On the benefits of impartiality
Of all the different benefits clients report that they get from therapy, the one that comes up more than any other, and is often the first to be felt very early on in therapy, is the benefit of talking to someone who is completely unconnected to the issue the client is struggling with. Someone who isn’t emotionally invested in either the situation or anyone associated with it.
It is clear that there is a big difference between sharing our troubles with people we know, and sharing them with an impartial outsider, but what makes the difference, and is unburdening ourselves to a therapist any more beneficial than seeking support from a friend?
The clue is in the word burden, which is what a vast majority of us wish to avoid becoming. We would rather bear the weight of our worries alone than ask a friend or loved-one to share it. The problem becomes even greater if what is troubling us involves the people we love, and we can’t share our feelings for the added reason that we might upset someone. Nobody wants to ‘stir up a hornet’s nest’, or ‘open a can of worms’ and risk damaging relationships with those they love – the very people from whom they derive support. Both of these are metaphors that have been used by clients to illustrate their fear around opening up to the people close to them.
The risk of damage to ourselves is seldom underestimated either. Although more rarely acknowledged out loud, the anxiety around making ourselves vulnerable to the people we see every day is also a factor. It could be that we are worried about letting people down – we may have partners or parents or friends that we look up to and respect, and the expectations we have of ourselves in those relationships inhibit our capacity for vulnerability, usually because we are afraid of being judged, or because we think we might become a disappointment by revealing our weakness.
No wonder, then, that one of the greatest effects clients report in the initial stages of therapy is relief – the effect of the weight set down just by being able to talk about difficult issues without fear of judgement or of harming the listener. It seems it is sometimes easier to be a burden to a stranger than to a friend. On the whole, clients also understand that a therapist is trained to reserve judgement, and bound by a code of ethics that dictates a level of confidentiality which cannot always be relied upon between even the closest and most well-meaning of loved-ones. And if they have allowed themselves to be really seen and heard, complete with all the things that most of the time may be kept hidden – anger, hurt, sadness, shame... the feeling of vulnerability that accompanies such openness can be left behind when they leave the therapy room.
Perhaps in the short-term counselling can, among other things, act like a safe deposit box, in which some of the things that may be making life difficult are placed for safekeeping with the therapist, who is trained to hold onto them, without judgement, until such time as the client is ready to take them out again, examine and integrate them. Or from another perspective, therapy can offer a place to practise being vulnerable by sharing the things we are afraid of sharing, when not sharing them has become unsustainable.