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The National Council of Psychotherapists

Est. 1971

The Benefits of Therapy

By

David Howard

 

After still regularly reading media articles asking questions on the lines of ‘What’s the benefit of counselling?’ basically implying or expressing it was a complete waste of time and money, I decided to look at the concrete and specific benefits my own clients had had over the 14 years of my own practice. In fact I discovered many, showing the profession to be just as ‘real’ as any other.

 

These range from very simple ‘couldn’t do’ to ‘can do’s’ to more general situations such as reuniting or communicating with estranged relatives, and overcoming personal barriers. In fact, we were trained to list when a client started what they could and couldn’t do, and then have regular reviews to compare how they are now with how they were, both so they could see the benefits and how we could see how we were getting on. So I will start by listing some of the very tangible benefits some of my own clients gained after coming for help. These were treated both with psychotherapy and hypnotherapy, mainly depending on the client, but I do not see these as being different enough not to be included under the general heading I’ll use of therapy. I originally started as a counsellor, and for some years before studying hypnosis (and then psychotherapy) would have treated everything with counselling, as I would now if a client didn’t want hypnosis. So, given the background, I’ll begin with the clear ‘can’t to can do’s’ that may have lasted many years until clients decided to seek therapy and changed as a direct result. One client had been unable to drive after a road accident over two years previously, and within two months of therapy was driving again. Another was moving so far from her job she’d have to commute by train and was terrified of it. After four sessions she was not only able to go on a train, but no longer worried about the daily trip to work into London from Essex, after previously being terrified of public transport for years.

 

A woman had had sexual problems with her current partner and was ready to leave him before discovering the 40 year old roots of her blockage and dealing with it, and she said the three sessions she had was the best spent £90 of her life. I was asked by a woman if I could get her back to college to continue her degree by the summer, after she’d dropped out of her second year with a major breakdown. She needed around eight months of intensive therapy, but I was able to write to her tutor in time and say she was ready to go back. She started the second year again that year and went on to finish her degree.

 

Less specific, but just as significant are personal relations. One aspect of my work is to encourage clients either estranged from family members or unable to communicate with them to do so, on the basis they have little to lose if they try, and if they go in with a non-confrontational attitude there was no reason for it to end in an argument. I do no more than encourage, and  this is one of the rare times I do a little more than give a suggestion, but only after looking at all the aspects of what might happen and the preparations for how to go about it. I can’t think of one person who wasn’t almost amazed by how much better it went than they expected. Many said they’d blown up the person into a relatively fearsome monster over the years, and found they were actually a lot more human when given a chance, and often went on to realise many other people they knew must also be far less unapproachable as well, having made this discovery applying to their worst nemesis.

 

Other situations have been within relationships, both couples and at work and with friends. One couple were on the verge of splitting, over issues about sharing household chores, combined with the woman’s continual need for competition with everyone around her. I saw the couple for a year, needing the time to work through every aspect of both their own relationship and that with their family and friends which was also very much getting in the way. We discovered the man and woman were actually contributing equally to the chores, the biggest obstacle in the relationship, just in different areas they were better at rather than splitting the same jobs equally. The woman realised she didn’t need to continually prove herself to her family and at work (she was actually an incredibly well-qualified Oxbridge graduate earning more than her partner already!) but be content with her own personal success and not compare it with everyone else she knew. The result was they were soon engaged and married, having laboriously at times and patiently looked at every aspect of the relationship that wasn’t working. The fact it was also established they actually loved each other and wanted to be together, became the ideal foundation to work on to overcome all the difficulties.

 

Another client I saw while still a student was a Polish refugee lawyer who had to requalify from scratch over here, after also learning English, in his 40s. Though he had a PhD in Poland it wasn’t recognised here, and he was in a deep depression having just failed a paper in his bar exams after passing every other step towards qualifying. He had a wife and two children, wasn’t working or looking for work, and felt completely hopeless and useless. I turned the fact he’d failed his first exam ever to the view that he’d passed everything until now. A subtle difference, but one which was set to turn his whole attitude around. Within six months, he had started some temporary work, and most important of all, was no longer depressed and was also now able to confide in others for the first time in his life, which I discovered was a result of being an orphan and keeping everything to himself since childhood.

 

Many other aspects can change however hard to quantify, such as the ability to deal with conflict, bullying (of adults as well), making friends and other social skills where the clients, if asked, will be very clear about the improvements and able to quote different reactions to situations after therapy sessions. And the best confirmation here is not from the client but from those around them. It’s so gratifying to hear when a client makes a small change in attitude and friends, family and colleagues immediately notice they’re different. The clients usually think it’s such a small adjustment no one would see it but, in fact, it tends to stand out so much to people who know you well, who are only too aware of your ‘usual’ personality and anything new stands out, and with positive results such as gaining more respect and being treated better by them as a result.

 

The ‘inner child’ is a concept I often work with, using cognitive regression in the model of Albert Ellis. This is because children tend to fill in the gaps in situations they aren’t given answers in, such as the reasons for their parent’s divorce or various forms of abuse, and they then tend to forget making the original conclusion but carry it indefinitely as an attitude. The biggest one is imagining personal responsibility and the ensuing guilt, and others such as ‘you have to be loud/quiet’ or whatever worked for them to succeed or avoid getting into trouble. These then become ingrained and once discovered, the client usually is able to correct themselves when they realise with their current level of knowledge these conclusions weren’t relevant to now. So it’s possible to record every instance I come across where a client discovers and corrects a series of these because of a treatment model designed to do just this. And I’ll add it takes a trained professional to also present the often probing and embarrassing areas in a way without frightening a client off.

 

Of course the other major area of problems directly measurable after treatment are habits and phobias. If a client can stop a habit or face a phobia after treatment, this is a clear result. I just heard a story of a man who had a session of hypnotherapy to give up smoking, and told his friend it was just talking for an hour, he felt no different and was a waste of time. He didn’t smoke since though, and that was thirty years ago. This shows not only the benefits of therapy, but people’s expectations of the actual process need to be addressed as well so they are able to assess which aspects of the treatment are relevant and not to look for effects in the wrong places. Just as when people go for healing and report all sorts of extra-sensory phenomena, all that really matters is whether the problem was healed, not the nature of the treatment experience itself which doesn’t necessarily correlate with the success of the healing. This also challenges the view of the ‘tea and sympathy’ view of therapy. One great therapist said it’s not whether you enjoy it or not at the time, but what you get out of it, and it is often painful by its nature as part of the process but still beneficial.

 

The reverse question I would pose the critics and scoffers is what would happen to all these people had therapy not  been available? I can only guess, based on others I come across who haven’t taken their issues to therapy. Some would seek help from elsewhere, probably friends or family, and get the usual selection of what others would do in their position, silly comments and rejection. In amongst this would be snippets of good advice, stories of the friend’s own problems which aren’t relevant, and a fairly haphazard chance of any real or lasting change. If the person tries to sort things out themselves, they’re faced with the first problem that they can’t add any new ideas, all their information is already in their heads and they eventually will go in a circle with no new input. Many will get books to help, but what is this but seeking therapy without the person to present it and customise it to their own needs. However good a dentist may be, it’s still preferable for them to get another one to fix their own teeth, and the same applies with problems.

 

The British (so I have been told!) prevailing habit is to cover up your problems and pretend everything’s OK. I certainly hear it often enough in my own clients, who also imagine everyone else is OK, as they are doing it as well. I discovered this in the biggest way when my fellow students, all professionals already and mainly over 30, said, when the first one shared something in our 40-strong group ‘I didn’t realise other people had these problems apart from me!’.

 

I also come across the same attitude from people wanting to know exactly what I do, often having pretty well no idea. The combination of ignorance, and associating social stigma and inadequacy with admitting one even has a problem highlights the need to educate both about the role and need for counselling/therapy. When people know they won’t be judged, laughed at, criticised, belittled and all the other things they fear the most for revealing the problems, which most counsellors have touched in their own lives, let alone everyone else’s. As our tutor said, it’s not what problems you have as counsellors that’s important, it’s what you do about them. By starting with similar problems we’d be likely to encounter in our clients and dealing with them, we could then look ahead and see how it had already been possible to do so ourselves. This affirmed the fact there are only so many variations in life, and as a colleague once said, each generation thinks what they learn is new, but it’s only a variation of what’s happened before, which is why Shakespeare continues to be so relevant. Our problems are not new, rarely unusual, don’t make us odd or inadequate, but are part of life. So by promoting an open attitude towards both counselling and the problems that require its use, people will gradually discover we are all subject to the same selection of problems, and it’s not a stigma to have them, talk about them and seek help for them. This, for me, ties in the whole issue from all its separate angles, from dismissing the work of counsellors to not wanting to use one to believing it’s a personal failure and something that doesn’t happen to most people. Currently it’s a profession where few will be heard to recommend a therapist the way they’d recommend any other professional - after all, at the moment how many people want to tell other people they either may need one or admit that one has actually had one personally?

 

If we all listed the new abilities our clients gained as I have and formed a database, it should finally squash all the trivialising and patronising comments made by mainstream journalists about therapy, and move the profession to a level where it was both understood by, and recognised by the general public as being as necessary as all the others. In practice, it seems to me that the majority of people who need it the most will find it eventually, but by challenging the negative comments in the media it will remove all unnecessary obstacles to people seeking it in the first place and by then widening the understanding of its scope will help to both remove any remaining social stigma and encourage far more people to see therapy as a first resort and not a last resort.


 

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