Can you experience therapy through reading an article?

The aim of this article to reward the reader with a useful experience. To do so, it attempts to create a similar process to that of therapy, recreating as many of the factors as possible. I will imagine your responses on the basis of my experience. There will necessarily be generalisations and mistakes. Also, as with all attempted therapeutic experiences, there is no guarantee of the outcome. So, I invite you to take time a little time to consider before deciding whether to read on. Do I consent to participate in this written experiment?

Thanks you for giving your consent! In my article titled ‘what are you getting paid for’, I outlined some of the things that can happen in therapy. In this article I try to practise some of those things in print. In particular, this possible series of experiences:

  • The client identifies a problem
  • The therapist becomes part of the client’s problem
  • The therapist experiences, contains, and communicates the emotions involved in being part of the client’s problem
  • The therapist accepts and communicates their responsibility for being part of the client’s problem
  • The therapist, consciously and transparently, struggles to change how they relatein order to become part of a solution to the client's problem
  • The client, and therapist, decide to end, or repeat, the experience.

In summary, this article walks you through a worked example of what might happen in a therapeutic encounter. So, with your continued consent, we begin with the client identifying a problem:

1 - The client identifies a problem

The first problem in using an article to create this process is the author can't mind read what problem you, its client, wishes to address, as we know people's problems are as varied as the people themselves. So, in the hope this article can reward as many people as possible, I will use ‘how can we increase my psychological health?’ as a difficulty whose resolution might reward a range of different, more specific, problems. So having partially achieved the first step, we move to the part where the therapist becomes a part of the client's problem.

2 - The therapist becomes part of the problem

How then might the therapist (in this case the author) become part of the problem? In fact, the therapist becoming part of the client's problem is easier than you might imagine. In terms of the article, your time has already been spent reading to this point. An expectancy of reward has been created. Writing this, I felt myself being drawn to theory in order to move away from the here and now experience of imagining you, the reader, holding an expectation that I will not initially completely fulfil.

More generally, the therapist/author has set up themselves up as an expert in psychological health. The initial cost of an expert to the client includes a sense of mystery. The client submits themselves, temporarily at least, to a non-expert status in the interaction, perhaps creating an expectation of rescue. In this way, we see how the therapist/author may be initially seen, and want to be complete, innocent, and flawless.

I hope you can see, already, how the expectancy on the part of the client and the desire of the part of the therapist combine, so creating ideal conditions for the inevitable initial failure of the human therapist. How the therapist fails and becomes part of the client’s problem depends on the particular problem, the client, and the therapist. Here are some possibilities:

Leaks in an incomplete container

Fear: This article took some time, too long, to write. Experiencing intermittent writer's block through excessive fear. A sense of hesitation and avoidance. Overestimating or underestimating our uniqueness. Alternatively believing we can do everything or we can achieve nothing.

Closing one eye: We each have implicit and explicit biases about the benefit of reading articles, and therapy more generally. These make partial judgements, and the mistakes that emanate from them are inevitable. The client helps more effective therapy by pointing out what the therapist is missing and vice versa. This is not possible in an article.

Just watching: We may remain confident in the luxury of the position of habitual voyeur. It is a struggle to understand other people’s experiences. This can lead to impatience, avoidance and/or criticism.

An ambivalence of the experience: Part of me doesn't want to write the article, to be with each other, and part does. So, at times, there's an attraction to the role of outsider. The lazy role of an Englishman in Scotland: ‘A no is fine, a yes and we have a different problem’. At others, over-committed and immersed.

Still too much of a purist: We may fall in love with the idea of therapy easier than its practice.

As we have seen the nature of the problem, the client and the therapist affect which failures happen first. I hope we have seen how the therapist becoming part of the problem is easier than you might imagine. The value of that involvement for the client depends on what happens next, starting with how the emotions of the client’s problem are experienced.

3 - The therapist experiences, contains and communicates the emotions involved in being part of the problem

Writing this part of the article, I felt anxiety for the outcome of the process, a fear of making you, its reader, psychologically less healthy, excitement at having a positive impact, and possibly the uncertainty of the reader in not knowing the ending of the article (feel free to rush ahead for the conclusion). There was also shame from the mistakes and incompleteness of the endeavour. Vulnerability in making specific how I work. However, rather than being immersed in this state of emotional arousal, I remembered I could navigate these emotions. If necessary, step away from them and the article. In other words, containing the emotional experience through conscious effort. A containment through remembering that healing without failing is unrealistic. People get into ‘trouble’ through clinical work - that, to some degree, is the clinical work. To get into and get out of ‘trouble,’ safely enough. A similar process to that of the recovering client.

4 - The therapist accepts, and communicates, their responsibility for being part of the problem

To accept, and communicate, the responsibility for being part of the problem, a therapist needs to have a degree of self-awareness and comfort with discovering new imperfections. For example, in the past, I had an excessive fear of doing harm and excessive guilt when harm was done. Paradoxically, this led to more mistakes, as it blinded me to both positive and negative aspects of my relationships.

In this respect, I half-jokingly say ‘the innocent are not welcome. They are too dangerous’. In fact, the less scared of taking responsibility I get, the more effective a therapist I become. Brave for a reason. If I become vulnerable first, space is created for the client to take responsibility, involved in a boundaried way, a responsible participant in the client's problem.

So I apologise, to you the reader, for the mistakes made so far in the article. To my mind, they have been intellectualisation, overcomplicating, repetition, and speaking to ideas instead of the reader. I endeavour from this point forwards not to make them again.

5 - Consciously and transparently change how I relate to become part of a solution to the problem

This feels like the tricky bit. What can I change in this interaction? Ask more questions? But the reader is unable to answer them. Be less prescriptive? But I don't know if the suggestions I have made are unhelpful. It seemed to help when I turned my arousal and numbness into emotions. Emotions which were be verbalised and shared, rather than overwhelming. I am feeling relieved at removing the pressure from the interaction. How are you feeling? Also relieved to be revealing my struggle to contain and embrace your possible experience. This is not easy for me and not easy for you.

I changed how I react to the mistakes I am making in the article. Moving away from a punitive stance. Instead, I apologise for any hurt feelings, make efforts to repair, and not make the same mistakes again.

I find myself, in writing, leaving more space for silence and accepting the limitations of an article to affect change. I would like to invite feedback. Acknowledge the restriction of a stage-wise approach. Focusing on being safe enough to be read. So, without attack, or withdrawal, I invite an exchange between us each with their own power - taking off the superhero outfit and getting involved.

Neither myself, or you the reader, made us do or feel anything in this article - it happened between us. An acceptance of realities of all human relationships. I am realising while writing this that changing how I relate without the other person's input is harder than with their input. We can only gain so much from a conversation with ourselves.

6 - The client and therapist decide whether to end or repeat

Well, you are welcome to read the article again. I could write another with a different problem or process. Perhaps we could communicate more directly. The choice is ours both individually and jointly. Thank you for your company to this point.

Reflecting: Reading, and writing, about therapy is like having a bath with your wellies on.

So the answer to the question ‘Can you experience psychological therapy through reading an article?’ seems to be yes and no. It feels like it's been a vicarious experience, like having a bath with your wellies on. We can mirror the sensation of immersion in water in our mind, but not the visceral reality of the actual experience. Perhaps the goal of raising your psychological health from reading an article was overambitious. However, hopefully the article has been a good preparation for more helpful relationships to come for you. I feel like it has been for me.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Stirling, FK7
Written by Dr Andrew Perry, Clinical Psychologist
Stirling, FK7

I hold a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology from the University of Leicester (2007).

I am trained, skilled and experienced in applying cognitive, behavioural, systemic and psychodynamic psychological models across the life span.

I am registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) and the British Psychological Society (BPS).

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