When I first started dreaming about studying psychology, I never really imagined working in the field of mental health, especially since it is still in its nascent state in many developing countries like India. Many times, therapy was (and still is) seen as an option of intervention for people with severe mood disorders or for people exclusively seeking a diagnosis. Not surprisingly, that has created a stark (perceived) separation between who people believe are mentally “strong” and “weak” even though these standards are arbitrary if not non-existent. Additionally, it had also created stigma against mental health in general and people who experience hardships with mental health. Despite that, studying psychology introduced me to a community that was more open and non-judgmental towards these conversations. During my under-graduation, I did an internship to train ion basic skills of counselling which left me feeling incompetent and unsure about being able to be a counsellor. But various interactions with other psychologists opened doors for me that I had not imagined. I got a glimpse of the roles mental health practitioners play in professional setups. But they say, experience is the best teacher, I got a deeper understanding of the profession only when I started my higher studies and working as a trainee therapist. My own experience in therapy started out as a mandatory part of our training process with the purpose of acquainting us to the reality of what therapy sessions might look like. Like probably many other people around me, I too thought I was not one of the people who needed to attend these sessions. But through the course of my training as a Counselling Psychologist, and being a therapy client, I learned an invaluable lesson- the invaluable nature of being a human being.
I know, I know, this sounds like such a cliché. I really tried to think of another way to write that statement but, it is still the truth.
The race of becoming better…
A big aspect of the conversations around mental health ends up focusing on “becoming better versions as individuals”- we don’t always say it explicitly all the time, but that is the underlying message everywhere. There is nothing really wrong with that….. well, not quite…. Let me explain! Becoming better at something, learning new skills, adapting to changes are all helpful because at the end of the day it allows us to adjust to life as it happens. But so often we forget that who we are currently is a combined result of what we have experienced, how we have learned to deal with those experiences, and a sprinkling of our genetic predisposition (these things might not be true for everyone to the same degree). Our so-called current “imperfect” self might just be a product of trying to survive as best as we can. You might be wondering, “Okay, but what does all that have to do with your therapy experience?” The thing is, being in therapy made me realize the ‘process’ of working on our goals with a stranger. It is nerve wracking to open up to someone who doesn’t know you (at least it was for me), to put faith in something where I might not see discernible changes immediately in myself. Being in therapy made me more and more aware how non-linear our growth can be- one week we might be coasting through life and applying the new insights we learned in sessions and the next week we might feel as stuck as ever. I remember after one of the sessions, I realized that wanting to be perfect made me feel more stuck than ever- in my pursuit to become better is session I was setting really high standards that I might not meet- and what was worse was that I was blind to all the progress I had actually made. I had started attending sessions with certain goals in mind and while I did achieve most of them, I also received so much wisdom along the way. In gestalt psychology, we are always taught that, “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts”; therapy may have looked like a medium for me to achieve all my goals, but it also opened doors for me to understand myself, exercise kindness towards who I am today so that I become who I want to be.
When we are trained as therapists, we get to explore different theoretical fields, what brought them into existence and what these theories focus on. But I believe it is every therapist’s experience- it is an entirely different ball game to apply these theories in practice; especially if you belong to different cultures and ideologies. While having our supervisors teach us the ropes of therapy was interesting, seeing them unfold during our own therapy sessions was equally fascinating. As a therapist now, I focus a lot on providing a safe space to my clients, to both respect their individual pace and push them to challenge themselves in this journey. Wanting to improve ourselves is a great goal to have but we also must acknowledge that process might not be linear or fast for many of us and that does not discredit our worth.
Being in therapy reminded me how human it is to struggle especially when things around us are in chaos, when even the world doesn’t always know how to do deal with them. It taught me that when I talk to my clients it is not just about acknowledging the individual responsibilities towards our growth, but also the influences of culture, ideologies and systemic structures at play. Therapy sessions are more than just applying the theories learned during training, and I realized that first hand while being a client and eventually from my own clients in therapy.
Links to resources used-
- Image credit- Photo by cottonbro studio: https://www.pexels.com/photo/woman-in-black-long-sleeve-shirt-sitting-on-brown-wooden-chair-4098368/