I never thought I’d choose to stop being a psychotherapist. I imagined I’d go on doing it till illness or old age prevented me and would then give up regretfully, wishing I could have carried on. But here I am, still able to continue if I want, knowing that at the end of this year I will stop seeing all my clients – not that I have very many – and some of my supervisees. I’ll go on seeing a few supervisees who are still students until they graduate next summer. (For those who aren’t familiar with the term, ‘supervision’ means support, consultation and what’s known as ‘externality’ – helping the therapist/counsellor to see, for instance, where they are getting caught up in their own agendas.)
I first started seeing psychotherapy clients in 1995, a good quarter-century ago. It took me a long time to gain confidence and my practice was slow to build, but I stuck with it. For quite a while I had other work too, and in those early years I also trained as a Focusing practitioner and teacher. Sometimes the balance of my practice has swung more towards Focusing and running workshops, at other times more towards psychotherapy and supervision. For a while, when I first moved to Devon, I did very little work of either kind, which meant I wasn’t earning much money to supplement my pensions. I had more time for writing but didn’t enjoy the nagging worry about money. Gradually the psychotherapy started to build up again and things got better financially. I ran a few Focusing courses and took on more work for my training institute, marking essays and tutoring students for their dissertations. All of which meant, of course, that there was less time and headspace for writing.
Back in 2009, when I decided to apply for an MA in creative writing, I’d got to a point where I felt most of my time was devoted to being there for other people. This included helping them express their creativity, whatever form it took. It was rewarding but it left me with little time or emotional energy for my own creative work. Not, of course, that psychotherapy isn’t creative. Many psychotherapists see it as the main outlet for their creativity, and it would have been much easier if I could have done so too. However, something in me has persisted in wanting to make something of my own, especially in the form of writing. I’ve always had a nagging feeling that doing something primarily for myself, which I may or may not be any good at, isn’t as valuable as doing something which is manifestly for the benefit of others. How can I justify – in other people’s eyes or even my own – spending time writing a novel that may never get published, or a poetry collection that only a handful of people will read? The logical conclusion from that way of thinking is that while I can encourage other people to be creative for themselves, it’s not OK for me. But if a psychotherapist is meant to model living the kind of fulfilled life the client hopes to lead, there seems to be something not quite right here.
In the real world, I know of course that it isn’t either/or. Quite a few of my psychotherapy colleagues are writers or artists or musicians, and they don’t feel they have to subsume all their creativity into working with other people. It is juggling act, though, stepping out of one way of being and into another. Most of the time I’ve loved the work of psychotherapy and been absorbed by it. When I look back at the clients who’ve come to me, a significant number have found their sessions helpful, even transformative, and there’s a sense of privilege, as well as profound human connection, that comes from being alongside someone in their deepest, most vulnerable and most open places. I’ve always loved listening to stories, and learning the story of someone’s life, however similar to or different from mine, is endlessly fascinating.
There are other aspects of psychotherapy that aren’t so easy: being there regularly, week in, week out (apart from agreed breaks), showing up even when the client doesn’t, carrying the difficult feelings and areas of trauma that a client may not yet be ready to feel; sitting in stuck places that can feel never-ending, weathering times of missed connection, being on the receiving end of anger or rejection or contempt. It’s hard work, even if all this can and change and often does. It’s hugely rewarding to see someone becoming more confident, more open to life, more in tune with who they are and what they want, and being a psychotherapist has changed me too. It’s given me more steadiness and patience and a greater tolerance for being with whatever comes. It’s a training in developing a wise mind and a compassionate heart and in not taking things so personally, trusting in the wisdom of the process and the greater love and holding that extend beyond the personalities of client and therapist. At its best it’s a beautiful thing to do, and I’m grateful for having had the opportunity to do it. But I know I’ve had enough.
Perhaps working online, rather than in person, for the last eighteen months or so that’s tipped the balance. Although good work can still happen, seeing someone on the screen isn’t the same as being in the room with a real person, and often it feels more draining, even though I’ve got used to it. Or perhaps it’s simply that I’ve come to the end of my need to do it. For most of my life I’ve carried things emotionally for people, one way and another, and now something in me is saying ‘No more’. It feels like taking off a heavy coat that I’ve been wearing for so long it’s almost become part of me. Life without it may be lighter, but I’ll undoubtedly miss it.
I’m not giving up altogether. Apart from seeing the students I’ve mentioned, I’ll still be doing some marking and dissertation tutoring, and some Focusing work. Although Focusing works with inner sensing and can reach some very deep places inside us, it isn’t psychotherapy. A Focusing client can book a session as and when they want, which may be every week or may be at much longer intervals, and the understanding is that they will look after their own process in the meantime and take it to therapy if they need to. Someone doesn’t need to be with a trained professional in order to Focus effectively. (I’m using the capital letter to distinguish it from ‘focusing on’ something in the usual sense.) When I teach the skills of Focusing, the expectation is that someone will then be able to use them alone or in a reciprocal partnership. They may still want to have a session or sessions with a professional, but that’s up to them. When I run workshops I usually find I get as much out of it as the participants, and I come away feeling more expansive and more in tune with myself. The workshops I’m planning to run will be on themes that I want to explore and share with others, and there’s an interest and excitement in that.
So here I am, reinventing myself again as I’ve done several times in my life, pointing my compass in a different, albeit similar, direction. And what about writing? Yes, I’m wanting to make more space for it and find, at last, what I really want to write – which of course changes and evolves all the time we’re writing and even when we’re not. I’ve now published three books of poetry, two collections and a pamphlet, and I’m finishing a novel which I hope may get as far as publication – though that’s always a lottery. I’ve got ideas for more writing too, and after a period of relative stagnation I feel I’m beginning to move on again. Beyond my own bubble there’s the wider world and all the terrible things that are happening now, and inevitably the question: what can I do? The challenge, as in the rest of my life, is to do what feels alive and authentic and necessary and not lapse into what someone once described as a ‘hardening of the oughteries.’ I’m giving up psychotherapy but I’m not giving up on life, however long or short a time I may have left.