The beauty of therapy
by Noelle Okonji
I wrote this piece in response to my desire to convey some of what psychotherapy means to me. My experience of being both a client and a therapist has given me the opportunity to experience and witness the positive impact therapy can have from both gazes. My therapy training afforded me access to new ways of thinking and also reignited my love of reading. I am interested in what beauty means to people as I feel it engenders a ray of thoughts, emotions, aspirations and expectations on individual and systemic levels. I have worked with many clients who cited a longing for physical beauty and perfection, yet quite often when they engaged with the therapeutic process and looked inward, they opened their eyes to new ways of seeing themselves. On the outside there were no major changes, what changed was their mind-set.
“To what extent is perfection inherent in what we see and hear, and how much is it, instead our own inner state?” (Ferrucci, 2010: 37)
Beauty is often associated with what we can see, such as our bodies, our creations and achievements, wondrous natural landscapes and hot summer days. There is another beauty that is intangible, immeasurable and at any given moment can transform itself as a reaction to its environment. This beauty is something we all possess. It is one of our most intimate, private and longest held belongings and is powerful, creative, complex and vulnerable; it is our beautiful mind. The beauty of the mind can take us anywhere from faraway places we have never been, to revisiting our past and day dreaming about our future. In my work with clients, I find we are not confined to the four walls of the therapy room; we travel outside to places that may be anything from forgotten, painful, and confusing to joyful, loved and hated. We discuss beliefs and attitudes held by my clients and whether they are based on feelings, fact or fiction, this happens while simultaneously remaining in the room, in the moment, courtesy of our minds.
“Perhaps the immobility of the things that surround us is forced upon them by our conviction that they are themselves and not anything else and by the immobility of our conceptions of them.” (Proust, 2015: 3)
In response to our experiences and perceptions, our minds may employ various distractions that inhibit our daily functioning; our minds can conjure an infinite number of theatrical constructs which impact how we relate to ourselves and other people, and our minds can carry psychological wounds that we may or may not be aware of. These wounds accompany us as we move from day to night, and appear in various guises from mood and behavioural changes to changes in our bodies, which play host to a spectrum of irritants from headaches to fatigue and stomach complaints, to name but a few. Nasio (2004) explained that: “past pain will re- emerge in an unexpected manner elsewhere than in the mind, perhaps it will re-emerge in the flesh converted into another pain or incarnated in a psychosomatic injury” (55). These injuries perform as a currency exchange and we seek ways to tranquilise them, not always investigating why they arrived and what purpose they might serve. A study reported by Holt, Phillips and Shapiro (2003) examined the case of a young woman who experienced a difficult childhood and developed a preoccupation with her physical appearance. The client believed if she was beautiful on the outside she could control how people responded to her – she was diagnosed with Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD). I feel the term disorder could be representitive of internal pain and dis-ease that is distracted by the client’s compulsion to mirror-check and withdraw from daily life because of her percieved physical flaws, leading to more pain. Phillips (2005) stated for some people, mirror checking can lead to self harm as “the mirror itself can become the vehicle” (92). While exploring the role BDD may play in clients’ lives, I am also interested in what else they may or may not talk about in the session if they were not discussing BDD.
“No one else really knows what we are tasting. It is the most secret of the senses.” (Ferrucci, 2010: 51)
Our individuality allows us to think, feel, see, hear, taste and smell in ways that are exclusive to ourselves, and how we engage with our internal and external worlds can be a conflicting mix that we may knowingly and unknowingly unveil and conceal in the therapy hour. In this hour, we explore whether we had a good enough environment in babyhood, and the meaning we attach to our early experiences, in order to understand who we are today and whether we feel good enough. Adler (1931) suggested human reality is based on individual meaning-making while Sartre (1943) stated “we have to deal with human reality as a being which is what it is not and which is not what it is” (81). The therapeutic relationship is unique to each individual, not only for the client but also the therapist; there are two physical beings in the therapeutic space, yet often it is not simply a meeting of two minds; transgenerational inherited/conditioned familial traits, that Hollis (2013) refers to as residues, have influenced our ways of being, doing and appearing, and they co-exist in the therapeutic space. As a therapist, I am available as the canvas and container for my clients’ verbal and somatic communication, providing them with a space to narrate and unpack their felt sense of their lived and unlived life within the safety of our relationship. At times I might be different people to my clients in terms of who I represent to them, be that a mother or sister, and so on, which can influence how they relate to me. I might feel some of what my clients are not able/ ready to feel or express.
“Don’t cut the person to fit the coat.” (de Mello, 2014: 11)
In therapy there are no performance reviews, no judgements or expectations; there is compassion, positive regard, confidentiality and openness on the part of the therapist to meet clients where they are at emotionally, intellectually and physically, right from the start of their psychotherapeutic journey. The therapist will endeavour to empathically attune to their client while listening to their own internal supervisor, noticing their physical and mental reactions and maintaining a curiosity about what they are experiencing and how it may be linked to what has been communicated by the client or co-created in the therapeutic space. The therapist may also track what and when things are not said, along with whether the client’s physical expressions or movements betray what is verbalised, or maybe act as the communication for when the client does not have the words to name what they are feeling. I hold the title of McCluskey’s (2005) book, To be met as a person, to be significant in the therapy space, as clients often present citing various issues, symptoms and scenarios which led them to seek therapy. However, in meeting the person, not the symptom, it opens opportunities for myself and my clients to not only explore the presenting issue but to also work collaboratively and journey through the client’s past, while in the present, to unearth what may have contributed to the formation of the symptom in the first place. Symptoms can transform themselves and be replaced or courted by other symptoms, and in meeting the person I utilise various approaches in my toolbox (an integrative approach) to understand the meaning of the symptom to the client, and what life without it could mean to them; whether it changes their sense of identity, their sense of purpose, their self-worth and quality of life, and so on.
Clarkson and Pokorny (1994: 31) referred to the therapeutic relationship as being a “framework in itself”.
I believe an important element of therapy is connection – connection between therapist and client, connection on the client’s part to the therapeutic process, connection for the client on a number of personal levels, from mind and body to thoughts and emotions. It can be a heady mix of ubiquitous thoughts and feelings to learn more about ourselves and why we think, feel and act the way we do, as we inform our self-awareness and question whether the way we are living is serving us well or whether we want to make changes. Therapy can be a form of self-care and a means of developing or enhancing our self-compassion. We impact each other even when we don’t know it – thus, in attempting to explore our thoughts, connect with our emotions and value ourselves, we affect not only ourselves, but also transcend to Yalom’s (2013) rippling affective waves that connect to those around us. Domino effect… beautiful.
Noelle Okonji is a graduate of the MA in Psychotherapy from Dublin Business School and is a student counsellor in University College Dublin.
Adler, A. (1931). What life could mean to you. Timeless Wisdom Collection (Kindle edition).
Clarkson, P., & Pokorny, M. (1994). The handbook of psychotherapy. London: Routledge.
de Mello, A. (2014). The song of the bird. Gujarat: Jerry Sequeira.
Ferrucci, P. (2010). Beauty and the soul. New York: Tarcher.
Hollis, J. (2013). Hauntings. North Carolina: Chiron Publications (Kindle edition).
Holt, D., Phillips, K. A., & Shapiro, E. &. Becker, A. (2003). My face is my fate. Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 11(3), 142-154.
McCluskey, U. (2005). To be met as a person. London: Karnac.
Nasio, J.D. (2004). The book of love and pain. New York: State University of New York Press.
Phillips, K.A (2005). The broken mirror. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Proust, M. (2015). Swann’s way. California: Xist Publishing (Kindle edition).
Sartre, J.P. (1943). Being and nothingness. Oxon: Routledge.
Yalom, I. (2013). Staring at the sun: Overcoming the dread of death. London: Piatkus Books.