Four and a half years now I’ve been seeing my shrink. Originally I wanted to sort out negative relationship patterns. Since I started in therapy I have also worked on what it is I really want to do with my life, joined a five-year MA in gestalt psychotherapy and been in weekly group process with eleven trainees for the last three years. For the past year have had my own clients as part of my training placement.
So you might imagine that I am screaming from the roof tops about the effectiveness of the gestalt approach that I study or therapy in general. If you look at the statistics then certainly they show that talking therapy is effective.
In fact I’ve been on a journey which has included a fair amount of doubt and disillusion, as well as joy and celebration. Many a time I’ve been on the point of seriously questioning therapy in general and my therapist in particular. I’ve wrestled with this openly in sessions.
One of my issues has been around the time that it takes. A common refrain to my shrink when I have been feeling negative is: “it’s been four and a half years and I haven’t progressed”. Of course this is black and white thinking. It all depends on what I am basing my evaluation on, what exactly progressed means and whether the focus should be on progression at all.
Ok, so that can sound wishy-washy and I would get annoyed if I felt I was being fobbed off with stock therapist type answers. My reaction in the past would have been something like this: “Blah blah blah……….ok, but that response is not helping me feel any less crap than I am at this moment”.
So what has changed? What have I learned?
One of my learnings has been that it is always possible to feel better if one is truly in the moment. If I let go of my attachment to everything being crap and listen to the sound of the clock ticking, feel the tingling in my legs, listen to the silence, be with my shrink in the room, simply supported by someone else, I lose hold of my sense of ‘crapness’. I cannot stay feeling crap and be in the present as the present is in a continuous state of flux and one moment is not like the next.
And I can take this out of the therapy room. If I am feeling crap in the office or in the midst of an activity I can bring myself into the present by becoming aware of the sounds, the smells, the tastes, the touch, the light, my breathing, in the present moment.
Another realisation has been about the reality of existence. According to the existential philosophers, “shit happens”. No amount of therapy is going to stop someone close to me getting sick or my company going bankrupt and me losing my job. No amount of therapy is going to ‘sort’ me to such an extent that nothing challenging ever happens in my life. As Elisabeth Kubler-Ross says, if we had learned all the lessons ( challenges) that we needed to in life then we would no longer be alive.
I had wanted to change my relationship patterns. Are they changed? Yes. In those four and a half I have had many opportunities to experiment and learn from different interpersonal experiences including how I relate to my shrink. It is only through experiencing the good and the bad that you can assimilate lessons, hone interpersonal skills and come up against, gain awareness on and change the negative patterns stemming from childhood. It was through the different experiences also that I refined my sense of what it was I needed and looked for in a potential partner.
I have also had great practice of putting up strong yet flexible boundaries which had been one of my weaknesses pre-therapy. I am probably still working on this but I definitely qualify for proficient status in this category.
I’ve learned some great lessons about trust. Trusting my instinct, not trusting others too quickly, taking time to get to know someone, not jumping into something too quickly.
Part of my journey has been about unveiling the mist of illusion. I was walking around in a fairy tale about relationships pre-therapy. I had a hazy idea that it somehow worked like in the American feel-good films where the good girl meets the good guy and live happily ever after. I have learned to operate with both feet on the ground and about the possibilities as well as limitations of relationships.
The Core of the Matter
Relationship with Myself
One of the limitations of relationships is that they reflect back to you what you are. Therefore they can only be as evolved or aware as you are. This has probably been the crux of my work over the last four and half years. Not finding ‘the one’ but finding ‘my- self’.As a sensitive child I would put the important other’s feelings before mine to the point that I did not know what I wanted or was able to trust my own instincts.
As I now counsel my own clients, I see that this is a common theme, particularly with women. There are certain norms in society which Perls, Hefferline and Goodman talk of passionately in their seminal work, “Gestalt Therapy”. For example, women are not supposed to get angry with their mothers as this makes them bad daughters, men are not supposed to show emotion, we are all supposed to conform to a 9-5 way of living and a schedule which quashes our natural impulses and our own cycle which may not be 9-5. We are told by advertising that we should have gleaming white teeth, hairless bodies, be a size 10, that our farts should not smell.
It can leave us shrunken and functioning at much beneath our actual potential as we have lost ourselves. We have sold out to the superficial, wanting our value to be confirmed through how many friends we have on Facebook, how many cool parties we have been to in the last month, how many drunken escapades we had over the summer.
Are we being true to ourselves and what we really need in this way? Perhaps the answer to that is can we be with ourselves, are we ok when it is just us and no work schedule, no social plans, no nice clothes, no gaggle of friends or companion? Can we be ok with ourselves when it is just us in this moment?
This has been my work and this is what any evaluation would need to be based on. In my therapeutic journey I have gained a more solid sense of me, a greater respect for and trust of my instincts and a greater ability to know and get what I need next. This has also started to reflect in my life. Because I am unleashing myself from some of the ties that bind internally my outer life also feels more spacious.
Another indicator that I would base an evaluation of therapy on is heart. Do I have more heart? Or rather, am I more in touch with the heart that I have. This means compassion for myself which then flows into compassion for others. Again, yes. Years of protecting myself from negative emotions had led to a very effective armour. It protected me but also prevented others from ‘seeing’ me or allowed me to be touched by the good things in life like the magic of the moment. This armour served its purpose. It still does. And I don’t claim that it has all gone. Definitely though it has more chinks.
What About Quicker Fixes?
So what about shamans, CBT, The Law of Attraction and other quicker ways to change patterns? I have had experience with a shaman and with various workshops for example family constellations. I do think they can often be dramatic and dynamic and lead to break- throughs. However when I look back at my therapeutic journey: the gradual disentangling of myself from others; the practice of asserting healthy boundaries; the risk taking and learning to trust myself; the wrestling with my therapist to build an authentic connection, I liken it to building a house.
Time – You Can’t Grow A Tree In A Day
A sturdy house cannot be built over night. It is possible to have energetic breakthroughs which can lead to a change in a pattern. But how many times does it take to learn a lesson? How long does it take till a baby learning to walk doesn’t fall over? It takes time for walking to be learned and each time the lesson is refined and engrained into the self a little more so that in the end the baby not only can walk but also has the foundations to run, skip and jump.
By trying to make a change and stumbling, then retrying, we learn the lesson of reaching out for support and also gain inner knowledge and trust in oneself as the person who is responsible for our change. These are the less obvious gems we get from therapy. It is not just about the goal but changing the way we operate more generally so that life opens up and we become aware of and are able to fulfill goals and interests we did not even know we had. This gradual process leaves us with an increased sense of trust in our own agency, that we learned to help ourselves.
This is not to say I do not believe in the quicker fixes but speaking for myself, I was not able to fully benefit from them in the past as I felt overwhelmed with the choices and would not have stuck with one method in particular. I needed to have a more grounded and fuller sense of my self first. I do practice the law of attraction now as well as experiment with other quicker fixes and I have benefited.
Should I Check In Now?
Do I think everybody needs therapy and that therapy should take at least five years? No, I don’t. One of the reasons people resort to therapy is if they have a pattern that keeps on repeating (relationships, addictions, obsessions etc.) and they can’t free themselves from it. It is entirely up to the individual to get a sense of whether they think they could benefit from therapy or not. How long they stay depends on how engrained the pattern is. However if it stems from childhood then it will take longer as a certain amount of deconstruction and then reconstruction is necessary.