I was recently asked if I would write more about what therapy means to me. To be honest, I struggled as I thought about how to begin to do that, which surprised me considering that I have been a qualified counsellor for 15 years. I knew this was because what I really needed to share was my own experiences, partly as I never share any of my own clients stories, but mostly because if I share about myself then I am able to bring it more to life. So today I am not writing as a professional, but as a client and my own experience of therapy, which aside from my private journal, I have never done before in as much depth as I am about to do now. So how do I capture what therapy, what being a client means to me? Where do I start? It appears it is more difficult that I had thought it would be. So, I sat with this for a while and my head became swamped with a million and one things I could mention that might begin to bring my experience to life. I thought about how I could easily talk about needing to feel held, listened to and respected by my therapist. I could also talk about my personal need for boundaries and to have someone who would be consistent. But I felt like there was too much to say. So again, I sat and thought, and realised that what I actually wanted to say is really quite simple, but nevertheless significantly profound. Because what I want to talk about is love. Because to me, that is what therapy is all about. And so this led me to my next dilemma, which was actually the same as the first. Where does one begin when talking about love? Perhaps at the beginning would make the most sense.
Newcastle, 2015. 1st Therapy Session
“You know, sometimes I have these really dark thoughts.”
My new therapist looked up at me from the notebook she had on her lap. These were meant to be assessment sessions and I wondered if she was used to having clients say such things on first meeting.
“Oh.” She says, nothing more.
“Yes. When I was a teenager and I used to look after my baby sister I sometimes wondered if I would be capable of killing her. Not that I really wanted to, because I love her, and I would never hurt anyone. But you know, like what if I suddenly just threw her out of the window or something?”
“How old were you and your sister back then?”
“I was 15 years old when she was born, and I babysat her lots until she was almost a teenager. She was maybe about 5 years old when I had these thoughts the most. I wonder if it was a smaller part of me that wanted to kill her?”
“Well, I guess that murderous thoughts are ‘normal’ (she done an air quote) for a five-year old. A natural part of their development if you like. It might be that if you felt left ‘holding the baby,’ so to speak (again, more air quotes), that you were angry with her? Or maybe that smaller part of you was jealous? Again, normal reactions for a five-year old.”
What I immediately noticed at this moment was that she looked at me not with fear, or judgement, or a resistance to discuss such things, but with an openness to explore, accompanied by a smile and warmth. And what I felt was total relief. I had finally found someone who would not ‘freak out’ as so many therapists had done so in the past.
“I’m worried. I felt this way before about my little sister and now I have my own baby girl. What if I feel like this about her too? What if I start having thoughts about accidentally killing her?”
“I think the fact that you’re aware of this and talking about it makes it unlikely that that will happen. It’s quite a common thought for a new Mother to have.”
‘Thank God,’ I thought. She didn’t freak out. She had passed the test, and so I went back the following week and every week for the next two years.
I must admit that at this point I wasn’t new to therapy. Since the age of seventeen I had been referred to many health professionals to deal with my ongoing anxiety which had been there since my teenage years. One psychiatrist, one CPN and a prescription for betablockers and anti-depressants which I didn’t take. Three counsellors in private practice, a college counsellor and a University counsellor. I then trained to be a counsellor myself and seen another counsellor for 40 sessions. So many counsellors! However, only two of the above helped me, worked if you like. Sarah and Wendy.
Sarah was Head of Counselling at the University I attended where I had completed my Degree. I went to see her as my anxiety had spiked and I was worried that I would not complete my final year. I saw Sarah for a year, and it was her help that got me through and enabled me to finish my Degree and overcome some of the anxiety I had experienced.
Wendy, I seen 13 years later when I was a young Mum and once again my anxiety returned and began to feel debilitating. Wendy was the therapist who normalised my inner child’s murderous thoughts and who I will talk about in this chapter, because she is the one who I had the longest and most recent relationship with. However, I won’t forget about Sarah, as aside from Wendy I also felt the love I received from Sarah helped to get me through a significant time in my life, and so I’d like to share a poem I wrote based on an actual experience I had with Sarah in one of our ending sessions together. Funnily enough, although I was the client, I wrote it from the perspective of the counsellor. I wonder now if in doing so I was trying, even all those years later, to remember her love for me. I called the poem Therapy Love.
She looked over at me, a childlike smile spread across her lips, her eyes twinkled, and she paused for thought looking directly, intensely straight at me.
A certain kind of longing filled the space between us.
“I feel like I love you,” she said.
I smiled, touched by her vulnerability, innocence, and courage.
“I know,” I said.
“How do you know?”
“Because I feel it,” and I placed my hand across my heart.
A tiny glimpse of sadness crossed her face.
“How would it feel if I loved you too?” I asked.
“Do you love me?”
“I feel love for you, yes.”
And with that her tears flowed, as did mine.
No more words were needed for the tears spoke for themselves.
They spoke salty, bittersweet drops.
They spoke of sadness because we would part soon and never meet again.
And they spoke of happiness because we had met and had shared all that we had.
And it felt beautiful ….
It wasn’t until a long time after I wrote this poem and I was well into my own journey as a counsellor, that I realised how necessary and how beautiful love is within therapy. In fact, I would now say it is essential. I realised that what Sarah had achieved by showing me the love she did was to hold up a mirror to myself. Initially I was able to see myself through her eyes, the way she saw me, and in time I was able to feel those things about me too… self-love, compassion, and acceptance. That is ultimately what made this therapy work for me. So, thank goodness 13 years later, when I hit another tricky time in my life, I was lucky enough to find that again when I met Wendy.
Finding Wendy was pure potluck. I was referred by my GP for Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy within the NHS. It is a belief of many therapists that the most important factor in determining if therapy will be successful is the relationship a client has with their therapist. And as soon as I met Wendy I knew that she was the one I must work with, especially after she passed the test and didn’t freak out about when I disclosed the thoughts I had experienced about my sister.
As we started our 8-week assessment process I told her all about my life and during that time she didn’t really say much, but just allowed me space to talk.
After the assessment sessions we agreed that I would have the standard 6 months of therapy that most patients were offered in the NHS within my local area. However, after 6 months my sessions were extended to 1 year, and then towards the end of the first year I was given another year as I was making such good progress. I need to make a point here. The point is that being given more time was a key factor in helping me to overcome my difficulties and to overcome the anxiety I was experiencing. I still remember the exact session during which Wendy told me my sessions could be extended, and I genuinely didn’t know how to respond, because no one had ever given me that before. After all, time is precious, and it felt like a gift. It felt like someone was willing, after sitting with me in all my pain for a full year, to actually want to be there for another year with me, to sit beside me. The gift of time itself helped me to heal, because it made me feel worthy and it made me feel cared for and held. It also gave me some breathing space and allowed me to slow down and really have the space to work on the issues which had taken me to therapy. It felt like a gift of love and subsequently throughout the next year in therapy I felt as if I received many little gifts of love, as if that one gift, at that right time, had opened me up to allowing in more. And this was such a huge thing for someone who had, on some deep level, always struggled to love themselves.
Finding a therapist like Wendy was not what I was expecting to find in the NHS. When my referral letter came with my initial appointment, I was braced for a very clinical experience with someone who would feel somewhat distant and approach therapy from a medial model. And although my therapist was both a Clinical Psychologist and a Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist, I was relieved to find that it did not feel like that at all. In fact, it could not have felt more different, and I often used to joke that Wendy was the most person-centred Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist I knew. She embodied the core conditions and was not afraid to show them.
It was near the end of my time with Wendy that I told her that I had something to say but that I didn’t want to say it out loud as it would make me cry and I needed to go to work straight after the session, and so I wrote it down. This is what I wrote. ‘I love you. Because when I met you, I began to find me.’ “That’s really lovely,” she said as she smiled. It was not until later that I found out she had kept it on her desk and had looked at it every now and then.
But it was true. A good therapist won’t try to show us the way, but rather be there beside us while we find our own way, and Wendy, being how she was, had helped me to find my way, had helped me to find me.
What struck me most during our time together was that Wendy never once appeared to ‘feel sorry for me’ as others had done. She also never tried to diagnose me and in fact she questioned why I would want her to too when I asked her about this, as to some extent I had gone to therapy expecting to be told I had an anxiety disorder or some such thing. Instead she talked about anxiety being a ‘normal’ response to what had happened in my life and how it would be odd if I hadn’t reacted in the way I had to the life events I had experienced. And with this I began to see me just as me, Maria, not someone who was anxious, but just someone who had been through a lot and needed time and space to begin to feel better, to heal. I remember in one session apologising to Wendy for always crying so much and she simply replied, “Maybe you have a lot to cry about.” And I realised that I did, and that that was okay.
More about love…
At the very core of therapy is the relationship we have with our therapist which matters the most, and this is where the love comes from. I genuinely believe that Wendy showing me the love she did allowed me to find some love within me to love myself better.
And so, here I am, a qualified counsellor who sees and knows how important love is in therapy, in any modality of therapy and I would like to end by offering the following words.
To me, when a therapist can’t use ‘human’ terms and communicate a real felt response to their client such as, ‘I do miss you’ and ‘I do feel love for you’, it has the potential to diminish some of the realness within the therapeutic relationship. It misses the opportunity to work at any relational depth, to work with real and often raw and painful emotions.
For a lot of clients, using words which don’t quite cut it such as ‘I accept you’, and ‘I care for you’, although of course they do have their place and can be powerful in themselves, often offer little when clients are searching for more, when they need more. And this need for more should never go unacknowledged as it is a very basic human need. A need to be accepted and loved for who we are. And so therefore a ‘lack of’ when a client needs this, can feel useless, doing nothing but to confirm a client’s insecurities and sense of unworthiness.
At worst it feels like an attempt, on the part of therapist, to ensure their own personal and professional safety, a response based on fear, whilst doing nothing to move the client forward in their therapeutic journey. This can reinforce to a client that they are not good enough. That they are somehow bad and undeserving of love, underserving of having such an essential and fundamental human need met, and most worryingly it can ultimately confirm that they are unlovable.
To me, it is entirely possible to love a client, to show them so and to hold boundaries. Because one is not exclusive of the other.
So whilst a therapist may have some reluctance or fear to express their feelings within the therapy, I think that more often than not it is to do with their own personal responses and experiences rather than how their client may react, and therefore the fear of expressing love towards clients should be explored in a therapists own therapy and supervison.
And I am not for one moment suggesting that we all need to tell our clients we love them. Indeed, it mostly does not need to be said at all, but to be shown. Because it is the felt sense that matters the most. For clients to be given the opportunity to internalise a therapist’s love and begin to love themselves. And this may take some time to achieve and the therapist may have to keep giving and giving for quite some time.
But our clients deserve this, because love, non-sexual and non-possessive love, plus boundaries is what heals. And it may well be the first time a patient has experienced that, and it might just be exactly what they need. A boundaried relationship, that is nurtured with time and love.
I truly believe that every therapist needs to be able to find something loveable in the people they sit opposite, and every therapist, as long as it’s not an issue they absolutely cannot tolerate to work with, can do so.
So, please do not deny your clients your love. But be open to loving them and embracing that. And you never know, you may also find that you receive a lot of gifts from therapy too.
I can imagine many therapists reading this and their toes curling. I imagine conversations about boundaries and comments about how they’d never tell a client they love them. But please remember I never said we need to say it, it needs to be shown! Also, I 100% get the need for boundaries, they are essential. And indeed I wrote about this myself recently over on my Twitter account. I told a story about how I begged my therapist to tell me she loved me and how she didn’t, how she refused to do so. Instead she held those painful emotions and helped me to understand what was going on behind that need for love and what we discovered together was transformational for me. It changed my outlook on life completely and helped me to understand things about myself that I had never realised before. And the oxymoron of this story is that her being able to do what she done. To bare my pain with me, to sit in the darkness week after week while I was broken, to watch me sob and fall apart, and to hold me as she did so, is ultimately an act of love. So you see, it’s not about what we say, but what we do, how we show it, while yes of course, still maintaining boundaries. You can read that Twitter thread below if you’d like to.
**trigger warning/death**— Maria Albertsen (@MariaAlbertsen_) November 21, 2020
For the last year therapy has been really painful. I’m talking painful to the point of where I didn’t want to continue. I want to share a recent breakthrough that I had, and how I got there. It’s about love and boundaries and why maintaining them are 1/
I’ve been lucky…
I have been very lucky to have had two people who have loved me better, and I’d like to end with a poem I wrote while I was seeing Wendy. I feel this poem reflects how I was able to learn to love the smaller parts of myself, to Mother myself if you like, because Wendy had shown me how. And with that all of the anxiety I had felt disappeared, and in November 2017 I left therapy in a very good place, experiencing little anxiety and feeling positive about the future.
Inside Her Tears
She sat opposite me with her legs crossed and her head facing down, playing with her hands in her lap.
In the moments that passed I could see her eyes start to change, to become moist and dewy. A film of tears began to cover them and formed like pools at the bottom of her eyelids, resembling a great lake or an ocean that was struggling to hold back.
She looked up at me and gently said, “I wish I could be with my inner child how I am with my own children,” and with those words huge tears flowed from her, the kind of tears that form a drop shape, large enough to see a reflection in.
Heavy tears that soak the surface they land on, tears that say so much, that come from deep within, tears that rolled down her face like heavy unpolished diamonds.
“Tell me more,” I said, “How would you Mother your inner child?”
And to this she replied:
When I wake in the morning, I’d lie still in my bed
Thoughts of her would fill my head
I’d hear her little feet stomping into my room
She’d light up my life, no room for gloom.
I’d pull her close beside me
And snuggle her in tight
I’d vow to protect her
with all my might.
We’d plan our day
And I’d smell her hair
I’d remember these moments
Too precious not to share.
I’d make her favourite breakfast
And together we’d bake
She loves pancakes and bananas
Followed by cake!
We’d go to the beach
And feel the sand in our toes
I’d buy some ice cream
And giggle as I put it on her nose.
We’d laugh and we’d dance
and we’d soak up the sun
We’d take a picnic
and have lots of fun.
Then when she gets tired
I’d wrap her up warm
Wipe the sand from her feet
And hold her in my arms.
We’d slowly walk home
And have a little rest
Curled up on the sofa
With a story she loves best.
I’d run her a bath
And fill it with bubbles
She’d laugh and she’d splash
No worries or troubles.
I’d tell her she looks pretty
So she has no doubts
I’d remind her of her beauty
Inside and out.
Then I’d tuck her into bed
Cosy, safe and warm
And she’ll say
“Pretty please, can you sing me that song”
“There once was a Mummy
Who had a little girl
A girl that’s so wonderful
A gift to the world
A girl who is funny
Stands tall and is strong
A girl who is so special
She has her own song
The girl is awesome
The girl is kind
The girl is clever
She has an amazing mind
She’ll have a great life
And achieve many things
She’ll have a powerful voice
That brings meaning when she sings.”
And as she listens
I’ll stroke her hair
She’ll close her eyes
Cuddling her favourite teddy bear.
Softly, gently she’ll fall asleep
And I’ll sit staring in awe
at this wondrous little soul
who is mine to keep.
To keep while she’s small
To help her find her way
To give her time and space
To keep all the nasties at bay.
To love her always
And offer my support
To watch as she grows
And needs me no more.
And that’s what I would do
And that’s how I would be
With this lost little girl
Who is a part of me.
- All of the above text and painting is copyrighted to Maria Albertsen and permission must be gained to reproduce.