Challenging friend, supportive peer, midwife, parent, role model — a therapist can be many things to many people in a day’s work! What does your therapist offer you?
I’ve been wondering lately about definitions of therapy. It is easy enough to say that therapy is different for every individual, but it is also increasingly important for therapists to define what they do, in the context of the ever-expanding fields of wellbeing, positive psychology, coaching, mentoring, etc., etc. There are plenty of experts to help you facilitate your growth, be it spiritual, artistic, financial, emotional, or any mixture of life areas you can imagine.
It is also important for therapists to define what they do in political contexts. For example, the likely future state regulation of the profession in the UK will probably include separate registers for counsellors and psychotherapists — forcing professionals, like myself, who use ‘counselling’ and ‘therapy’ interchangeably, to stand on one side of the fence or the other.
It is, on a basic ethical level, important that people know what they are “getting”. Yet there also seems to be a very real diversity within what one therapist might offer in a day’s work. While of course manualised therapies are intended to work ‘by the book’, and therapists who work very strictly according to one school might be able to say they offer pretty much the same thing to all clients, I would argue that even these therapists may be unaware of what part of the whole experience is helping each individual client — while one might be finding certain exercises helpful in exactly the way intended, another might, despite not really getting anything out of the exercises, be helped by the relationship with the therapist; another might find the very fact of taking an hour for themselves and paying for it helpful.
As a humanistic therapist (trained in the person centred tradition), though, I do not follow a manual. During a single afternoon with clients I might be brainstorming and working co-operatively with someone who is starting a new phase in their life, sitting with someone as they cry and fear that they are going mad, teaching someone breathing techniques to help with panic attacks, analysing someone’s early experiences with them to gain understanding, helping someone try to contact vague bodily sensations of an emotion, or helping ground someone in reality who has suffered an abusive relationship.
A therapist can be like a midwife, helping something/someone new to be born; a supportive companion; an empathic space; a challenging friend; a role model; a ‘good’ parent (or indeed a bad one!); a trainer or a teacher, on occasion.
Unless a therapist is very much ‘married’ to one model and makes it clear exactly what they are offering, so people who are attracted to that very model can take it up, I think that a therapist in ‘general practice’ should be flexible enough to adjust themselves to what the client is asking for (whether explicitly or implicitly). Without losing their grounding framework, the therapist can with one client speak the language of thoughts, and with another, stay with emotions; with one client the therapist can sit right back and give the client the chance to act autonomously; with another, the therapist might need to be a little closer and more nurturing. Of course, people who vastly prefer thoughts to emotions are going to need to look at emotions, and vice versa. But the style of being, and what the therapist does, should resonate with the person in front of them, or there is likely to be very little benefit. The therapist and client will just not hear each other.
So maybe my definition of therapy is this: I meet you where you are, and try to understand, on every level, exactly how things are for you, and moving forward with your problem springs from this ‘understanding together’.
“Meeting where you are” and “understanding together” may be very particular skills that a therapist has to offer.
What do you think?
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