Not so long ago I was catching up with a friend who I hadn’t seen for several years. We went through the customary “How is work?” , “How are the family?” . I happened to mention that I was working towards my professional qualification as a psychotherapist. There was a silence for a moment as we stared at each other. Then my friend said “Oh I see” and that was the end of that conversation. I admit that whenever I mention my current training as a therapist or talk about the support group I run, I am met with either genuine interest or that embarrassed silence where I can see the panic in the other person’s face that looks like “Oh shit. He is going to ask for a hug or some weird shit like that”. On occasion I have heard comments made about other therapists that amount to, “I wouldn’t go to him (or her) they have enough problems of their own without me adding to them”.This last comment sums up what many people, especially clients feel about their therapist. They have their therapists on pedestals that look down on their mortal clients with a benign smile reminiscent of statues of the Virgin Mary. The client often sees the therapist as some asexual being that has risen above the normal day to day life issues and achieved total enlightenment.
I have been with a therapist on and off for roughly four years now. I say on and off as there are times still that I believe I don’t need a therapist; that therapists are so far up themselves that they annoy me intensely. I remember that day just over four years ago when I could no longer hold onto my pain; my childhood trauma; my rage; my despair; I had no choice but to seek out a therapist. Looking down the list of counsellors and therapists I had been given, they all used words to describe their approach: Integrative; Holistic; Humanistic; Body Work; Gestalt…! What the hell did all this mean? I could feel the tears of anger burn behind my eyes. What the hell was all this. I just want someone to fix me!
I embarked on a succession of therapists in a short space of time, blaming each one for not being able to fix me. Criticising them inwardly for their incompetence. Allowing my impulsiveness to lead me away from therapy in an emotional form of self harm, because by walking away I could feel the pain even more. Not wanting to upset the therapist by being angry towards them; protecting them by not disclosing the horror of my own childhood trauma. I chose to swallow it all down, consume it whole in great indigestible chunks that left me with agonising emotional indigestion.
Now I am about to begin my third year of training as a therapist and I am due to start seeing one to one clients of my own. Two years ago I started a support group for adults like myself who were struggling with their own abuse as children. Have I learnt anything? Yes. I know that it is healthy to feel all these emotions and feelings in the therapeutic relationship. To regurgitate and vomit out, sometimes quite literally, what your body has held onto whether it is from childhood, adolescence or this morning. I have learnt that we can never turn back or turn forward the clock, that we can only work in this moment. In the support group I will ask clients “How are you feeling right now?”, even if they are talking about past events. I have learnt that therapy for a client is about working with ourselves in the here and now and that the therapist does not “fix” us; we have the ability to heal ourselves.
So this must make me the model client whose every personal therapy session is filled with healing and enlightenment? Several weeks ago there was a mix up in my appointment. I turned up to find that my therapist was due to see another client. But this was my time, my day, and my
appointment. In the ideal world I would be saying that I stood my ground, and my therapist asked the other client to come back later and with smiles all round I went into the therapy room. As we do not live in the ideal world, as I am human; as none of us are perfect, client or therapist, I left. On the way home I was filled with a rage that threatened to burn me to ashes. I was feeling the effects of this act of emotional self harm. I had deliberately sabotaged my chance of resolving the issue by walking out. Several times I had to pull over because my rage was blinding me. Thankfully I managed to contact a friend who understood what was happening to me. The urge to turn the emotional self harm to physical self harm became intense but she helped me get through it.
On my way to the following session a week later I became completely detached from my feelings. I had made my mind up I wasn’t going to talk about the mix up the previous week. I was going to hold onto the rage. My therapists first words were, “We need to talk about what happened and how it made you feel”. I sat there and stared him out. “You know”, he continued “To be a good therapist you have to be truthful and honest to yourself as a client. So you need to be honest with me. How do you feel?”
I thought I was going to be sick but instead from the pit of my stomach came “I don’t trust you anymore. I am so angry right now. I felt as if you had abandoned me for someone else” I could feel the anger, the shame, and the guilt for having said this fill my body. I couldn’t look at him. I heard him take a deep breath and say “Thank You. That’s the first time you have been truly honest about what is happening for you. How does that feel? Now we can work with this.”
Writing this several week later, I am not sure how it feels. Something has definitely shifted in me. I now understand not just at an intellectual level that in order for therapy to work, the client as well as the therapist has to be honest, has to be fully present or to use a technical phrase “congruent”. This after all is how I encourage my support group clients to be and how I hope to work with my one to one clients. This is how I must learn to be as a client.
As a client I come to therapy, wounded, hurt, troubled but also human, complex and looking for my needs to be met. As a therapist I try and be congruent, present and hold my client in a safe space for the duration of the session. How I hold that space for the client is by being me with all my wounds and troubles by being human. What I hear from the client is their pain, their fears, their anger, not mine.
Writing this I did not set out to provide answers. That would be unfair as we are all individual, we all have different needs. Just remember, the next time you are with your therapist, be “congruent”. Tell him or her that they have angered you if that is how you feel. Your therapist is not made of porcelain; they will not break with what they hear. Your therapists needs you to express fully, openly, honestly how you feel right then and there. Only then can healing take place. As a therapist I am on a lifelong learning to be a therapist as much as I am on a lifelong learning to be a client.
Nick Groom is a final year psychotherapy and counselling student. He is founder and co-facilitator of SHARE a Mayo based support group for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse.