• Karin Blak had two bad experiences of therapy before deciding to train herself

  • The therapy she had during her training changed everything, and helped her overcome her past difficulties

  • If you are looking to start your therapy journey, our directory only lists verified and qualified therapists – explore it here

The therapeutic journey is an individual experience, and just like other events in life the meaning we put to therapy will be different from person to person. Life stages and lived experiences influence our expectations, the value we apply, and indeed how we benefit from therapy.

For me the meaning of therapy has changed greatly over time, which is probably just as well. My first experience at the age of 15 set me wondering if I was incurable and if there was some sort of secret to life that I wasn’t privy to. It put me further ‘outside’ of my peer group than I already felt. It wasn’t helped by the premature ending to the sessions by the therapist’s dismissive wave of a hand as I stood to leave and her words of “I don’t need to see you again”. I left with the onset of sinking confusion. At best the experience was ineffective, at worst it damaged my already low self-esteem.

It was a long time ago: if I dare to count, I’d say 42 years. Therapy was different then; the profession hadn’t yet realised that teenagers probably benefit from a different slant to therapy than that of adults. Instead, I was treated to the full psychodynamic approach where a therapist contributes very little while waiting for the client to deliver their thoughts for exploration.

Of course, the therapist didn’t know that having grown up in a household where silence was used as punishment, I was no stranger to this. Neither did she know that for 50 minutes each Wednesday for two months, I would be fighting back with my own silence. Silence held a different meaning to me than it did to her and each week, until the day she dismissed me, I came away feeling both punished and the victor.

Initially I put this first experience of therapy into a box in my mind labelled “All part of growing up”. It wasn’t until later when the challenges of being a single mum overwhelmed me, that I realised the chaos of my inner world was stronger than me. It was time to try therapy again.

Knowing very little about the profession or what made a good therapist, I believed that anyone who put themselves in this role of helping others was to be trusted.

I booked a session with a therapist who came recommended, believing this was the best way to find a good therapist, much like a recommendation for a plumber. The first couple of sessions terrified me until I knew their structure and the type of conversation we would have. It was very different from my first experience of therapy, more communicative and attentive. He talked. I talked. He held my hand as I cried. He stroked my head as old shame came bubbling up. He gave me compliments. He wanted to be my friend. He invited me to his home.

I had no idea if this was normal, ethical therapeutic behaviour. In these sessions I got to know that he was in a relationship with someone much younger. He told me about his sexual preferences and that he had herpes but didn’t have sex during flare-ups. He told me he wasn’t a therapist; he was a psychiatric nurse who had started a psychotherapy course but hadn’t completed it.

Feeling incredibly vulnerable and unsafe in his company, I stopped going and felt guilty about doing so. I wondered if I somehow was to blame; perhaps I had created this situation where I welcomed in intrusive behaviour.

It was a turning point in my life, so in that respect this unethical encounter made me stand up for myself and take a completely different route to the one I was on. Believing that no therapist was able to help me, I concluded the only way was to do it for myself. I began the journey of becoming a therapist. What started as a very expensive exercise in self-help turned into a crusade of becoming a professional, ethical and effective therapist.

Of course, therapy is part of any therapeutic training and while initially I was uncertain of the possibilities of finding a therapeutic match, this time the experience was different. I knew more about what to look for in a therapist, the meaning of their qualifications, experience, and their personality. I knew that looking for a trained therapist through their professional associations was a more successful way of finding a someone who was not only right for me but who was ethical and able to give me a positive therapeutic experience.

This knowledge changed the meaning I put to therapy, and my engagement with the therapeutic journey benefitted greatly from knowing what to expect. I didn’t have to give over complete control of the sessions or of myself. I didn’t look at the therapist as the person with all the answers, someone all-knowing. I took responsibility and worked with my therapist as an equal, while in moments of need I was able to feel emotionally held and contained without the risk of my vulnerability being abused.

Once while trying for the first time to talk about a traumatic childhood experience, I physically struggled to say the words: My throat tightened, and my lips tingled as they involuntarily spasmed. My heart rate increased, beads of sweat began to form on my face, and tears streamed from my eyes. Leaning forward in my chair I tried to force the words out, wanting to stay in control.

My therapist held this moment of vulnerability beautifully. Without pressure to talk or explore, she simply stayed with me in this moment of fear, shame and panic until it passed through me and I was once again able to return my focus to the room. Metaphorically, she walked by my side holding the space while I fell apart. It was my first experience of anyone truly being there for me, and in that moment, it was more effective than any words or analysis would have been.

Over the 15 years of being a therapist, I have in moments of reflection wondered how a client has experienced a session, the meaning they might have applied to therapy. First time clients needing a gentle let down as I tell them that I won’t be advising them of what to do. The erotic transference during psychosexual therapy managed by directing the energy back with an appropriate question, intending to explore this tantalising exposure further. It is a delicate balance when working with vulnerability, dangerous for both therapist and their clients if in a moment of not paying attention to the theory we work by, we slip into the mode of countertransference. The meaning of therapy can change unwittingly with the choice of a single word or no words at all.

The meaning of therapy to me, and I hope my clients too, has become that of a refuge for those times when emotions become overwhelming. It is a private space to explore the corners of my inner world where the light hasn’t yet reached, or the place I can say the unsayable. Therapy at its best, when both my therapist and I are working as equals, is where the biggest changes take place.

Karin Blak is a therapist and the author of The Essential Companion to Talking Therapy, which is out on 9th February. A discount code is available for welldoing.org readers, using code Wellbeing21 from https://www.watkinspublishing.com

Further reading

Trying different types of therapy

Before therapy I was selfish

Why are therapists in therapy?

EMDR therapy transformed my life

My three therapy sessions that changed everything

Therapy has been part of my life for forty years