Over watery gin and tonics today, my dear old friend Sophie probes my body with questions about my job and studies, specifically, the therapeutic process. In doing so, I try to pretend I do not notice the way her voice is uncharacteristically wobbly.
I am surprised to learn she is only just now embarking on the therapeutic process, and by embarking, I mean inquiring with me about what it looks like, what it involves, and how she might engage. I am surprised because Sophie is my most left-lying, ‘woke’ friend (hyper-aware and well informed in a contemporary political or cultural sense). Also, with a history of familial breakups and maternal instability, I am just surprised she has not sought out support before.
Physical health and mental health are still treated differently in our culture.
Our psyche, which can be thought of as how we feel about ourselves as well as in relation to others, is the most fundamental and constant experience of the cognitive human. This is to say, one’s individual mind and past experiences are the only framework we are allowed to see through for the (insert your number) years we are given on this planet.
When I think about the human psyche like this, it baffles me that talk therapy it is still somewhat taboo. We dedicate so much thought, time, effort, and money to our physical well-being but so little to our mental states. It turns out that there are many cases like Sophie in my life who are either quietly uncomfortable, self-medicating, confused or maybe just curious but diffident about where to start or what might become of it.
Nobody is immune to the benefits of talking.
Talk therapy, also known as psychotherapy, is a medium for mental health professionals to communicate with clients. The purpose is to assist an individual in identifying issues causing emotional distress. I would like to reiterate psychotherapy’s relevance to all individuals, whether you are a banker, teacher, waiter, mechanic, artist, upholster, chef, surgeon, engineer, picture framer, window washer, baker, winemaker, camera-person, tram-driver, principal, student, professional athlete, or even a psychotherapist yourself.
For some, the issues that arise may eventuate in a diagnosis like anxiety or depression. For others, it might simply offer a space to chat about difficult emotions and feelings that arise from job loss, grief, relationship challenges, a specific trauma, or just everyday stressors like your curious jealousy over a friend who has had a large success or picking up the kids from school while simultaneously trying to manage your work phone. Once the problem(s) has been acknowledged, your therapist will work with you to understand how certain stressors play out in your life and develop with you explanations, solutions, and strategies to alleviate the severity of your symptoms. Sounds okay, right?
At most private practice clinics in Australia, a session lasts for 50 minutes, and how often you visit your therapist and the length of the course of your engagement will vary depending on your needs and the kind of treatment plan you and your therapist develop. For more information on the first session, you may like to read Seeking Psychology Help for the First Time.
Our modern problem is a profound fear of not being good enough.
Gillian Straker and Jacqui Winship, co-authors of the book The Talking Cure, are passionate about the use language as a way of processing and enhancing our experience in this world.
In a Radio National (RN) podcast, they hone in on the way our modern world seems to suffer from a kind of collective ‘performance anxiety’, a profound fear of not being good enough and, therefore, an unhealthy preoccupation with what “good enough” looks like. They explain that psychotherapy addresses the human condition of people-pleasing, as well as the harm of ignoring how you feel at any given moment in time. They offer psychotherapy as a means of relieving instinctive, hyper-stressful states of mind which arise from neglecting ones needs while tending to others.
Therapy provides skills and strategies that will persist over a lifetime and across various circumstances.
Many psychotherapists emphasise the power of early intervention: They advocate for finding a therapist and developing, skills early on (pre-challenge/adversity) to save you time, money and emotional anguish in the future.
“Self-understanding isn’t something you can get from the drive-through”
Declared the psychologist Jonathon Shedler from the University of Colorado. I enjoy this analogy and agree that we shouldn’t wait until we are at a crisis point or wading through the lonely depths of depression to start the process. I imagine there is a significant cost-benefit and time-benefit analysis of getting in early. That is, the psychological benefits from psychotherapy persist over time. You’re not just working through things pertaining to the present moment; you’re developing the tools, skills and strategies that will last over a lifetime. Once developed, one can continue to use the self-aware and reflective lens well beyond formal therapeutic settings.
Many of us like to believe we have our s!%t together or hope the anxiety, anger or stress will subside; however, ignoring emotions will undoubtedly return to haunt us later on. Ignoring emotions causes more harm, the more we ignore them. Also, irrespective of explicit anxiety, low moods or stress, our lives are full of big and small problems. Talk therapy gives you the skills to navigate and resolve conflict with healthy communication and ways of relating. The result of this? You won’t be swallowed up by minor or major events and will preserve mental room for things that really matter.
If you’re confused about when to seek help, you may like to read blog post When to Seek Psychological Help.
You are not the only beneficiary of your therapeutic work; those around you will reap the benefits too.
Beyond yourself, psychotherapy has a bunch of added benefits. One of my favourites is its power to offer you an entirely new perspective on other people. You are no longer inclined to make assumptions or catastrophise over another person’s actions. You will be able to realise and interpret other people’s intentions. This skill is helpful for offering support, communicating with the people you love, and maintaining your well-being, as you are not experiencing the behaviours of those around you as a reflection of yourself.
Finally, psychotherapy gives you a guide to parenting that no audiobook, masterclass or Instagram account ever could. By discussing and understanding your own mental state with a therapist, you will have the vocabulary and skills to navigate similar subjects with your children. Children, as we know, are hypersensitive, especially to the emotions and behaviours of their caregivers. Suppose a caregiver establishes certain subjects as taboo and wrestles with their own avoidance of difficult emotions. In that case, the child may develop avoidant behaviour patterns of their own and encounter similar hardships down the track. Therefore, therapy provides emotional fluency across generations and will lay the foundations for healthy communication between family members.
One country has closed the gap between physical and emotional health, and they’re enjoying the benefits.
It is clear that here in Australia, we need to shift the way we approach the discipline of talk therapy. Many still equate participation in psychotherapy with “error” or “failure”. Whereas some of the world’s most successful and content individuals embrace therapy. This is because there is an explicit pragmatism in the therapeutic process, as talking about things gives a problem shape. The opposite of this, is turning something over in one’s head -what psychologists call ruminating. Ruminating gets us precisely nowhere. Language punctuates experience with a beginning, middle and end. It allows you to hold the feeling, emotion, or experience in your hands, understand it and overcome it.
Interestingly, there is a proliferation of psychologists (due to enormous demand) in Argentina. The World Health Organization ranked Argentina as the world leader in psychologists per capita, at 106 psychologists per 100,000 people. To put this into comparison, there are 33 clinical, counselling and school psychologists per 100,000 people in the US, according to the American Psychological Association.
Albert Brok, a psychologist who practices in New York but grew up in Argentina, observes that hyper western countries like the US (and Australia) tend to have “a culture more oriented toward shame and individualism, and an ethic of finding solutions to particular problems”. He further identifies the issue lies in smartphone applications, which behave as “surrogate therapists”.
What a wonderful place Argentina sounds, I think, where people do not shy away from introspection and try to resolve issues by sitting with the questions rather than throwing themselves into work or obsessing over solutions. How do we get there?
Though we have a long way to go, I believe our future is promising. There has been an impressive uptake in psychotherapy in the past decade and greater mental health initiatives in educational settings and workplaces, especially in the wake of the pandemic.
Be prepared to shop around for a therapist that suits your specific needs and personality.
Finally, there is a misunderstood part of the therapeutic process that isn’t explained before starting: Be prepared to shop around for a therapist. Straker and Winship encourage us to approach it the same way you’d “shop around and test drive cars before placing your life in one”. Some people can assume they shouldn’t need to look around as they are seeking a therapist for their education, training, and expertise. However, to get something out of the process, you must feel like you can develop a trustworthy relationship with your therapist that will eventually lead you to a place of mutual frank disclosure. Across all therapeutic modalities, short and long, online or in person, for addiction or stress, the therapeutic relationship holds the remedy.