or abandonment that can haunt even successful lives and rob them of any real sense of joy. Sexual problems, eating disorders, compulsions – all are manifestations of inner pain that is crying out for healing and transformation.
And that is the work of the therapist: to create a space and a framework in which healing and change can happen, and while it’s happening, to safely hold and contain the process for however long that may be.
Jung described it as setting off together on a journey in the dead of night, with no known destination and no map, only the therapist’s knowledge and experience to hold up as a small light in the darkness. And so we go, step by step, sometimes stopping to rest but not for too long, because the journey once started can’t easily be abandoned. We need to get somewhere, even though we may not at first, or even for a while, know where it is we want to get to.
It’s an unusual process, a rather strange project, whose success depends largely on two factors: the client’s desire and ability to engage with it, and the relationship between client and therapist. It takes a lot of trust to do this, to surrender to the therapeutic process. And it’s up to the therapist to create an environment that feels safe and strong, that gives the client a sense of security, of being fully respected and believed in.
Because the therapist also is making a tremendous commitment to the client, to stay with them, to keep assessing and reassessing the client’s needs and responding to them; to keep going when it gets difficult; to be patient, to maintain the professional boundaries, and to be open to whatever the client may bring. Above all, the therapist knows that they also will be changed by this work with this particular client because, as Jung said, the process, the relationship between therapist and client, is akin to a chemical process – or alchemical process – through which both will experience transformation, and both will emerge in some way changed.