Photograph by Chloe Green 2012
Meeting someone at a party or social occasion and revealing to them that you’ve trained to be a psychotherapist, usually evokes a discernible reaction.
Not always a pleasant one.
Scenarios I’ve encountered:
The Escape Artist likely to be thinking, “Oh dear god, get me away from her quickly! She’s definitely dull, eerily earnest, and will probably spend the whole evening analysing my every move.”
The Dissenter“Isn’t psychotherapy merely a self indulgent pursuit with the sole intent of avoiding accountability and blaming your parents for everything?”
The Macho Man, “I talk sports, stocks, sex and statistics in no apparent order. Feelings are for females.”
The Veteran, “Been there. Done that. Have had sixteen therapists since I was sixteen. I know so much I could be YOUR therapist. I mean – seriously!”
And finally The Virgin, “Wow! That’s amazing! It must be fate that I ended up meeting you tonight, because I’ve always thought about seeing a therapist and I have like a million stories that I think you’re going to be really interested in…”
One of the first clients I ever treated was a woman about 20 years older than me. When I entered the waiting room to greet her, she dropped her jaw in disbelief.
“The therapy is with YOU?”
I’m not sure what she was expecting. Maybe a few more wrinkles. A flowing cardigan and jade beads. I obviously didn’t meet her expectation of what a ‘proper’ therapist was supposed to look like. She held a stereotype in her head, as we all have the tendancy to do. Sometimes it is much easier to summarise people in one dimension (like I have playfully done with my party goers above) than to stay receptive to the complexity of all human beings, regardless of race, gender, nationality, religion, and even profession.
It turned out that despite being in my thirties, with a leaning towards Death Cab for Cutie and a cupboard full of skinny jeans, I was still a good listener. And the client eventually realized that.
Writing and Psychotherapy require similar skills. If you are writing fiction, you owe it to your characters not to sum them up in a sentence (as fun and easy as that can be) Your characters should become your clients. They need to be the ones at the party, keeping you in the corner, spilling their histories. Stay curious. Keep your ears open. Observe their body language and their gestures. Find out about their parents. It does matter Mr Dissenter – I promise.
And if you are writing about yourself, then you have the pleasure and the pain of internal investigation. The two endeavours are bursting with benefits. And while each come with a handful of hazards, ultimately they share the same joyful purpose: to artfully activate transformation, leaving the recipient altered and opened, in ways both subtle and sweeping.
Write about stereotypes. Are you stereotyped in your world? Have you encountered obstacles as a result? OR Write about writing. What are your tricks for ‘fleshing’ out your characters? How do you avoid the pitfalls of flat packing and build more dimensional creatures instead?