Robert Snell

What is psychotherapy?
How can it help?

Psychotherapy is a boundaried, confidential conversation which can help us to reconnect with ourselves and others - to make new kinds of emotional sense.

People seek therapy for all kinds of reasons. Perhaps there is suffering which has never been properly shared or acknowledged. There may be anxieties around relationships, overwhelming feelings or else a lack of feeling, loneliness, or just a sense of something missing. Such states sometimes manifest themselves in particular symptoms or behaviours.

Psychotherapy can bring the relief which tends to flow from a better understanding of our difficulties, and this in turn grows out of the living relationship with the therapist. Fundamentally, it is a way of meeting our common human need for recognition, belonging and meaning.

Although the topic of conversation is the patient's world and experience, psychotherapy is a joint venture. Both patient and therapist are active participants. It can last as long as it needs to: this might be a matter of a few weeks or months, or therapy might be undertaken on a much longer-term, open-ended basis. It might involve meeting once or up to four times weekly. All this is for patient and therapist together to decide. For each therapeutic conversation is unique.

…some further thoughts

Most of us come to therapy with a story, an account of ourselves shaped by our anxieties, traumas and disappointments as well as our hopes. In the therapeutic space such stories can be aired, listened to and treated with respect. Psychotherapy also works to loosen up these stories, so that, over time, room might be found for future, perhaps as-yet-unknown possibilities.

Why ‘existential’? Why ‘analytic’?

Existentialism encourages an awareness of how far we are free to choose how we live our lives. But an 'analytic' approach, grounded in a meeting of unconscious minds, is needed for real transformation to take place over time. The root of the word 'analysis' is the ancient Greek verb meaning 'to unbind' or 'loosen up'.

The live relationship with the therapist will tend to replicate past conflicts and patterns that can depress us, keep us awake at night, get us into familiar difficulties, madden us, hurt our relationships. They make themselves more clearly visible in the privileged space of the session, where they can be understood and worked on. This is a 'classical', Freudian way of thinking.

But this is not all that the therapeutic relationship makes possible. From an analytic 'field' point of view, therapist and patient or client are engaged in the creation of something new from the moment they get together, a co-created inter-personal, emotional ‘field’ that belongs to neither and to both, and which is available to be explored and developed in mutual play between the two participants.

Into this dream theatre step all kinds of figures and 'characters'. Some may speak of what in ordinary social life might be considered 'negative' feelings and experiences, like rage and hurt. But if we can hear them and allow them to speak we may find we can turn them to creative account, and let them, along with other feelings and desires as we get to know them (perhaps for the first time), expand us and our emotional lives. This is a contemporary analytic field approach, deriving from the work of W. R. Bion.

Psychotherapy can be a way of replacing monologue and a need to stay in control - for which, once upon a time, we will have had very good reasons - with dialogue and multilogue, the possibility of play and inter-play, of relationship, responsiveness and respons-ibility.