What do you do when you feel lost? Confused? Incapable of dealing with relationships? Chances are you keep these feelings to yourself. Or, at best, talk about them with close friends or family members without much hope of having them resolved.
It wouldn’t occur to you to go seek professional help – that is, talk these problems through with a trained psychotherapist or counsellor. Why should you? These are small emotions, nothing major. You’re not mad or anything. Just a bit confused. And you’re not American or something to go running to a therapist for every little problem. No way.
If this is how you think, you may want to reconsider. Because, over the last few years, more and more twenty-and-thirty-somethings in India have begun to see therapy as a positive step towards a happier, better fulfilled life.
That’s what Madhvi Bhalla, counselling psychologist at The British Psychological Society, UK, discovered when she moved back to India from London. Bhalla meets 20 patients every week, all of whom need help with the challenges of everyday living.
They’re not ‘mad.’ They just believe that even ‘minor emotional crises’ can affect the way they live, and that professional help can change these for the better.
The couch is comfortable
There are many reasons for why we seem to have changed our minds about therapy as a possible solution for everyday problems. First, of course, is the fact that as society changes, people become unsure of their roles in life and look for some sort of guidance. They also lack the support of family systems that the older generations had, and often can’t bring themselves to be completely open with their friends either.
“Friends come from their own spaces, experiences and thought processes, whereas a therapist is a master of human behaviour,” says Nandita Diwan, a 30-year-old journalist who goes to a therapist to learn how her childhood shaped her into the adult she is.
Diwan finds it difficult to navigate the challenges of life, and though she had talked about her problems with her parents, family members and friends (she also tried astrology), she was unable to resolve her issues and finally, as a last resort, began therapy.
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Job stress, job uncertainty, the pressures of everyday life, the tension of relationships… these are also pushing many young people to seek professional help. “There’s no obvious way to live. There are just so many subjective ways, and that’s confusing people,” says Bhalla.
As we begin to see ourselves as individuals rather than merely members of a family, the ‘Who am I?’ question looms large. “Society is moving towards an interest in the self,” says Sujata Chatterjee, a consultant clinical psychologist. “‘How do I function in the larger collective?’ is the question people want answers to.”
Time for a counsellor?
People also want answers to these questions: Why and when should they try therapy? How will they know when they really need help?
The answer is quite simple, say experts in mental health. If whatever’s bothering you begins to affect your day-to-day functioning, call a counsellor. “That’s the warning sign,” says Bhalla.
Ask yourself these questions, suggests Chatterjee. “If you are going through anything in the list below, you may want to explore therapy,” she says.
* Do I want to know myself?
* Am I struggling with the people around me, or with situations?
* Do I need support, and am I struggling to find that support in the people around me?
* Do I know what my strengths are?
* Am I finding myself stuck somewhere – at the office, in a relationship, with people?
* Is my life story playing on repeat mode? Do I keep making the same mistakes all the time?
* Am I trapped in a story I believe about myself?
Psychotherapy, says Bhalla, can help with a range of problems: anxiety, trauma, depression, sexual abuse, bipolar disorder, issues with self-esteem, trouble with relationships or just an inability to normalise part of your life.
The last problem is why 35-year-old lawyer Aditya Panicker is seeing a therapist. He finds it difficult to handle working life after the fun of college. And he’s also unable to accept that his seven-year relationship with his girlfriend has completely broken down.
How therapy works
One of the biggest benefits of therapy is that it lets you know that you have options. That you are not simply stuck in a situation beyond your control. It also helps identify negative behavioural patterns.
Usually, when faced with challenges, people react or think in similar patterns, which keeps them stuck in a rut all their lives and harms them. Therapy helps people recognise why they do what they do, even if it is negative, self-harming behaviour.
For example, says Chatterjee, one of the most common negative patterns that emerges when a relationship has broken down is the inability to manage hurt and anger. “Once you identify that inability, you process it and react to it differently to arrive at a different conclusion,” explains Chatterjee.
She adds: “The ultimate aim is to know yourself better. When you know more about yourself, you are not a slave to your in-built emotional reactions or your default settings. Understanding this can help you make positive changes in your life by thinking and acting differently.”
A good friend could help you sort out your emotions, but a good therapist judges nobody and has no vested interests, so talking to her or him means that you could go on a journey of self-discovery in a contained, safe space.
All better now?
Most people need 15 to 25 sessions with a therapist before their problems are resolved. Sometimes, however, more sessions are required. How well therapy works depends on how hard the client and therapist work together, the client’s inherent strength, and the client’s resources (financial and family).
But it isn’t an easy process. Therapy can force you to face emotions you may not want to even acknowledge, so while it can be cathartic, it can also be painful. So therapy works only if you let it.
For Nandita Diwan, therapy has almost been like a magic cure. Within 15 sessions, she travelled from helplessness to empowerment. She feels ready to face life on her own. “I realised my past was shaping the opinion I had of myself,” she says. “Therapy helped me create a space that other people couldn’t trample on.”
There’s still something of a stigma about it though. Most people in therapy don’t like to mention it to other people. “My close friends know about my sessions, but I keep it a secret from others because their reaction would most probably be ‘He must be really f**ked up’,” says 35-year old advertising professional Rajesh Airy, who’s in therapy to learn why he can’t seem to sustain a relationship.
That said, therapy is no magic bullet, but it can help, says Aditya Panicker. “It isn’t foolproof,” he says. “But in the eight months I’ve been in therapy, I’ve come a long way. I am more independent emotionally.”
How to get help
* Word-of-mouthis the best way to find a good therapist. Talk to friends who go for therapy about what their therapist is like.
From HT Brunch, November 9
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