What is Psychotherapy Anyway?

Let’s get right down to it, what is Psychotherapy, anyway?  

It’s as if you can almost grasp the word, then it slips away, it is elusive, unclear, implies some sort of healing, and lies somewhere amongst the equally evasive terms of counselling, therapy, and coaching.

Let’s break the word down. Psycho (apart from having some serious negative connotations) has roots in the Greek word psykhe meaning soul, in Latin the word Psyche means animating spirit.

The word therapy has roots in the Greek word therapeuin; to attend to, to do service, to take care of.

Psychotherapy is the process of tending to one’s soul or coming home to one’s Self.

It may be hard to put a finger on the concept of soul. However many of us will be able to relate to the feeling of something being soul crushing or soul destroying. The soul is often felt in a deep knowing, either that something feels so right, or that something is off, that what you are ingesting (whether media, events, friends, etc) is not nourishing it.

When the soul is out of alignment with its surroundings, it will let you know. When our soul is being starved, crushed, or destroyed our emotions will reflect that. Our restlessness, depression, anxiety, or whatever other neurosis can all be valuable messengers that let us know- “hey! Look over here! Let’s dig a bit deeper”.

Anyone else feel like their soul is starving? In a world that is whirring by in a series of fragmented events, news feeds, screens, text messages, with intermittent periods of sleep, we are constantly being taken outside of ourselves. We can easily fool ourselves that we are being nourished by our jam packed schedule, or spending time on social media.

Psychotherapy, as tending to the soul, is where space is held for you. For You, with a capital Y. No judgement, no pressure, a safe, contained space apart from the whirlwind. The psychoanalyst Marion Woodman would call it a chrysalis where, over time, transformation is given the permission to happen. The process is not linear, it often is a spiral dance. An unfolding. A permission to have the time and the space that you need for what needs to arise in its own time.

There is a push for short-term therapy these days. The soul's need for time and space are squashed, in a pressure to “fix” oneself in the most time efficient, productive way. Certainly there is a time and a place for short-term therapy AND is it feeding into the maniacal speed at which the world is going and taking us further away from ourselves, our soul?

The soul cannot be understood by the rational mind. It speaks in metaphor, in symbols, in dreams, in the body, through art, writing, dance, in the imaginal realm. It has been dismissed as a waste of time, unproductive, evil even. It rails against regimented linear, power-over structures, it yearns for depth, meaning, purpose.

I was listening to an audio book this morning by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, a keeper of old stories, psychoanalyst, and elder, she was speaking to the language of the imaginal, the metaphor. We are all born with the connection to the imaginal, and yet if we do not listen to it, that connection becomes less and less and the ability to access it becomes less and less until we forget that it is there. The balance is tipped in favor of the rational, the linear, the “productive” and in this we are killing our Selves, she has cleverly and accurately named this soul-icide. 

How have we learnt to dismiss the dreams and images that come to us, our imaginal play? Where have we gotten messages that it is not OK to express these things, let’s talk “rationally”. These are the ways that our soul speaks to us, our psyche sends messages, these images are invaluable and it would be irrational not to take notice. And yet. And yet we are taught to dismiss these things as not making sense.

And so I ask this. What nourishes You? What depletes You? What can you do to feed your soul nourishing food- be that the media you ingest, the people you surround yourself with, or actual food. Is what we think is nourishing us, really nourishing us? When is going to the gym nourishing and when is it not? Are those green smoothies nourishing our souls or are they confining them?

These are the questions, day to day that we can check in with ourselves about.

Part of the work is to separate ourselves from the layers of inherited skepticism from the culture, of course they are there, how could they not be? The beliefs about what it is to be productive, the inherited values of efficiency, and the chains of the beliefs we hold about what is healthy.

There is a dominant belief that we go to a therapist because there is something wrong with us that needs to be fixed, or that it is about negative childhood experiences. When we look at the origins of the word psychotherapy we can see embedded in the word are roots that run far deeper. That it is breathing animating breath into the soul. Coming back home to You. It is soul work.