Why did I choose to have therapy? Obsessions, anxiety attacks and preoccupations were a part of my life, despite my high achievements in education and work. Most of my energy was directed towards satisfying my neurotic beliefs rather than living life itself. I wanted to achieve more in my career, in particular, and wanted to get rid of my symptoms.
A friend who is a therapist himself thought I would benefit from a psychodynamic psychotherapist. So I trusted his expertise.
I saw two therapists, the first one for two years and the other for another two years, once a week. We talked about my experiences, influences, aspirations, neuroses, beliefs and attitudes in a safe and confidential space, within authentic and challenging therapeutic relationships. These relationships initially started in doubt, fear and timidity and progressed slowly towards trust. Trust helped me to reveal myself and helped my therapist to identify and highlight my patterns of behaviour – in particular, my defences. Making sense of a hidden, unprocessed, painful past was an essential precursor to acquiring a deep and authentic self-knowledge.
What did I get out of the sessions? First, growth of mind – a mind of my own, with the ability to comprehend my own complexity, life in general and other people, and to respect everyone’s journey.
Second, the ability to contain and tolerate doubt and fear and stay with the pain and genuine suffering that would aid my development.
Third, therapy helped me to process the unprocessed – to understand that, behind every anxiety and low mood there are unacknowledged feelings and unprocessed experiences from the past that need attention. Mourning losses, bad choices and previous trauma were key. I learned that brushing under the carpet does not work. It just elicits bad odour at some point.
Fourth, I learned that to simply challenge and change negative thoughts to positive ones does not promote a strong foundation for long-term healing.
I learned how to identify my frailties and weaknesses; how not to push them away and treat them harshly but to explore them with my therapist and infuse them with grace and love. I also simultaneously learned how to combat those weaknesses by identifying sources of strength within others and myself. This included simply identifying the other, their influence and the role of community in shaping my development. I learned that what I attribute to others is also a reflection of myself.
I learned to appreciate life – to appreciate what living is and how each day is precious; how to make the best use of my time and energy; and how to better discern what is relevant and irrelevant within this short lifespan.
I learned to understand my defences – not to rationalise and intellectualise my experiences to avoid pain; not to rely on systems, unproductive and boring work and high-status religious/academic organisations to find solace; and not to idealise people and myself, but to experience experience as it is.
I learned how my thoughts can shape my experiences and outcomes; how I treat others and myself through the influence of my attitudes.
I learned to trust my feelings and intuitions and create a life for myself; to find work that is productive to others and me; to genuinely contribute to the wider community what I can offer and what I can develop within my limitations and with my strengths.
I learned that there is no quick fix to any of life’s issues, and the road to success and fulfilment is long and rocky but worth travelling; I learned to respect my own boundaries and those of others so everyone can play their role efficiently and effectively.
So what do I do now? Engage in work that is personally productive and of benefit to others; spend time and develop my relationship with my partner. Love and work/work and love.
There is a huge reluctance amongst academics and health professionals to talk about their mental health. To care for others to the fullest, one needs to take care of oneself, and personally I feel that psychotherapy is for everyone. Certainly, I have not conquered all my battles, and life constantly presents ongoing challenges and surprises. However, an approach such as psychodynamic psychotherapy provides some of the tools that can help us to deal with our problems effectively.
Arun Joseph MSc MCSP is a physiotherapist, researcher and an honorary lecturer.