Buzzfeed, you’ve got it wrong. Therapy is not like that.
Buzzfeed had a couple of jokey articles for Mental Health Week, including
19 Questions You’ve Definitely Wanted To Ask Your Therapist and 27 Things Everyone Who Has Gone To Therapy Will Understand. They are funny enough that I thought I’d answer some of the questions. [Also: Buzzfeed, I don’t listen to people’s problems.] A whole lot of the article is just wrong, wrong, wrong about what therapy nowadays involves. Buzzfeed, it’s not like that.
Click here for all “pop songs with truth” posts ♦ Click here for all relationship and couples posts ♦ Click here for all radical meditation postsHere are some of Buzzfeed’s listicle bullets that mostly never happen in therapy today in the UK (this was on the UK version of their site).
- In the beginning, you do a lot of awkward staring and sitting in silence before you actually manage to say anything.
- But then you notice that after you finish a sentence, they just awkwardly stare at you
- and don’t say anything.
- And you’re just like… “So….yeah………..”
- And yet they just keep staring.
- If I have nothing to talk about, are you judging me?
- Is it possible to talk *too much* at my own therapy session?
… in other words, the therapist is contributing very little, the client is left alone in a silence and has to fill the silence somehow or other. This all goes back to Freud and psychoanalysis. In classical psychoanalysis the analyst said very little. He (in the early days it was all “he”) sat behind the patient, and the patient talked into a vacuum; occasionally the analyst would “make an interpretation”, which meant to tell the patient what was going on behind what was said. Or at least, what the analyst thought was going on.
The idea was that this provided a perfectly blank projection screen, with no human contact. The patient would fill this awkward emptiness with whatever his or her mind imagined, and this imagination would reveal the structure of the patient’s mind. Maybe the patient imagined the silence as disapproval, judgement, felt a need to be liked, or imagined the analyst was secret in love with them; it all revealed the structure of the mind.
And maybe it did. But did it bring healing and transformation? Well, no. Nowadays we have a ton of much more brief and useful methods whether within the NHS or outside it. Therapists who work in this way in the UK are surely in a minority. In my view they are a remnant of a best-forgotten age,
That said, I have, as a client, received a few excellent sessions like this myself. I go in the therapy room, the time is mine, the session will end promptly, it is my responsibility to make use of the time, I can waste it or go to the heart of things. The therapist says nothing to begin, there is a silence, I can fill it with avoidance or be fully alive in the moment. If I don’t speak the silence continues … for the whole hour. With an excellent therapist for whom this is a natural way of working, AND with a client who feels inspired by this method, results can be good.
But it’s like fell running; those who love it love it, but it will always be a minority sport. It’s not a way I would choose to work either as a therapist or as a client. It is extremely demanding of the client, who has come for help, and not come to be challenged in quite that way. It is slow. It rules out a myriad really transformative methods that require a more active and supportive role from the therapist. At the worst it is empty and unproductive. Really, I think the method survives because of tradition rather than effectiveness.
The one crucial time I only listen
There’s one exception. There is just one time when I only listen and hardly say anything.
At points in people’s life, a small or big transformation happens. Then, when the client comes for the next meeting, they walk in the room free of problems and talk about their lives in a completely clear, self-respectful, self-loving, insightful way. When that happens, I shut up and listen. I don’t speak (I do explain why not.) When a person comes in that clarity and self-love, it is actually disrespectful to “do therapy”. It dishonours the person’s wholeness to offer help when no help is needed.
What people say in these moments has a vitality which is spellbinding, and I listen with rapt attention for ten minutes, for half and hour, for an hour. In that hour, they don’t need help. They just need a witness to their OK-ness. After quite a long time they come to the boundary of the OK-ness and problems re-appear in their conversation and we start to do therapy again. So for that time, I’m just listnening. But that’s very different to the the kind of old-style talking-in-a-vacuum therapy that Buzzfeed are joking about.