Long-term Psychotherapy is all about leaving the family – not literally – but in the psychological sense.
This is a much more complex process than it sounds. Why? Because it takes years of back and forth, and it is a journey which although slow, in my view essential for psychological health.
If you were lucky enough to have had a secure attachment relationship to your main carers – meaning an upbringing with parents who were secure in enough themselves to support your natural development throughout life – even if you experienced challenges or significant losses, you will feel enough security (real security, not an inflated one) in yourself to navigate life’s challenges.
For the rest of us, probably the majority – we will probably need to come to terms with the reality and aftermath of growing up in dysfunctional families, with parents or carers who were at best unskilled, and at worst abusive.
Leaving the family in the psychological sense can result in leaving in the physical sense too – such as choosing to have limited or no contact with an abusive or toxic family member.
This can be a difficult and painful decision to reach because of feelings of guilt, and expectations/ ideas of what a family should look like. For example, in some cultures it is taboo to cut contact with close family members (especially parents). Also, the person who is choosing to not have contact is usually accused of being difficult, making up stories, etc. Putting the blame on one family member (usually a child) is also a way of denying systemic dysfunction within the family.
Being in Psychotherapy can be risky because of what can get uncovered. Ideas about family which were not true, love which wasn’t there, destructive behaviour which was condoned or kept secret, etc. It is often painful to come to terms with reality. However, it is much more painful to live in denial.
Things which are denied or suppressed, remain unaddressed. What remains unaddressed affects us anyway because we can’t make links between our experience (past and present), feelings and behaviour. This is confusing and can cause a lot of unnecessary suffering.
As children we may have tried hard to keep our family together, because we depended on them for survival. And whilst some families are held together by love, compassion and humanity, other family relationships are held together by denial of serious dysfunction and/ or secrecy around abuse. This is not to say that love isn’t possible in dysfunctional families. There are degrees of how much harm dysfunction in families will cause.
The reality is that there aren’t any short cuts for this type of work. Many people come into psychotherapy having tried to bypass their pain through short-term fixes, and shallow pursuits. Maybe after a string of failed relationships or a life that feels empty. Unaddressed, long-standing issues can also manifest as chronic depression or anxiety.
Of course, there needs to be a certain readiness and willingness for this type of work to take place. Maybe a certain level of maturity even (not usually related to age).
Aims and goals
The destination is unknown because it depends on each unique individual’s circumstances and hoped for outcomes.
The aim could be to finally become an adult in an emotional and psychological sense. This means to take more ownership of one’s feelings, thoughts and decisions. To be more present in one’s body. To have more fulfilling relationships and a more meaningful life.
Who wouldn’t want this?
Sam Jahara is UKCP Registered, CTA, PTSTA and is one of the Brighton & Hove Psychotherapy Co-founders. She is an experienced Transactional Analysis Psychotherapist. Her special interests include culture, identity, belonging, sustainability and environmental issues. Sam is available at our Lewes and Brighton & Hove Practices.
Further reading by Sam Jahara –