In almost all countries and communities around the world, there is one central (usually unvoiced) suspicion that arises whenever someone lets slip that they are ‘having therapy’: they are crazy.
Getting therapeutic help should – ideally – be an ordinary and wholly unsurprising thing, like getting a haircut or going to the dentist, but it remains a very peculiar and frowned-upon recourse. Partly, that’s because the therapeutic industry currently looks deeply unimpressive. Some rather awkward people are employed in it, operating from shabby basement offices, often with dodgy credentials. A rag bag of questionable services gets labelled with this catch-all term. An industry that should be as dominant and financially significant as Audi or Nike struggles for basic recognition. There is plenty of good work being done, but it isn’t overly visible.
Furthermore, because we think of therapy as an emergency procedure, something you turn to because you have very big and alarming problems, we naturally prefer to see ourselves as not needing it.
And yet it is precisely therapy that may stop us from developing these desperate problems in the first place. ‘Seeing someone’ (as the euphemism goes) may be the strongest possible promise and indicator of sanity. It should be part of the everyday experience of everyone at large in the modern world.
Here are a few of the reasons why:
One: A therapist can untangle our confused feelings
Thinking about lives is hard, especially in the age of the internet. There’s always a news site (or a porn film) a few clicks away, ensuring that we’re able to avoid large challenging realisations about ourselves.
We may know that our career needs to change, but it rarely seems a good time to analyse how and why. Or we may feel some resentment against our partner over certain upsetting incidents, but we avoid pinning down what we’re in fact bitter or sad about. We pay a big price for such self-ignorance: countless agonies and mistakes stem from not properly analysing our inner confusions. We pick the wrong job; get together with a destructive person, run away from the right one; spend our money foolishly and don’t do justice to our deeper talents and aspirations.
Because thinking about our lives is so hard, it helps immeasurably to think with someone else in the room, a skilled operator who can say: ‘go on… this sounds fascinating…’ – just as we were about to give up or evade an uncomfortable emotion. Their interest can sustain and guide our own; their commitment to making sense of what we’re saying and feeling gives us courage to walk further into the labyrinth of our psyches. They can do for us what no friend, however well-meaning, has the experience or patience to do: play us back to ourselves accurately, carefully and sanely.
Two: Therapy helps us be less defensive
Our characters are heavily buttressed by what therapists call ‘defences’: strategies to prevent us from acknowledging painful but important emotions and desires.
We like someone a lot – but out of a fear they’ll reject us – act in an aloof and sarcastic manner. Or we are deeply ambitious financially, but are so afraid of trying and failing to start a business on our own, we take it out on an abstraction we bitterly call ‘capitalism’. Or we stay at work day and night, always complaining of how busy we are, because being at the office feels more reassuring than anywhere else, for reasons that elude us.
Therapy is a safe environment in which to discover more about the origins of our defences – and ideally to shed a few of them, so as to be able to lead more exposed yet more fulfilled lives. We pay too high a price for the apparent ‘safety’ of these defences: the cost of protecting ourselves in one area is always an incapacity in many others.
Defensive behaviour requires therapy – rather than just a good dose of common sense – because we are sure to deny our manoeuvres if someone calls us on them in an overly direct way. It’s an arduous task marshalling our energies to address the most difficult aspects of our own behaviour. We keep on wanting to blame other people. Or run away. The therapist keeps us usefully tethered to the topic in hand, for as long as it might take for us to become a little more honest and braver with ourselves.
Three: Therapy bolsters a sane inner voice
In the course of our lives, we will without doubt be exposed to a cast of terrible role models – and are at risk of internalising their unhelpful – but potent – approaches to life. The critical, snide remarks of a gang from school get lodged in our imaginations, so that we keep hearing echoes of their corrosive (but to us compelling) commentaries decades thereafter. Our harassed, rushed mother who couldn’t give us enough attention at key moments thirty-five years ago becomes our imaginary template of all intimate communication: people only half listen to one another, they always have more important things to do than spend time with us… Or it could be a splenetic father, who was never much impressed with us, from whom we internalise the idea that authority figures are always critically looking to see where we have fallen short.
These punitive, debilitating voices push us towards unhelpful ways of interpreting our own experience. I am disgusting, we tell ourselves. In our minds, we hear: of course, I failed. Obviously that person wouldn’t be interested in me. I’ve got no chance. I’ve got to leave the living room spotless – only the worst possible people would ever leave things until the morning. Only a deranged person would want to think of that during sex…
One of the key tasks of the therapist is to expose us often enough to a more sane, respectful, reasonable and realistic outlook than our own. The hope is that we will not for ever have to rely on their presence. A good version of the earlier damaging process of internalisation can ideally occur. The therapist’s kindly, wise voice should become our own. We should begin to intuit what they would have said in a given situation, and when they are no longer there, at moments of crisis and loneliness, can learn to say some of the important, calming and kind things to ourselves.
Four: Therapy helps couples hear one another
Relationships can descend into shouting matches. Both parties are furious and out to wound, yet both are also too hurt to listen. In such chaotic situations, a therapist can become the wise broker, allowing each person to have their say, sympathising with both parties, while taking neither of their sides. Therapy becomes a safe diplomatic back channel, away from the open warfare of domestic life. The therapist can help the couple to see that behind one person’s rage is pain and a history of betrayal. Or she might make someone aware of what it feels like to be on the receiving end of hostile silence or controlling inquisitions. She can hold both parties back from one another’s throats for just long enough that they may start to understand what their previously caricatured opponent is going through.
It could all seem far from romantic, but if by romantic one means committed to the development and growth of love, then there can be nothing more romantic than to pour over a couple’s resentments – before these have corroded all capacities for desire and tenderness.
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Far from a self-indulgence, undergoing therapy is one of the most generous things we could ever do for all those who have to live around us. Those who have spent time in therapy are, if the process has worked even moderately well, ever so slightly less dangerous to be around: a little better able to warn those who depend on them of how frustrating and peculiar they might sometimes be. We owe it to ourselves, and just as importantly, those who love us, to take our courage in our hands – and to go and ‘see someone’ forthwith.