by Varsha KV, Consultant Counseling Psychologist, Limelighting Life Collective
I have often noticed that the tone in which mental health practitioners are enquired about the nature of their work, is very casual, as if there is a sense of both familiarity and un-familiarity to it. As if they have comfortably assumed what we must be up to, carrying a feeling of mystery as well, a mystery that not a lot of people want to unravel.
There is an immediate sense of intimacy that is felt when one thinks about the field of mental health, as if we know what this is all about, and yet it feels strange, weird, and useless. It is like having a partner that one is not too keen on knowing, is better from afar. Therefore, what one carries is a sense of wonder as to what mental health work is, but also fears getting close to knowing it.
This is also where the resistance to staying with difficult mental states comes in, as if one is too scared to think of possibilities of it, and wants to immediately jump to the question of what can be done about it. When it comes to mental health, one wants to go round and round, but very rarely do we want to engage with what it really is, what difficult emotional states say to us, what would it mean to feel our emotions and many other themes.
I remember when I started going for therapy back in 2014, I could never explain it to my friends enough why I go for therapy, they would ask me- what is it that I say to my therapist that I cannot tell them? My friends would be curious about what my therapist does when I share my emotional states with them, and I would talk about how they would listen, make meaning, and reflect back some of my own thoughts and feelings, and it would be clearly very difficult and distressing for them to fathom that someone can pay for this, pay for such an ‘insignificant’ thing, when there are so many other things that are much more important. I could never convince them otherwise.
If we look around at the professions that are dominant in our society, they are mostly those that are concentrated on ‘doing’, or on solving problems, be it engineering or medicine, chartered accountancy or law. Very rarely would philosophy or research be considered as professions that are substantial enough to be pursued or taken seriously, because these are professions that are probably centred around engaging with some pertinent questions about life, and these are also careers that help us move closer to life. This is why, whenever we think about the work that mental health professionals do, we find skills such as empathizing with the other’s concerns, making meaning of what they could be going through, staying with them in their distress by becoming aware of our emotional capacities, useless and irrelevant, because these are questions that push us towards feeling what we do not want to feel. And this is what the field of mental health is essentially for.
Even as mental health professionals, I have often seen some of us feel anxious about not being able to ‘do’ much for our clients, not to say that this is not valid, but if it replaces the idea of engaging with our own feelings as we listen to a client, then this may be something to think about. What is even more interesting is that as a therapist, I have often found myself doubting my skills and the quality of my work, when all I am doing is listening to my clients and helping them make sense of their narrative. Not to say that there isn’t more to therapeutic work, but there is something about this that is just not enough, irrespective of whether my clients feel helped or not. It probably is an internal state that we, as mental health professionals, are fed and end up believing in. I often feel like I am at a loss of words when people come up with complex emotional concerns and then ask- what should I do about it? In that moment, it is so difficult to say- let us first understand what is even going on. Not only is there no space for the person concerned to feel, but the pressure to get answers is quickly thrown at us, as if all they want is someone to rescue them, and it becomes very difficult for us to resist fulfilling that need.
Even in our day-to-day interactions, we often miss the point of what it is to be emotionally present for someone. We often dismiss an emotional concern as not worth engaging with, if there isn’t an apparent ‘solution’ to it, not understanding that support can also be offered in the form of bearing the distress for the other, which involves looking at the impossibility of ‘solving’ every other problem that is present around us.
It is essential that emotions, any emotion, is considered to be an intrinsic part of one’s being, and we start thinking of ways to listen to ourselves more. This can, of course, happen when our feelings are heard and valued as children, and that becomes a natural form of our functioning. When we are told to not cry, to not be angry, to not be sad, to always stay cheerful, it is quite natural to feel uncomfortable and restless around feelings that are unpleasant, because significant others haven’t been able to tolerate those feelings in us as children. It is important to know that feeling vulnerable and authentic can happen only in spaces that we can trust and make us feel safe.
And the primary function of a therapeutic space is to offer that space in order for the other to feel, to question freely and to acknowledge the journey that one has been on, and the journey that one wants to take thereon.
Consultant Counselling Psychologist
Limelighting Life Collective