What does psychotherapy feel like?

I have set myself an impossible task. Answering the question ‘what does psychotherapy feel like?’ is a bit like trying to describe colours to a person who sees in black and white, or to answer the question ‘what is it like to have a friend’. What I can tell you about, though, is what it feels like for me to have been a client, and also say something about what it feels like to be one of my clients.

Over the past twenty years I’ve had therapy with five different therapists, ranging in frequency from twice a week to fortnightly, and for various lengths of time from six months to several years. This began during my initial therapy training and I’ve dipped in and out both to help me be a better therapist and to help me be a better human being.

All of these therapies have taken me to uncomfortable places. I have moved at my own pace, and learnt to trust that my psyche won’t let me be taken to places that I’m not ready for. I have discovered uncomfortable facts about myself, and owned my part in situations where I was desperate to blame someone (anyone) else. I have cried tears and laughed a lot.

I’ve been nourished by these relationships in a profound way, and have learnt things about myself and the world that I couldn’t have learnt from anywhere else. The therapy relationship can be a sacred and wonderful thing – I hope you get to experience some of the magic of it yourself.

How does it feel for my clients to have therapy with me? First, imagine gathering all the people who know you (work colleagues, family, friends) together into a big room. What would they say about you? If they were talking to each other about you, would they recognise the person they were describing?

The relationship I have with each different client is unique, because every client is unique. With some I may be very quiet, and they may experience me as not having much to say – with some I say more. With some I might give ‘input’ from time to time about how relationship tend to work, with some I don’t. Some clients will experience me as friendly, some distant, some will be infuriated by me, some will care very deeply about me, some hardly notice that I am there. And of course all of my clients have different feelings about me over time, depending on what’s happening in their lives, and what stage the therapy is at.

Maybe this is my answer – therapy feels like whatever it needs to feel like, in order for you to heal. If you tend to get angry with people without saying anything and then breaking off the relationship, you may get angry and your therapist and manage to share it with them. If you find it hard to speak up for yourself, you will get to practice doing this with your therapist. If you feel confused and lost, you might experience your therapist as a safe person to feel lost with. This process isn’t straightforward and, by necessity, includes negotiating some difficult corners – otherwise you wouldn’t need it in the first place. But we can trust that therapy takes us where we need to go.

Different therapists work in very different ways, and short term solution focussed therapy might not have much in common with long term psychodynamic therapy at all. What all therapy should, in my opinion, have in common is that, whatever the techniques or philosophical framework of the therapist, we are able to gradually trust that our therapist has our best interests in heart. Having our best interests at heart doesn’t mean that they do what we want them to do – sometimes the opposite – but we need to be able to feel safe enough to start peeling back the layers and sinking into a relationship where we can be more honest than we are elsewhere.

What does therapy feel like? Scary, exciting, a relief, comforting, funny, sad, boring, frustrating, peaceful… Good therapy is like getting to see the world in colour. Good luck on your adventure!

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