George*, an elderly man in his seventies, struggling to cope with the sudden death his wife, had been urged to come to therapy by his family. After taking his details, I 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 all right. 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 the reason George agreed to continue with the session was for himself and not to placate anyone else. Once I’d explored this with him and was satisfied that he was happy to go ahead despite not being convinced of its efficacy, I explained to George why speaking to a therapist is different to talking to family, friends, GP’s, nurses, neighbours or anyone else who may listen to his difficulties.
What follows is a longer version of what I shared with George on why seeing a therapist can provide you with a different level of support:
Being non-judgemental – In our day-to-day conversations we make judgements all the time – some of which will be negative. A trained 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 under the circumstances to keep yourself safe from feeling bad about yourself.
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 if things get difficult; 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 compassion.
Empathic listening – the quality of listening is very different when someone like a therapist is doing it. With someone who is trained in attentive 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, whose eyes glaze over as they go off into a daydream, or who stifles a yawn. With a good therapist, you know you’ve been heard and not just listened to; you know they have been very carefully following what you’ve been telling them, and have paid attention to the important points that might need attending to more carefully.
When I’d finished explaining some of this to George, he nodded good-naturedly, but I could tell he still wasn’t convinced; which was fine, as I wasn’t about to try to talk him into staying or coming back for more sessions. We continued, and he told me all about what had happened around the time of his wife’s and how he’d been feeling since then. He told me of his frustration with certain aspects of the medical system, and with his grief over the loss of his companion and best friend of over fifty years.
I sat and listened to his story, occasionally asking for clarification if I hadn’t understood something, or reflecting on his words and the feelings they may have been conveying. At the end of his session, George thanked me for my 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’.
On ending her therapy with me, another client Alice*, summed the role of a therapist up perfectly:
Thank you for staying calmly through a few of my darkest days.
Thank you for waiting patiently for me to find my way.
Thank you for listening quietly.
Thank you for guiding gently.
Thank you for your clarity, your wisdom, and your truth.
Thank you for your humanity.
Thank you for being you.
(*Names have been changed to maintain confidentiality.)