‘Do you know how hard it is to find you guys?’ – asked a patient I once saw for an initial consultation. By ‘you guys’ he meant us psychotherapists. And the answer I had to his question at that point was ‘no, I don’t!’ In fact, in a big city like London where there are so many therapists, of all experiences and approaches, I used to assume that finding a therapist was the easiest thing. Just google: ‘Psychotherapist London’ – I thought. You’ll find one in almost every corner!
However, for me to fully appreciate the ‘how hard’ part of his question, I had to first think about the verb ‘to find’. What does it mean to find a psychotherapist? Is it simply getting a number off the internet? Or a name from your GP? Does that mean that the therapist was then found? Maybe it’s not that simple.
What I came to understand is that finding a therapist means finding help. And this is a long and difficult process, one that begins when the person realises they have issues they can’t work through alone, thus accepting the need to ask for help. This painful realisation sometimes happens long before the person actually starts searching for a therapist.
And then it raises other questions: who would be able to help me? To whom can I entrust my most vulnerable and needy bits, my most intense and complex feelings? Who will be able to understand me, and withstand the most ambivalent parts of me? Those who search for a psychotherapist may not be consciously asking these question, but that’s what they’re hoping to find.
When a person seeks the help of a therapist they may be unconsciously looking for a sort of a perfect parent, one who is wise, caring and containing, patient and accessible, someone who knows best and will give them the right answers. But in the process of looking for a therapist the patient will hopefully end up finding a therapy, and that means facing the internal reality of what they make out their therapists to be. So in this journey this ideal of a parent will most inevitably become another ‘just like my father, or mother, or boyfriend, etc’ figure.
But fear not, this is what happens in psychotherapy, and it is how therapy works. By being able to inadvertently re-enact and relive versions of other relationships with the therapist, the patient will have found their therapy, that is, the treatment they so much require. This will allow them the opportunity to understand feelings and behaviours, so they can work through the patterns they may be stuck on in life. And the found psychotherapist is there to allow this to happen, to accept the patient’s projections and most disturbing feelings, in a way that he is able to help the patient digest and make sense of what is going on in their internal world.
So the process of searching for a psychotherapist is in fact the journey of finding help. I could of course list some practical advice on how to find the ‘right’ therapist’. But in the risk of being vague, my wish with this post was to reflect on my patient’s question in the hope of understanding what finding a psychotherapist really means. And in the meaning that I found, I came to realise that it is a very hard journey indeed, but one that can lead to deep and thorough transformation.