By Dr. Achal Bhagat
Psychotherapy has an uninformed stigma attached to it, but in today’s self-inflicted mental mayhem, it could well be one of the best roads to individual and collective happiness
Saarang is the devil incarnate, but rest assured that there’s not a negative thought in his head and heart. All of a mature two years old and darling of the family, he scampers around the house so joyfully that you would never suspect how many of the adults feel protective about him and have willingly placed in his tiny hands the reins of their emotions. He is showered with love every minute of every day. His grandparents, uncles and aunts adore him to distraction. Even the Pope couldn’t have asked for more.
He is spoilt, but so what? Let him have his good days. Inevitably, as his ego grows, so will the ego of his surrounding environment. Hopefully, the love he has been unconditionally presented form the day he was born will begin to return to the giver.
Like you and I, Saarang will develop a fear of loss, of separation from his loved ones; he may develop a fear of not being loved, of disapproval, both from people outside and from within himself. Part of the rites of becoming his own man will be doubts about his identity and his purpose. He will fight them desperately. He will win some battles and will lose some. Tough luck, but then whoever said that life was worth living?
As for you, my friend, are you losing the battle against self-doubt? Have you started to tell yourself that you are no good? Do you incessantly worry about what people think of you? Do you find yourself in crises that are overwhelming you? Do you feel used in your relationships? Do you find it difficult to form a relationship? Have you lost your sense of purpose? Do you wonder: ‘Why am I living?’
You might have cruised very close to a word that is uttered—if offered at all—in most decent company in a whisper full of melodrama: psychotherapy. It carries with it the kind of stigma attached to a disease like leprosy: if you need psychotherapy, you are no longer eligible to be in most social circles. A shrink! Only certified basket cases go to a shrink! If your boss came to know, you’d lose your job. Your friends and peers would double up with laughter. You’d be the butt of conversation at most social gatherings.
Truth time now: do you have to be a raving lunatic to see a psychotherapist? Here’s a profile of some people who opted for psychotherapy last year. They were not rich and they were not famous. Nor down and out and desperate. They were people like you and I, coping with life as best as limited resources would allow us to be happy about the shortness of life and the long sojourn through misery.
Arjun, an engineer, felt that life could not offer him anything more then what he had already experienced. During therapy he realized that his thoughts had roots in the fact that his father had died at 32, and that his own crisis was snowballing the closer he inched towards that nightmarish number. Nithin’s wife had left him for someone else, and Prakash was seriously unhappy with his job. Dharam had lost his son at the age of 60 and he needed support to cope with his grief. Tanya felt that her husband was indifferent to her needs and was taking her for granted. Fortunately, they found a therapist waiting at the end of their tether.
What was common to these unhappy folk was the last-straw syndrome. To them, a psychotherapist and a dentist were ghoulish partners in pain: you went to them only when the ache became too much to take, and you cursed all the way to respective couches.
The point is: life begins to feel like a bed of roses after your fangs and your psyche have been repaired. You don’t understand why you had bitched and balked before you went in for treatment. The problem is: your friends wince from your presence and withdraw because you loudly brag at every drop of a hat that there is nothing that can’t be set right by a drill and a brain-probe.
What you have done is flummoxed your friends. Because psychotherapy is by far the most subjective of treatments, shared between you and you therapist and no one else, there is no general benchmark of success other than a feeling you have that everything is appropriately placed in the scheme of things. But as for the victims of your hagiography of therapy and therapist; in your unquestionable wisdom, you feel that they need your shrink’s telephone number.
By now, you’ve begun to feel at home in the trap of polishing psychotherapy with mystique. Can a psychotherapist read your mind? Can he have an unscrupulous hypnotic control over you? Does your psychotherapist dance with the devil or is he on the side of the angels?
As with everything in the real world, it’s a mixed bag of tricks.
Shveta, who was bent under the trauma of two broken relationships, now wanted to learn the technique of wooing back her last boyfriend. One year into therapy, she realized that in her relationships, she had let people treat her like a doormat, just to minimize at all cost her fear that she would lose them. Psychotherapy gifted her confidence and assertiveness and well-deserved respect, despite the fact that her last boyfriend saw it fit not to return.
Anything that has anything to do with the mind is more vulnerable to unscrupulous subversion than you can imagine. A doctor wanted me to see one of his patients and ‘therapize’ her into believing falsely that the man she was going to marry would die soon. Sensing my discomfort, he even suggested a technique, saying: ‘You could say you are an astrologer and psychotherapist rolled into one and she would believe you.’ And what purpose would that serve? He said: ‘How does it matter to us? Her parents will be happy if she didn’t marry him.’ As an anachronistic adherent to the archaic Hippocratic oath, what do you think I did?
If therapy is not a washing machine for the psyche, what else is it?
A lot depends on the kind of psychotherapy you are undergoing. The superstructure of the psychotherapist’s relationship with you is founded on pure, cold-blooded functionalism. If a sort of buddy bond builds up, it is only because he considers it therapeutically necessary. But he keeps an antidote in reach: in order to ensure his own balance and equanimity, he keeps a buffer zone that separates the two of you. The new stabilizing factor in your life is the strict punctuality of your meetings—when the hour you’ve paid for is up, he will end the session, whether you are ready for it or no.
This clockwork routine is the foundation of the treatment. He will prod you towards asking your own questions: you will realize sooner rather than later that answers and resolutions come from within yourself. Hr will listen to you with the distant empathy of the Delphic Oracle, but rarely offer you blunt advice. He tries to apply the concepts and ideas from his operative school of thought. If he finds fit, he might propose to you the hypotheses he has arrived at.
For example, if he follows Freud, he will focus on your unconscious. If he is a cognitive behavior therapist, he will work on the assumption that you look at the world in a certain manner because of past events you have internalized. So, to change the way you feel and the ways you act, you will have to change the way you think.
How then is therapy any different from the way you interact and converse with family and friend? Or your family doctor or barber or, indeed, housekeeper?
First, the therapist is nonjudgmental; he is unlikely to label you good or bad. Second, he is a trained listener; he can hear the whispers of your psyches as well as he can hear your deafeningly loud whining. Third, he promises confidentiality and usually keeps it, not only because his professional oath orders him to but because he himself undergoes refresher courses and psychoanalysis under a friend or peer.
It’s easy to understand why: in the course of a working day of eight hours, he meets with supreme empathy, if not compassion, every disturbed individual and perhaps three batches of group therapy of a conservative average of six people each. Unless he distances himself from much input of so high intensity, he can himself turn into a candidate for mental repair work. It’s a role a bit removed from that of your neighborhood agony aunt or wise guy.
Is psychotherapy a confessional in a church or a hearing aid or a miracle cure?
None of the above. Perhaps all of the above. If you ask people what they find helpful about psychotherapy, they come up with a whole slew of answers, some unexpected. Said Janaki; ‘I felt reassured that for at least one hour every week I could unload my feelings on somebody.’ Renu felt that she was safe in therapy, she could remain silent for a long time, and that she could cry without closing the bathroom door. She felt that therapy had allowed her to ask herself the question: ‘What can I do to change my lot?’ instead of: ‘I will change, but only if my husband/parents/son/daughter/luck/past change.’ Jatin felt that the continuity provided by the sessions and the predictable punctuality allowed him to feel more stable. Even many months after therapy, he still uses Tuesday evenings, 4-5 p.m. as his time to reflect, his ‘still, quiet hour of the day’.
Therapy is not parent bashing, or any kind of bashing anybody. It is not a list of suggestions or a 10-step manual on how to live life. What works in therapy is not what the therapist tells you but what the therapist helps you discover about yourself. It is a process of doing away with psychic parallax, in which things gradually fall into place and make you shift your view of life required to live in society as an active member. Often, the changes in you are imperceptible and subtle, visible only in retrospect and that too under close scrutiny.
Is it just a tall claim that therapy can change your life? Replies Dr Stephen Wilson, consultant psychotherapist, Department of Psychotherapy, Oxford University: ‘People who undergo psychotherapy have a better quality of life, they have more stable relationships. They are goal directed with higher self-esteem. They have lower scores on the measures of depression. There are some difficulties, however, which also arise. Therapy changes you and the way you relate. People around you still expect you to be the same. The spouses of people who have undergone psychotherapy feel not understood. They also, at times, feel threatened as to what their partner may be saying to the therapist about them. They might try to sabotage therapy in such cases.’
The solution, according to him, is ‘to take the spouse into confidence and tell the person that therapy is not about him or her but about your needs as an individual. If your issues were sorted out it would definitely have a positive effect of the relationship in the long run’.
Is therapy like vitamins—good for everybody at all times? The answer is, definitely not! Therapy is a treatment method specifically designed to cope with some difficulties. Like other treatments, it has its contraindications; it may boomerang on some patients. If people have lost contact with reality, therapy may be more harmful than helpful.
Some people choose to be in therapy all their adult lives. American filmmaker Woody Allen, who has made a career out of producing intellectual comedies in which he is most often the maladjusted centerpiece, has been going to the same psychotherapist twice a week for the past 30 years.
Sometimes, therapy is used to sustain a problem rather then resolve it. There are people with alcohol or drug dependence using therapy as a screen to hide behind, saying, ‘Oh! I am in therapy, I had a traumatic childhood, I will stop drinking once my therapist has cured me.’
Therapy is a twisting, uphill road to accepting yourself, warts and all. It starts with acknowledging that all is not well. Life has two faces—one is the confident public countenance, the other is the storm-tossed submarine of the psyche. Psychotherapy is not the magic code to the door to Alladin’s Cave, but it is the map to the Cave. As for what you may find in the cave when the door swings open on rusty hinges—among other things, the happiness that Life can give you once you know where to look for it.
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