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Engaging with the Unglamorous Side of Therapy

Meaningful attainment doesn’t come without soul-wrenching effort – despite what our modern, consumer-led, advert-seduced society would have us believe. At a time when therapists are practicing under unprecedented strain, Sarah Van Gogh, of the Re-Vision Centre, speaks up for the ‘grottier’ aspects of the therapy profession, with its pursuit of gradual change and for honouring the importance of working away at our craft


Practising therapy is not a mysterious cult that only certain special people can be initiated into. Nor is it a simple set of technical skills that one can be taught and then infallibly rely on. It is neither an art nor a science. It is more like a craft, something akin to cabinet-making or embroidery: you might have some initial flair or instinct for it, but, to contribute anything worthwhile and lasting, you have to be taught the craft, be an apprentice with a mentor or mentors and then… practice, practice, practice!

Any real descriptions of what therapists do should include how unglamorous and plodding and frustrating and humdrum the work can also, must also be, for both client and therapist on occasion. Anything worth doing has a grotty side to it that must be engaged with. One of the terrible problems of our modern, industrialised life is that many people have been sold the idea that we ought to be able to succeed and attain without putting in any of the backbreaking, mind-numbing, soul-wrenching effort that becoming good at anything which is worth a damn requires.

Advertising is a major player in the peddling of this seductive notion of having it all, quickly and easily. Too many in our societies are being hypnotised into thinking that they could be like the images that surround us 24/7 on TV, in the press, on billboards – images of certain gorgeous individuals in the prime of their life, having great times with their attractive friends, photogenic families and adorable pets. There they are in their super new cars, travelling through wonderful landscapes; or having the best holidays ever on fabulous beaches; or all eating together in sparkly kitchens; or lying about on their fabulous new sofas and just loving their life. We too could live like that, advertising promises us, if we could just buy or consume the right bunch of stuff.

But therapists (like everyone else who has spent any time at all thinking about what makes for a contented life and what makes for an unhappy one) know that such a hope is doomed. It is a collective kind of naive dreaming, from which we really ought to wake up, before those of us in consumer-based societies sleep walk over the edge of a precipice.

Some awake people try to wake the rest of the collective up by arguing for change in politics, or working for environmental causes. Some do it in stand-up comedy, or by making films, or writing books, or creating images or sculptures. Therapists tend to foster being awake in quiet ways, very gradually, with one person, in one hourly session a week, over a period of many months, even years. And although sometimes there are exciting Eureka moments in therapy, quite often it is more like nibbling away, bit by bit, at neurotic unhappiness and unconsciousness.

In this respect, a good metaphor for a society’s therapists might be that we are the minibeasts of our collectives – many people find us a bit unappealing and creepy and prefer to keep us at the fringes, but we usefully consume and break down the detritus and crap that the society makes, without which people would be wading through more of their own neurotic waste than they would know what to do with. 

Being a therapist is always soulful, usually worthwhile, often moving, yes. But glamorous, it usually ain’t.   


Sarah Van Gogh

Before training as a counsellor 20 years ago, Sarah worked in the fields of Theatre-in-Education and community health outreach. She now works in private practice, and is one of the trainers on the counselling diploma at the Re-Vision Centre in London.

She also worked for 7 years as a counsellor and trainer at Survivors UK, a service for men who have experienced sexual violation. Her book Helping Male Survivors of Sexual Violation to Recover – Stories From Therapy was published by Jessica Kingsley in 2018. She is the co-editor with Chris Robertson of Transformation in Troubled Times published by TransPersonal Press in 2018. She writes a regular column for the BACP Private Practice Journal.

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