Why talk to a therapist?
George, an elderly man struggling to cope with the sudden death his wife, had been urged to go to therapy by his family. After taking his details, the therapist asked him how he felt about seeing a therapist. He started by saying "I’m not sure why I’m here. Everyone thinks I need therapy, but I think I’m alright. I’ve talked to lots of people about it and I don’t see how talking to one more person is going to make any difference to the way I feel".
It was important that George agreed to continue with the session for himself and not to placate anyone else. Once his reasons for attending had been explored more fully, the therapist explained to George why speaking to a professional is different to talking to family, friends, GP’s, nurses, neighbours or anyone else who may listen to his difficulties:
Impartiality – this is a unique aspect of speaking to a professional therapist. They usually don’t know you or anyone else involved in your life. This means they have no axe to grind; have no opinions on who said what to whom; are not triggered emotionally by anything you might say about someone; won’t feel got at or put upon; and they won’t react defensively – even if you tell them off!
Being non-judgemental – a therapist will listen to what you have to say without passing judgement. This means they won’t tell you that you’re wrong to feel what you feel or think what you think, or that what you think or feel is bad, unacceptable, weird or stupid. They will accept what you tell them and know that whatever you say or do, you are doing your best to help yourself feel better.
Guidance – this is different from advice. Family, friends, colleagues, the man in the local shop, the woman on the bus, will all offer advice when you tell them your worries or problems. Although well-meaning, it will usually be based on their own experiences (or those of someone they know or who knows someone they know...). A therapist would never give advice, but they will offer guidance. Think of a therapist as your co-driver – they point out obstacles in your path, suggest other possible routes, maybe even get you to take a pit-stop so you can assess your progress - but you’re the one in the driving seat, you have control of the steering wheel, gears and brakes.
Positive regard – your therapist considers your well-being and self-esteem to be paramount. They won’t flatter you to make you think well of them, or to get something from you. They will tell you how well you’re doing; point out your strengths and positive qualities; give you encouragement; remind you of how far you’ve come and of the courage it may have taken for you to face your fears. If they do feel a challenge might be helpful, it will be done with respect and sensitivity.
Empathic listening – with someone who is trained in active listening, what you get is something very different to speaking to someone who butts in to tell you about themselves, looks over your shoulder to see who else is around, or whose eyes glaze over as they go off into a daydream. With a good therapist, you know you’ve been heard and not just listened to; you know they have been carefully following what you’ve been telling them and have paid attention to the important points that might need attending to more carefully.
When the therapist finished, George nodded good-naturedly, but it was clear he still wasn’t convinced; which was fine, as the therapist wasn’t about to try to talk him into coming back for more sessions.
They continued, and George described in more detail how he was struggling to cope without his wife of fifty years. The therapist listened attentively, occasionally asking for clarification or to reflect George’s words back to him – something that reassured George that the therapist was indeed listening and doing her best to understand what he was feeling.
At the end of his session, George thanked the therapist for her time and for listening to him so patiently. He reported that he felt a weight had been lifted and would very much like to come back again to do ‘some more talking’.