Therapy is (not only) for other people – Four lessons from the couch

The word 'TRUST' printed in capital letters on curved glass

Expressing how you feel – the written word, the spoken word

Big cuddley toy panda on couch
Lessons from the couch

An incredibly powerful form of therapy is simply to write it down.

‘Speaking out loud or writing down … thoughts that are racing round … your head instead of supressing them or just letting them build up … is a way of reducing stress. So … if you have … anxieties or negative thoughts and you write them down or have somebody … you can talk to… it gets it out of your brain-body system.’

Dr Tara Swart (interviewed by Dr Chatterjee in his Podcast No 58 – How to Open Your Mind and Change Your Life with Dr Tara Swart)

When my partner was unexpectedly admitted to Intensive Care when I was already heading for a breakdown, I carried a notebook wherever I went and wrote down what the doctors and nurses said. I also noted any random thoughts that came into my head. Small bubbles rather than streams of consciousness.

I didn’t know at the time why I was doing it. I had become confused with a limited concentration span, so I wanted to remember what the medical staff told me. It made me feel like I was taking back a little bit of control of a situation which was obviously way out of anybody’s, except – up to a point – the doctors’, control. But mostly, it was a comfort to me. I might not have known it then, but I was journaling. A wellbeing habit whose popularity has recently exploded.

If we’re going through a life crisis, some of us may begin to write instinctively (as I did). Others might do it purposefully.

It’s self-help, self-exploration. Writing it down somehow makes it real and is a form of release.

Talking it out takes it a step further with a transformational power of its own. Once something has been verbalised, you can’t unsay it.

As I wrote here, I used to think that therapy was for other people, and never imagined I would find myself opposite a psychologist. But at the end of 2015, that’s exactly where I was sitting.

I didn’t know what to expect. I was used to quick fixes. Solutions to problems that I could implement so the problem would go away. I still hoped that ‘professionals’ would provide me with the cure, as in, tell me what to do without taking anti-depressants.

The words 'The Answers' on piece of paper on plate
Will somebody just tell me what to do!

But I slowly and painfully learned that there were no fast answers. And nobody was going to serve me the antidote on a plate.

I will be eternally grateful to ‘my’ psychologist. Without her, I honestly don’t know where I’d be.

Here are just four things I learnt through talk therapy – lessons from ‘the couch’

Figure 1 indented in concrete
Number 1

Nobody is going to give you the answers: Could it be that you have them already?

I’m not sure what I expected with my first visit to the psychologist (let’s call her ‘Florence’ – as in ‘Nightingale’). Apparently, it was important to get the right ‘fit’. I didn’t expect a good ‘fit’, not least because it would all be in French, and it’s hard enough to talk about your feelings in your mother tongue.

But I was so lucky.

I vaguely remember shuffling into her room in the hospital, self-conscious, exhausted, with very little self-esteem. I sat opposite her in a plastic chair (no couch to lie down on here).

It was quickly apparent that Florence is one of those psychologists who mainly listens.

She’s not afraid of silences.

At this first therapy session, she asked, ‘Why are you here?’

‘The psychiatrist thinks I’ve got burnout, and I think she’s right.’

‘Why do you think that?’

‘Well, I have the symptoms.’

‘What symptoms are those?’

I was a little taken aback. Was Florence testing me? Did she not believe me? She must know the symptoms of burnout.

But here’s the thing. She was already making me work. And you have to do the work.

I began to describe teariness, sleeplessness, mood swings, uncontrollable frustration and hopelessness, palpitations, migraines, constant fatigue, loss of enjoyment, and so on and so on.

And then I continued to tell her, little by little, about… everything.

In the many, many therapy sessions that followed, I would invariably sit down, laugh nervously and mumble, ‘I don’t really know what to say…’ I’d usually begin with something quite random, and then before I knew it, my time was up and I felt like I’d only just begun.

She never rushed me. Never pushed. Never judged (as far as I could tell).

When Florence did comment, it was invariably spot on the mark, and she gave me more than one ‘Aha!’ moments. But these were always reached through the things I had said.

What I learned from therapy

I already had the answers.

Although she hardly ever passed opinion during therapy, she occasionally pulled me up, jokingly, for comments I would make (that I was worried I was boring her, that maybe I was ‘lucky’ to be off work).

I was obsessed with guilt for being off work, and more than once, she did patiently explain that there is a social security system in place to care for people like me who were off work and that I shouldn’t feel guilty.

But I still did.

(Eventually she sent me to see a psychiatrist/work doctor-turned-doctor working in a stress clinic, so we could discuss whether my worries were valid – it seems they weren’t! And that helped. Watch this space for a post about that – you lucky, lucky readers!)

Figure two indented in stone
Number 2

‘Your truth’ may hurt – but it hurts more if you deny it (and by the way, it’s okay to feel sad sometimes)

If a parent or main carer has constantly denied ‘your truth’ (probably through no fault of their own – they were doing the best job they could), then of course you’re not going to trust yourself in later life.

I had never thought of this before. But it was a real moment of realisation for me.

I was brought up to not be allowed to be unhappy. Perhaps it was a generational thing although our society still now frowns on sadness. It is seen as a sign of weakness. Things must be wrong. Wrong is not… right.

Sure, if my dog died, it was okay to be sad. But only for a day or so. Then it was time to get over it, pull myself together. Grief had its place as a private and short-lived emotion.

‘Buck up!’ I heard (yes, really). ‘Cheer up! It might never happen!’

And yet my grandad used to joke about the pat everyday exchanges we’d have.
‘How are you?’
‘Fine, thanks.’

What, he’d wonder, would they say if he told them how he was really feeling? (What were you really feeling, Grandad?)

But we don’t do that!

‘Fine’ is, indeed, a four-letter word. And if it is a stretch to call it the root of all evil, it is still a pretty clear indicator of the non-language we use to exchange banal yet pleasant pleasantries.

So please remember, if you’re not feeling all that fine, you don’t have to always ‘put a brave face on’.

I’m not suggesting you tell everybody you meet all of your woes. But hopefully, there is somebody you can offload to, sometimes. If there isn’t (or if there is) you can find a short list of links at the bottom of this post that may be helpful.

And there’s always that journal…

This denying somebody else’s truth is something I revisited when I was worrying about my own parenting skills. Unwittingly, I was repeating this detrimental behaviour by denying my own children’s truth sometimes in the vain belief I was protecting them.

As an example, let’s say your little girl asks why an uncle prefers their brother (and they obviously do), then I would have denied my daughter’s observation.

Now, instead, I’d try to find a kind way of explaining (‘it’s because he’s a boy, just like your uncle’).

What I learned from therapy

It’s important to really feel what you’re feeling (if you know what I mean). Even uncomfortable feelings are valid. Pain deserves a place – it’s part of being human. Don’t mask it because it’s there for a reason.

Perhaps something sad has happened. And in this case, let yourself feel the grief, let its energy pass through you. Eventually… you will be able to release it.

Or perhaps your pain is trying to tell you something… What is making you unhappy? What is missing from your life? And what steps can you take to turn things around?

It was only when, through therapy, I eventually started to realise that it was okay to feel sad, that the guilt and shame – the two worst feelings in the world – began to lift.

Figure three in stone
Number 3

Be responsible for yourself before being responsible for anybody else

Something else which became clear as crystal when it was pointed out, was that one of my main roles had been that of ‘carer’. But it went further. I wanted to ‘fix’ and ‘help’ everybody. I felt responsible for the wellbeing and even happiness of those around me. No wonder things weren’t working out!

It took the focus off my responsibility towards myself and my own wellbeing.

I put myself under so much pressure and was always, inadvertently, worried that I would get it wrong. If somebody in my household (or life) wasn’t happy, it must be my fault.

Once I began to realise how I was behaving, it would have been impossible – and wrong – to completely make an about-turn. It is normal and vital that a mother cares for her children. It is normal that a partner cares for her partner, particularly if he is ill. And it is also normal that an adult child cares for their parent, up to a point.

What I learned from therapy

It doesn’t have to be ‘all or nothing’. And this is true with most things in life. I could, indeed, still be a carer. But other people’s happiness was not my responsibility.

You have not failed if somebody in your life is unhappy.

You can’t fix other people. It’s not your role and ultimately, it’s actually a bit of an insult to yourself and to them to even try. Although it might be human nature to try to control events and others, it’s a Bad Idea!

Care for yourself. Be responsible for yourself.

Just as I was writing this, along came a dose of serendipity with a blog post I read. You don’t need to believe in ‘God’ in the traditional sense for this to mean something.

Again, taking this lesson a step further in my own life means trying to help my children become responsible for their own wellbeing and happiness in the future.

Figure four raised in stone
Lesson 4

You don’t have to ‘tell all’ to be an honest person

Telling the truth doesn’t mean you have to tell everybody everything. Learning boundaries is really tricky for some people (me).

In a very messed up way, my interior struggle went something like this: if I didn’t tell everybody everything, then I must have something to hide and be ashamed of, but… if I did tell people everything, they would judge me. So if I wasn’t doing that (and I wasn’t saying very much of anything except to Florence), then I must be guilty… and round and round and round it went.

I struggled massively with knowing how much information to give people, and particularly people in authority (my boss, my work doctor).

This may be the reason that when I went for an evaluation, a second opinion from an independent psychiatrist to see whether I was fit to return to work, I spontaneously handed her a huge wad of papers which basically included rambling diaries (those journals among other things) recounting my innermost thoughts.

I had been waiting for this interview for months. Every time the phone rang I jumped in fear, but also in hope, that this would be the call to end this waiting, to give some new direction to my future.

Once before the judge, ‘Take everything’, I said. ‘Pass your verdict’, my inner voice begged, desperate by this time for forgiveness, or rather, for understanding. Because I needed to understand it all myself. And more than that, I needed to be able to forgive myself.

I knew, even within a few minutes, that I shouldn’t have handed over all that inappropriate paperwork. It was irrational. It was crazy! I had acted, without even trying, like a through-and-through fruitcake. Again, the shame filled me up.

Still, she said I was fit to return to work. (And I’m sure she didn’t take more than a glance through the many pages of angst I’d handed over.)

What I learned from therapy

Knowing your boundaries is so important. I’ve still got some way to go with this.

Here I go again, spilling my beans. But the difference is that I feel comfortable with it this time – even if it is stretching my boundaries, it feels like the right thing to do.

Sometimes it’s better to be kind and keep schtum or reword things to not hurt people – including yourself (without taking anybody – and particularly yourself – for a fool).

Anyway, everybody’s truth is different.

So here it is: through therapy I learnt that I have to find my own answers, trust my own truth, take responsibility for myself and decide what I want to share.

White blossom close-up
Beauty blossoming

If you have read this far, then I hope you have got something from ‘my share’. And if you would like to share something, or even share this post (no pressure though), I would be touched.

Thank you for reading.


The following resources are taken directly from the website of mental health and social equality writer, speaker and campaigner, Natasha Devon.
Young MindsThe SamaritansCALMThe MixThe Self-Harm NetworkBeatMind.

Edit on 25 April 2019
PS I learn so much from my kids. Yesterday when my 11-year-old came home from school he asked what the plate was doing on the breakfast bar with ‘The Answers’ written on it. So I joked I was hoping somebody would serve me the answers on a plate. Look what he did 🙂

A plate with a piece of paper covering another. The top piece reads 'This is the answer: I love you!'
This the answer: I LOVE YOU!

The answer was there all the time. The answer is… LOVE!

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    1. I wondered if you might read this and what you might think, coming from the other side of the couch, so to speak 🙂
      Thank you, Vanessa 🙂 and hugs to you 🙂

      1. Haha, I honestly prevented myself of writing an essay here. It’s a hard topic to comment on and your post made me question a lot of things. I still think traditional therapy is not enough, and to state it like this might make people think that then it’s useless to go to therapy, which is not 100% what I think. I believe it’s life saving to work with someone who can listen, but it can’t be all about listening for some people. Sometimes we are in a very dark place and we need a solid plan to work through. I seeked help when I first got burned out in the UK and the experience was rather pleasent. I would go to a session, spill the beans, get validated, feel good, and go back home. It worked until it lasted and I got ‘discharged’. Afterwards I realised I had no direction to deal with the real world. By then, I knew I was not crazy but I was also unable to deal with the reality I had to live in. It’s horrible to be on both sides, because I see that everyone is flawed and if we could accept that and become more sensitive to each other, we wouldn’t really need therapists… Maybe this is why psychologists and I don’t usually get along and I tried to avoid to say anything at all, hahah. 🙂 🙂 🙂 💕

  1. I agree that therapy is not enough. It was just one of the things had helped me. But it really did help me. I know what you mean about needing a plan to work through in order to move forwards, and when I started therapy I kept wanting this, and I kept trying and trying to come up with an idea – and failing every time, because it was too soon. I needed to learn to ‘stop’ before I could ‘go’. Only thing is, I also know what you mean when you say that afterwards you lack direction. I guess there are many forms of psychologists. Maybe guidance in your life’s direction would be more that of a life-coach(-oriented psychologist?)? And yes, if only we could all just listen to one another… then psychologists would indeed be looking for work! Thanks for your comment. Please keep commenting 😜

    1. It was a really important lesson for me and the implications took a while to sink in. It was also kind of a relief if you know what I mean… 💕

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