In the practice of psychotherapy, I often get asked, “what is therapy and how does one know it’s time to seek help?” This is a pressing question especially so in the current environment that we live in, where attention to mental wellness is a necessity.
While it’s heartening to see people talk about it and slowly acknowledge the need to focus on mental wellbeing, we also witness an overwhelming overload of information about mental health. It almost sounds as if it’s finally the time for all of us to fix, re-align and make ourselves better, functioning people. We will become a peaceful being who will find peace inside and take it outside. Phew!!!
This pressure to be well can be exhausting. For someone facing an immediate crisis (anger issues, relationship issues, headaches, conflicts, difficult childhoods etc.) or a ‘diagnosis’ (e.g., of depression, anxiety, etc.), it’s often a difficult place to be in. On the other side, when one needs quick resolutions, these standard information templates come in handy and one seems to find the answer to the immediate issue at hand. Unfortunately, as is more often the case, one moves on … but to repeating patterns, waiting for the next crisis to unfold.
With our dominant ‘can do’ culture as an ally, some dialogues regarding therapy sound like these:
I am going to find a therapist and get rid of this problem or find a solution to this problem I am facing.
I just need to find my MOJO, and everything will get sorted.
I have had so much to deal with in my life – I am strong enough to handle my own life.
I am ashamed of who I am – how can I ever share this with another person?
I am incapable of change and the best thing to do is to just not interact and stay alone.
How is anyone else going to help me fix my problem? No one knows me better than ME.
I am not mentally challenged !
Are you nuts to even suggest that I seek therapy?
I have never had a psychiatric episode.
This is just a phase and times will change.
I have so many blessings – I should not complain about every problem I have. This will get sorted.
I don’t think I can afford therapy.
These multiple inner dialogues tend to have a tone of action – of fixing ourselves – as we all live in a society which encourages the “act of doing”. It’s almost an affair with our self that calls for doing all that looks right and not a unison with ourselves that feels right!
At this point, I request you, the reader, to:
take a pause
slow down by noticing your breath
make a note of what reading this feels like
write it down somewhere for your own self
Bringing awareness to the moments of our lives as we live them – even if it is an act of reading – helps us become present to ourselves.
With this small step into awareness, let me attempt to express what therapy means, when is it a call for therapy and how can you seek a therapist who helps you in your inner journey? These thoughts are an expression of my own journey – from the time I sought therapy and began my walk towards the journey of self to today working in the space of self-work, innerwork, therapy and healing.
Before, we move into the nuances of therapy, it’s important to ask the question, “why does one feel the need to seek therapy?”
Some questions for reflection include:
Is there an inner call to seek help and if yes, what is the meaning of this help to you? How do you recognise this call?
Are the sum totality of all your experiences bringing awareness to a pattern that you wish to understand?
Do you experience your past controlling your current actions and emotions?
Are you standing at a transition point in your life with conflicting choices?
Does one issue in your life stand like the unconquerable mountain?
These reflections help initiate an inner dialogue to bring awareness to aspects of life where support is needed. More often than not, these inner dialogues often bring two voices – one that is eager to seek and receive support, and the other which is ambivalent and seems to procrastinate. Both these voices exist for a reason. When one is too eager, the other gives a warning not to rush. And when one constantly procrastinates, the eager voice shows the path to receiving clarity.
Honoring both these voices helps find clarity on why you wish to seek therapy at this stage of your life. It also helps to discern with what you wish to share with the therapist. We often hear people say, “I need help, I know something does not feel ok.” These two voices give expression to that something in the individual paving the way for the next step.
What is therapy?
The step to seeking and receiving help is a space of vulnerability – it’s a place of opening the deepest parts of ourselves. There are many ways to receive this help in our lives, and therapy has been one of them, more so in modern times. Approaches to therapy abound, considering that the word therapy itself comes from Greek therapeia, which means simply to cure, or to heal.
In my view, ‘Therapy is an art and science, in which the therapist and client work towards healing. The therapist is a professional who has trained with the language of the body and mind, and has practiced self-work continuously to be able to listen, ask important questions, and create a safe and unbiased environment.’
In this safe environment, therapy becomes a process by which one slowly becomes completely present to oneself by gaining awareness while attempting to resolve a current issue that one is experiencing. It helps enable a conscious healing process to live an empowering life.
Why a therapist?
“But why can’t I alone work on my healing?” Surely, you can and must – in fact, you, as a client play a prime role. However, often times, when we are too enmeshed in our struggles, we need another person to support and guide us through the difficult path. Because we cannot so easily distance from own experiences, we are often caught up in the same pattern and become a prisoner to them. Besides, when we attempt to work with ourself, we are often led down the path of thought-based reflections. Considering that we are both the subject and the object, we become entangled with our thoughts, feelings, emotions and sensations and end up in a hamster wheel.
It is here that a therapist through their presence and skill can bring in the requisite distance and thereby help you gain access to life by presenting it like a kaleidoscope. The background image to it is the same, however as you explore the kaleidoscope jointly with the therapist, you start seeing new patterns which share a story and inform you of your path – with you being the main protagonist! Needless, this requires a safe environment, which is what the therapist provides.
What is a safe environment?
Simply put, it is a space created for the client by the therapist which is welcoming of all the voices of the client. It is a space without judgement (based on social norms), a place of trust and confidentiality and most importantly of healthy boundaries between the client and the therapist.
How does therapy work?
There are different approaches in psychotherapy and most therapists work with multiple approaches and methods that help gain access to and integrate the conscious and unconscious aspects of the client’s life. Simply stated, aspects that the person is aware of are conscious, while those that are not in the immediate field of awareness are unconscious. Through the diagram below, I would like to share an example here:
Note: the above example is not based on any client sessions and is used only for illustrative purposes.
What is described above is how a client session unfolds, that makes the individual reflect on all areas of their life and thereby bring by understanding the various unconscious aspects of their self. During this ‘meaning making’ process, the body and psyche release the unwanted and start accepting that which is necessary for a healthy inner environment. This is a brief, over simplistic explanation and most therapy work is neither this easy nor linear. Which is why therapy takes time. It begins to make a difference when one spends at least a few sessions as suggested by the therapist depending on the client issue. Therapy is not a quick fix approach and needs investment of time, and inner effort on part of both client and therapist.
“[T]he principal aim of psychotherapy is not to transport the patient to an impossible state of happiness, but to help him acquire steadfastness and philosophic patience in face of suffering. Life demands for its completion and fulfilment a balance between joy and sorrow.”
~ Carl Gustav Jung, CW 16, Para 185
Seeking a therapist
Seeking a therapist who is right for you is a very important part of the therapeutic journey. While there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ therapists, there are a few aspects that become important in seeking a therapist.
Begin with a bit of exploration and experiment when it comes to meeting a therapist. Taking a reference is always helpful. Ask people who have undertaken therapy. Check out the internet for a directory of therapists. Also, if you have seen a profile on the internet / social media who you feel connected to, it helps to explore that too.
Go ahead and schedule an initial meeting. Sometimes, you may find the ‘right’ therapist (for you) in the first meeting itself – and sometimes it may need a couple of scouting trips to few therapists.
2. Understand your own needs
It is important to pay attention to what gives you comfort:
Cultural and religious context – If your cultural context is an important part of your belief system, it might help to seek someone who supports that.
Non – Binary sexual approach – Choosing a therapist who is gender positive is a consideration if it makes you feel safer.
Therapist’s gender orientation – if a particular gender makes you feel comfortable, recognize and choose a therapist with the gender that makes you connect.
Specialisation – based on your needs, choose a therapist who has previous experience in the challenges you face. For example, if you are facing an abusive relationship, look for a therapist with past working history in trauma & relationship counselling.
3. Therapist as a professional
During the first session, it is important to check and understand the therapist you are to engage with. If the details are not available on the therapist’s website / directory listing / office, check for:
Work ethics & guidelines: therapists who outline their work guidelines, scope of practice, methods and approaches and attempt to give the client clarity on working principles.
Psychotherapy contract: a clear contract that specifies the confidentiality clause, fees and cancellation policy helps define clear boundaries.
Supervision (for therapists-in-training): most new therapists undertake supervision – a pre-requisite in a good therapy practice. This helps them support their clients and also helps then enhance their own skills. A professional therapist would make it clear and also state this as an exception to the confidentiality clause. Note that therapists with significant experience may not undertake supervision, as they may themselves be supervisors. Many countries / states have continuing education requirements as well.
Qualifications: check the qualifications and approaches mentioned by the therapist on their profile or during the intake session. There are multiple approaches when it comes to psychotherapy. While it is difficult to understand everything detailed in the approach, it would give you a sense of how your therapist works and if that feels right for you.
4. Gut feel or felt sense around the therapist
The first meeting is a very important one. Ask all the questions / concerns you have here. It also gives you a sense of how you feel in the presence of the therapist. This is a very important indicator and consider these two opposing questions to gauge how your inner self is responding.
Do you feel anxious or do you feel calm?
Do you feel agitated or do you feel relaxed?
Is your nervousness not settling or are you feeling slowly present and alert?
Do you felt pushed or do you feel challenged?
Do you feel alarmed or do you comforted?
Do you keep waiting for session to get over or you don’t realise how the time went by and how much you ended up sharing in the first meeting (even though you had not planned for it)
Do you feel free to message and connect with the therapist again or would you rather keep distance?
These feelings / sensations are signals and indications of felt safety in presence of the therapist. If most of your responses are yes to the second part of the questions, then that therapist is worth considering. As you gain clarity on all these aspects, your own sense of boundary and safety gets established which supports your therapeutic journey.
I hope that with these inputs, some part of you feel ready to begin your journey inward – for your soul to claim it’s meaning and purpose. Best wishes.
“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
― Carl Gustav Jung