I wrote this article for welldoing.org more than a year ago, but didn’t post it as I was concerned in case it was seen by the person who prompted it to be written. However, I had cause to think of it again recently, and I believe enough time has passed that it is ‘safe’ to now share it here. I am still passionate in my belief that therapy is a sacred space, and that we have an ethical responsibility to honour that space, including in our interactions online:
In two and a half years of blogging I have been extremely fortunate not to have received any adverse or critical comments on my posts – until now.
I think I would have been naïve had I believed this wouldn’t happen, and in a way I’m surprised it has taken this long. I think that if we choose to put our lives in our writing and to put our writing ‘out there’, even anonymously, we have to be prepared for the fact that some people will not only not like it or will disagree with us, but will also make that known in ways that are hurtful, unpleasant or aggressive.
The comment in question was left on my post ‘Who do you call ‘mother’?’. The comment ‘informed me’ that my therapist is not my mother and that I should ‘deal with it’, and moreover that the reader had never heard anything more ridiculous. I haven’t published the comment – not because I want to censor negative comments, but because it was also scathing about my therapist. Not only do I strongly disagree with what was said about her, I don’t feel it’s fair to publish something to which my therapist doesn’t have the opportunity to respond. Although my blog is anonymous I’m still very careful to protect her privacy in any way I can; she didn’t choose to be part of my blogging journey.
Receiving that comment was an unpleasant shock, and I’ll admit that despite the security I feel and the strength of the relationship I have with my therapist, it triggered a tiny voice which sided with the reader in accusing me of believing in an illusion. But that voice was easily dealt with by the other parts of me and by talking it through with my therapist, and the biggest effect of the comment was that it made me think again about the risks that we take and the responsibility that we bear, if we blog or if we read or comment on others’ blogs, particularly perhaps, in the field of mental health.
I have always been a firm believer in the need to protect my therapy, in the way that I might protect a marriage or a friendship from temptation or threat. I am always conscious that although blogging can be a very positive means of self-expression, processing and ‘working things through’, there are also risks involved. There is a risk from myself, that I will do something to undermine and unsettle the work of therapy, and there is a risk from others, as was demonstrated by the comment I received.
When we blog about our therapy, we are writing about the most vulnerable parts of ourselves, and about a unique and uniquely important relationship with our therapists. We are laying those things bare in front of an audience of unknown size and unknown characteristics – friend or foe, compassionate or scathing, hurting or wanting to hurt. We are fragile and yet with every post we take the risk that as well as being helped and encouraged, we could be harmed and torn down. We hope it is the former, but sometimes, regrettably, it is the latter.
I am as open and as honest in my writing as I can be, but I do sometimes hold back, and it tends to be about the most intimate and precious things that happen in therapy. Sometimes I hold back because the moment feels too new and too private still, to share – it may never be shared, or I may write about it several months later. Sometimes I hold back because of that wish to protect my therapist’s privacy. Interestingly, the post that drew the negative comment, ‘was right on the edge of what I felt able to write about. This was because the subject matter felt so precious and intimate and therefore I felt even more strongly I had to be conscious of my therapist’s privacy. Perhaps the fact that I received that comment, shows that I did in fact ‘step over’ that edge, and my worries about intimacy and privacy may have been justified.
As for the ways in which we can pose a risk to ourselves, with our writing, Alison Crosthwait, a psychotherapist, writer and blogger based in Canada, put it beautifully in her collection of essays entitled ‘What it feels like to change’. I find this section so helpful that I wanted to quote it in full:
“I sometimes think of therapy as a steam kettle – over time, the emotions rise. If I talk about what is happening for me in therapy with someone other than my therapist, it is like taking the cover off the steam kettle. All the energy is released. The problem is that this energy is the heart of the work. So if I release it outside the room, all that potential could go to waste. For example:
My therapist tells me that she is going away for two weeks in March. I go home and I tell my partner “My therapist is going away. I can’t believe she is going away again – she was away for three weeks over Christmas. It is like she is never here long enough for our work to deepen.”
What have I done here? I let me anxiety and anger and upset bleed out of the therapy room. When I see my therapist again I am no longer so upset – I have expressed my feelings and been heard. But not by her. Something important has ben said, but it has been said outside the room. And as a result the feelings that I have about her holiday are not expressed in the context of our relationship. So I can’t learn what the feelings mean. And I don’t get the opportunity to experience my therapist’s response to my feelings. “
This doesn’t mean that we can never talk to anyone else about what is going on in therapy, or that we can never write about it either. As Alison also wrote, “There is a difference between keeping a secret and holding on to something for the place it belongs.” For me, this means being very aware never to use blogging as a way of communicating with my therapist, when I should be talking to her instead. I will sometimes hold off writing or publishing a post if it concerns material that I have not yet raised with her in session. She reads my posts, and though I’m happy for her to read about my processing of material that she is already aware of (and where I don’t feel the need to do substantial further processing ‘in the room’), I would never want to raise ‘new’ material in a post, that she is completely unaware of. To me, that is a very important part of protecting the therapy and not undermining it, as well as ensuring that I don’t miss out on the opportunity to deepen the therapy relationship itself, and to experience everything it has to offer.
For me, protecting the therapy is also about what I read, as well as what I write. There are a few blogs that I love to read but was determined to avoid over the summer therapy break. I knew I was likely to be particularly vulnerable to the parts of me that wanted to protest against my therapist ‘leaving’ and I was worried that reading about others’ therapeutic relationships, particularly if they were going through tough times, would be triggering. I have also read fewer books about therapy recently, as I know that I am tempted to look for ‘the right answer and the right way of doing things’, whereas there is no ‘right answer’ and I need to find my own way through. For example, I am for the moment avoiding reading about Schema based therapy, despite the great value I find in thinking of myself in terms of ‘parts’. I am worried that reading about it will divert the development of my own thoughts and finding the expression of this ‘parts idea’ that works best for me.
Reading about others’ experiences can be comforting, valuable and supportive, but there is also the risk that it will introduce ‘interlopers’ into our own therapy, and that we will become involved in another’s difficulties in a way that too easily provides us with an outlet for our own. Both have happened to me, and in both cases the subject matter itself was valuable and significant. However, either it interjected itself into the middle of another important thread in therapy, where it landed out of the blue and in a bit of a vacuum; or it didn’t find authentic expression in our work – that is, I was using another’s situation to act out my own feelings about the topic, rather than drawing on my own experience.
We have a responsibility to ourselves and our therapy to protect the work, but in reading and commenting on blogs, we also have a responsibility towards others. Much as I believe in protecting my own therapy, I also strongly believe in affirming and not undermining others’ therapy relationships and processes. I’m sure that sometimes I fail, and that sometimes I make less than helpful comments, even if I intend to be kind and supportive. But I try to remember that no one ‘on the outside’ can ever know what goes on in the room between therapist and client, however much detail a blogger gives in their posts. We read a tiny fraction of what is conveyed (in words or body language), remembered or spoken about, and we gain an idea of the quality of the therapeutic relationship that barely skims the surface. In addition, everyone’s process in therapy will be different, because of the individuality of the particular client and therapist and their unique interaction, as well as the client’s (and therapist’s) unique set of experiences.
I also try and remind myself that what I read about in others’ blogs is necessarily one-sided and is the view of someone taking a journey and changing as they go, and that their needs and views will vary over time. For example, it is so natural to want to soothe a distressed fellow-blogger who is experiencing a rupture with their therapist, and to want to validate their feelings and show that I am ‘on their side’. But I sometimes need to remind myself that appearing to side with them (and by implication to side against their therapist), may not ultimately be helpful and may only undermine their therapy. Though I may not understand why their therapist has done or said x, y or z, I have to trust that, in the absence of any blatant evidence to the contrary, their therapist knows them and knows what they are doing, even if I or the fellow-blogger, cannot see the rationale at that particular point in time. I can still validate without ‘taking sides’. And the lovely thing about supportive relationships in the blogosphere is that like friendships, as they develop and as people get to know each other better, they also trust and are trusted enough to even be able to kindly challenge, where appropriate. I have often found my friends’ compassionate challenges even more helpful than their words of encouragement.
But there was nothing kind or compassionate about the ‘challenge’ that I received in that blog comment. In a way though, I’m glad that I received it, as it ended up being incredibly thought-provoking. I won’t patronise the reader by speculating on their motivations or situation, or wishing them a different sort of experience. If they want to comment again, that is up to them – I can’t promise to publish it, depending on the content and who it is directed at. I’d be more than happy to engage in a discussion about whatever topic they wish – but with the proviso that we both take seriously the responsibility towards our own, and others’ well-being, and the power that our words have for good, or ill.