With the rise of telehealth and the quick ubiquitous implementation of it, and then the long year that has followed; it might be a good time to pause and consider how your therapeutic container is treating you.
One marked benefit of hosting sessions in your own space is the fluidity with which therapy can exist in the midst of your daily life. Being in your space means being around your preferred creature comforts (including possible “therapy animals”). This shift means skipping the commute to the office, creating possible ease in childcare or work/school scheduling.
There are also noted drawbacks to this technological switch.
Pre-Covid, there was a certain ritualistic bookending on either end of the session that occurred by way of driving or walking to the office, sitting in the waiting room, then traveling to your next destination. There was inherently a moment for reflection and integration. On the front end, preparation time was available- a review of the week, or of existing material. Post-session, there existed a buffer between what came up in session and whatever real-world situation required your immediate attention. If something difficult arose or trauma processing occurred, that time and space enabled a somatic come-down before the stressors of the day reared their incessant heads.
Now, when working over a telehealth platform, it is not uncommon to jump from work into session then back into life mode, and vice versa.
Here are some considerations to create appropriate space and get the most out of your sessions and reclaim the quiet spaces that used to buttress session:
– To prepare for session: Dedicate a space in your home for this time. If possible, make sure not to be backlit, and sit in a comfortable seat. Have a glass of water and blanket within reach. Whenever possible, use this dedicated space for each appointment.
– Ensure you have a sonically private space where there won’t be intrusive noises and no one is within earshot
– Plan for at least 15 minutes prior to the session to prepare. This might look like making some tea, taking a walk, free-writing, or some form of creative expression
– During the session: turn off your self-view. If using a platform that enables the removal of your tiny thumbnail mirror, I suggest it. Not only is it distracting, but it potentially feeds the part of you that might be tempted to ensure you’re doing therapy “right.”
– After the session: instead of closing the computer and heading back into your life of working, emailing, parenting, or erranding— make a conscious choice about what this transitional moment looks like. Can you use another 15-minute pause prior to quotidian demands beckoning?
– Grounding both into session and after the session as a form of aftercare is an integral part of this work. You can enlist your therapist for some specifics here based on what you’re working on
Reflect on what this switch has meant for you— what are you missing from in-person sessions? What is working better for you remotely? The space itself, no matter its iteration, is part of the therapeutic processing—this can be a topic you internally and externally and consciously explore within the therapeutic realm.
Therapy. Sometimes we get the idea to enter therapy when life is going smooth, but we’d like to tend to our self-growth anyway. More often we get the idea to enter therapy when something traumatic has occurred in our lives or we’ve tried everything else we could think of first (aka we’re desperate).
We want something to change, and we want it to change fast because we’re tired of feeling this way.
We may still be hesitant to hand over our time and money to a therapist, but we bargain with ourselves. “I can commit to this for a few months.” And we do. And things may start to feel a little better. The storm settles. We’ve had some time to process. Things might even feel somewhat normal again.
We did what we said we would do. We stuck it out for a few months.
And all the thoughts start swirling in our heads about why it might be a good time to say goodbye:
We’re feeling better.
Money’s a little tight.
It’s not always fun to show up and be vulnerable.
Do we really need this? Or is it an unnecessary luxury? There are so many other responsibilities to manage.
I say this all from firsthand experience. These were the thoughts I bumped into after seeing my therapist for a few months (yes, therapists see therapists too).
Afterall, they’re valid and convincing thoughts.
And yet, I decided to stick with my therapist anyway. Something told me these reasons to leave were emerging as a convenient way to avoid digging deeper.
Now, six months later, I realize I was on the verge of doing some real work with my therapist. Work that has already and will continue to shift my life in some powerful ways.
It’s not always comfortable, but I’m glad I’ve stayed.
Here are some reasons I’ve come to believe in the value of committing to a long-term relationship with a therapist:
1. Trust and safety take time
In therapy, the relationship is key. The amount of trust and safety you feel with your therapist determines how authentically and vulnerably you’re able to show up. And trust and safety take time. Think about the people you’re truly yourself with. How long have you known them? I once had a mother of a client I see reach out to me concerned. Her son told her he wasn’t being completely honest with me. I had seen him for five sessions. I told her I probably wouldn’t be honest with me either at this point. Trust in a relationship takes time.
2. Deep-seated patterns don’t change overnight
Oftentimes, when we begin therapy, we become aware of patterns that have been part of our lives for years, maybe even decades. And even if they’re not healthy patterns, they’ve become part of how we operate and even part of our identities. There can be a lot of delicate untangling to do. And after we untangle, we have to learn new ways of being and operating. These kinds of shifts understandably take time.
3. Therapy is continuously empowering
Even if you’re not facing something acutely stressful in your life, there is a lot of beneficial work that can be done in therapy. For fifty minutes, you are turning inward, slowing down, practicing being with yourself and your emotions, expanding your capacity for feeling, and taking responsibility for the state of your life. All of this creates a more mindful approach to living that then ripples out and affects the rest of your week. The decisions you make. The behaviors you choose. You begin to have more say in your life. Even if you’re not in crisis, it is always empowering to slow down and become more aware of how you’re feeling, what you’re needing, and what you’re choosing.
4. Your mental health matters
In a world where self-care usually falls to the bottom of the barrel in comparison to work and responsibilities, carving out an hour each week in which you choose your mental health is a gift you give yourself that fosters a kinder, gentler relationship with yourself where your feelings matter.
5. You learn how to be with your emotions
Everywhere else in our lives, the people who care about us want to offer solutions. When we tell them what we’re going through, they instinctively want to fix it. Quickly. As a result, we are constantly taken away from simply experiencing our emotions. Therapy may be the only place in your life where you can truly be with your experience. Not only is this healing, but it deepens your ability to be with your feelings. When we don’t know how to be with our feelings, we run away and distract ourselves. We blame others. We act out. As we learn how to be with our feelings in therapy, our worlds start to feel safer. We learn how to allow. We take more deep breaths. We react less and thoughtfully respond more.
6. You learn how to be honest and how liberating it is
To have a place where you can just. be. yourself. Most of the time, we have to consider the feelings of others. We modify or perform in some manner. In therapy, where it just gets to be about you, not the expectations of others, you begin to speak truth in a way you may never have before. As a result, your life starts to feel more honest.
7. Life is constantly offering us opportunities for growth
Short-term therapy is based on the idea that there’s a problem to be fixed. Fix the problem and you’re good to go. But the thing is, that’s not how life works. Life is a continuous process of growth and change. Once we reach the top of one mountain, another appears. Long-term therapy acknowledges this. It acknowledges that to be human, with all of our unique emotions and fears, challenges us in an ongoing manner. It acknowledges that the whole reason we’re here is to keep stepping into growth and to keep doing the work so our lives continue to feel alive and rewarding. Long-term therapy acknowledges that change is constant and so support should be constant too.
Long-term therapy provides a safe and empowering shelter where you continue to grow, heal, and nurture the relationship you have with yourself and life. A therapist is a wonderful resource to support you on your journey.
As we approach this harrowing year-long anniversary of the pandemic, or at least of the collective awareness and general quarantine period of it, it feels important to honor thehorrorwe have witnessed. You might be experiencing the pandemic personally via loss of a loved one, shifting or lost work, social isolation, or perhaps your role has been more of a distant observer, or even seeing it through the lens of survivor’s guilt. Regardless of role or impact, we are currently living inside of an ongoing, slow-rolling, ever-unfolding collective trauma. Using imaginal tools can create some underworld and overworld understanding that is digestible while making personal meaning of this era. While many possible gifts have emerged, of note: the reconsideration of our shrine dedicated to “busy,” and a questioning of our ever-quickening pace; it is fair to say we are living in terrible times. Both Joseph Campbell and T.S. Eliot noted the world as a possible “wasteland,” yet used narrative and imaginal tools as a framework to withstand and even deepen psychological capacity. Campbell duly noted that by using myth we can vitalize ourselves, thereby creating vitality in the world around us (1988).
While there is medicine in creating a “normal” routine and buoyancy where possible, I wonder from a depth psychotherapeutic perspective, how healing it might be for us to incorporate the horror of this time more intentionally. This honors any upset and makes room for collective and personal grieving. Using the tools of the imagination is one way to incorporate the discomforting parts of the pandemic, both personally and clinically. Imagination can be used to meditate horror, or our reaction to horror, which is generally fear. Or it might be channeled to imagine and incorporate alternate endings, thus promoting hope. Equally, it can enable a deeper, storied processing of the events.
Trauma and Imaginal Healing
We know that trauma interrupts critical pathways in the brain that can impact, among many other things, the region that regulates negative emotionality. Through James Hollis’ analytic work and research in Houston, expressive arts were seen to “reactivate those portions of the brain and reinstate growth” (2000, p.9). Donald Kalsched, largely known in the depth psychoanalytic and trauma field, has cohered that the imagination “helps us integrate body and mind, affect and image, conscious and unconscious” (2020). And image is naturally the way we witness fantasy, creativity, and make meaning of the day-to-day world we encounter as a conscious species.
“There is a mystery about this which stimulates the imagination; where there is no imagination there is no horror.”
– Sir Arthur Conon Doyle
Children teach us that holding space for the horrific can be healing and normalizing. Ask a young child to tell a story and many will quickly turn to the grotesque or the monstrous. They may even laugh while recalling a grim story from a book, or poke with curiosity about a character that gives them nightmares. Before defenses get installed into their hard-drive, so to speak, children are mostly comfortable with shadow-incorporation. Imaginal work offers a relatable, archetypal path to feel into what is dark, as a way to integrate wholeness into our psyches.
Why Honor the Imagination?
Before there was language, there was image and story. We have evidence of this, for one, in archaic cave paintings. It is encoded in our brains to storytell, and recognize patterns of story. We are narrative beings, and images are some of the ways our psyches take in and experience information. We speak in symbol. Our dreams speak in symbol.
At times, especially in times of grief, language can feel limited. Even our common sayings point to this: there are no words, I am speechless, etc.
In the trauma world, often images are used to first encounter how something may have gotten storied in the psyche. Making use of the imagination which can coalesce and transmute images, somatic sensations, emotions, the ineffable– is a comprehensive way to “meet” what is showing up.
Imagination is more important than information
Honoring imagination enables us to tap into our own narrative or the stream of archetypal patterns from the collective unconscious. In this primordial stream, we can encounter recognizable archetypes, or patterns of behaviors, alongside images that might resonate. As a meaning-making species, it can be healing to know that we are familied and recognized in other stories that exist outside of our own heads. We already, perhaps unknowingly, are in contact with archetypes, explored through film, books, video games, and Greek myths. Even our social media platforms respect the human propensity to narrativize as a way to connect, through Stories.
Using fairytales as an example of this work; you might immediately recall a tale that was once treasured as a child. This is one way we can tap into original stories from early life that carry personal meaning. In a fairytale, it is easy to encounter internal or external characters or motifs that resonate with life, relationships, or difficult situations. As Sabrina Orah Mark said recently in The Paris Review: “The reason why fairy tales exist and thrive is because our bodies recognize them like they are our own. Our same blood type. Because we recognize wolf, witch, forest, kiss, curse, spell, mother, the stories latch” (2020). Mark is noting that the stories “latch” because they are archetypal in form and as ancient as humanity. They carry patterns and a common language of relating to, or of rejection, or of horror, pain, beauty, protection.
What Does Working Imaginally mean?
Working imaginally is flexible and spontaneous. Engaging with inner figures, with archetypal characters within and through myth, narrative, fairytale, etc, is vivifying. For some clinicians, it might mean play therapy, unstructured play, or sand tray. For others, expressive arts techniques are used. Narrative and drama therapies can assist in tapping into image. With depth psychotherapeutic training and a trauma-focus, I tend to use the tools of fairytale analysis, expressive arts, dreamwork, and classical Jungian sandplay as clinical tools.
Meanwhile, I invite you to honor your original images by revisiting your favorite fairytale from youth during this pandemic anniversary. Sit down, really sink into the tale and notice what comes up.